Landscaping & Gardening Metaphors: Rooting Out Root Causes & Cultivating Diversity


For years, the hedges in front of my neighbor’s house were subtly neglected. Although a landscaping company came by every 3 weeks or so to trim all the hedges into perfect forms, the company’s workers did their job quickly and in a most superficial manner. Over the years, these hedges were invaded by a host of Norway Maple saplings which gradually took over more and more space within the hedge, growing relentlessly between shearings. Their broad, shading leaves stole precious sunlight and their root-killing toxins eliminated competitors so much so that, with time, patches of the hedgerow had yielded to the maples… their proud Canadian-flag-like heads poking up above the hedgerow line ever more conspicuously between visits by the complacent landscapers.

When my neighbor moved out, I took over the task of maintaining the hedges and quickly discovered just how hard it was to eliminate Norway Maple saplings within a thicket. Yet I persisted, cutting back as much as I could and uprooting wherever possible, motivating myself with the idea that doing this would make my hedge maintenance job easier later on… or at least make the hedge look a lot better.

Okay… fine. That’s really not what sustained me in taking on this task.

No, what truly sustained me in the task was the metaphor. My love of metaphor is a vine that has wrapped itself around and grown together with my love for gardening. Yes, a task such as uprooting stubborn maples may appear futile and thankless, but what better way to occupy the mind productively (apart from listening to podcasts or (*ahem*) conference calls) while gardening than to use the task as a kind of meditation and contemplation of complex issues? In this case, the trying task of uprooting undesirable growth enabled me to better understand and appreciate the costs and benefits of digging down and rooting out root causes, versus doing a cursory trimming of visible edges.

People talk about “addressing root causes” like they know what they’re talking about. They don’t. Their theories of ultimate-cause-and-effect are thwarted by the complexities on the ground. Root causes are by definition hidden… if you come into it thinking you know what to do, chances are you’ll kill the wrong plant in the process. Weeds and other invasive species (plants, people, behaviors, ideas) take over the land (territory, society, company, workday, mind) in nefarious ways that require some deep exploration. To root something out, sometimes your maneuvers will need to be surgical… but other times, sweeping. In fact, sometimes the root causes you are after are not even worth addressing… particularly if you can do something else to hold back the undesirable growth while the desired growth, over time, takes over instead. Geopolitical conflict. Demographic shifts. Organizational culture. Family dynamics. Personal habits. It’s all in knowing how, when and where to root out the root causes. Yes, a world of metaphor embedded within the scratchy underbrush of a tiny neighborhood hedgerow.

Elsewhere, entire swathes of my neighbor’s yard had been swallowed up by some hybrid blend of American-Oriental bittersweet, and within that, Berberis and my lifelong nemesis Poison Ivy. You can pay a landscaping company to clip, cut, chop and grind everything above the surface, but if you want it done right — if you want to make sure it doesn’t just sprout back up again — you gotta get out your spade and dig in.

Yet there is a counterpoint to all this… an opposite lesson that I have learned in maintaining a small garden landscape.

Sometimes, as you are bent over, hard at work in the daily struggle to clear the ground, you glance up to behold something magnificent. Yes, all this uprooting and normalizing aside, you also need to allow for and embrace those moments where unexpected beauty appears… uninvited, yet welcome.

This is why I allow things to grow in my garden — or even my lawn — that I don’t initially recognize. Once I let a series of rectangular patches of lawn grow for a few months, just to see what latent species were embedded within it. Rabbits quickly made their homes out of these rectilinear meadow-samples and in the end, I learned to recognize and mow around the wildflowers within my lawn.

Lately, I’ve taken to moving and consolidating all the Daisy plants that I find in my lawn into a particular sunny patch. Wikipedia informs me these may be of the invasive Daisy variety, though. So are these any better than the Norway Maples and Bittersweet? Heck, yeah. For one, they’re not nearly as invasive and much easier to control. Also, as with the similarly-categorized-as-invasive Ajuga that I’ve consolidated in a few places nearby, I’m happy to say that the appearance and ecology of my lawn has never been better. Just ask all those endangered honeybees who are buzzing with delight.

Yes, a garden is always a work in progress, but the real question is, to what degree does your company allow its “wildflowers” to flourish?

Diversity is not just pretty… it provides systemic resilience. Conditions of rigid monoculture and over-specialization create an environment that is inhospitable to the innovators and change-agents who ensure our long-term survival. How “pollinator-friendly” is your organization?

Let’s make this personal, though. When is the last time you changed your routine — or even broke a rule — in order to discover something that might enhance your life?

It is true that we are the victims of the rules that we live by… and yes, we are also the beneficiaries of the rules that we establish… though our benefit seems to be the greatest when those rules are established by us and lived most faithfully by others. (I’d be suspicious of any rule-establisher who insisted otherwise.)

Knowing what to uproot and what to allow to grow is big part of the art of landscaping, management and living.

What’s growing in your garden?

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on June 13, 2011, in Business, Green Style, Life, Metaphors, plants and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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