Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Entropy

“Just as the constant increase in entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy. “ – Vaclav Havel

I think this photo of my side yard illustrates Havel’s point pretty well:


After I smothered the turf from my side yard (on the right) and began planting a slightly messy mix of shrubs, perennials and groundcovers, my neighbor promptly planted a soldier-straight row of crape myrtles and Japanese holly, butted right up against my plantings. Between the hollies there is a layer of mulch about ten inches thick, which he refreshes and fluffs regularly.

Clearly, my neighbor is trying to impose a bit of order where he perceives chaos.  In my opinion, he is merely uptight and unimaginative, but Havel might claim that he is only being human in his “struggle against entropy.”

I guess this is what living in the suburbs is all about, right?

After all, the suburbs are populated with people engaged in an epic struggle to create and maintain order in their lives and landscapes.  We fled the dirt, crime, and general mayhem of the cities, and now here we are out in the idyllic ‘burbs, with our very own green space!  But alas, the earth —  even when it’s carved into plots, fenced, and gated — has its own agenda.  Left to their own devices, the weeds seed, the saplings establish, the vines crawl.

So for years we have mown and clipped our way back to a sense of order and well-being.

Except maybe not so much anymore.

Not everyone.

I think there is a small but growing minority whose preferred landscape aesthetic has shifted a little away from “order” and nudged toward “chaos.”

I think some people have realized that inviting a little chaos into their yards is not only good for the critters, but pleasing to the eye and nourishing for the soul.  Perhaps, now that we are a couple of generations removed from those ancestors who struggled against nature to survive, we now feel an emptiness where that struggle once existed.  And now, from a place of safety, we yearn to invite some of the wildness back in.

The question is, how much wildness to invite in, and how to manage it?  We are only human after all; we will not thrive if we have kudzu clogging up our dryer vents. But surely we can we can embrace a bit more looseness, a bit more variety, and yes, even entropy out here in Suburbia without everyone freaking out all over the place.

“Designing for Entropy” may sound a bit paradoxical but I am hoping that is the wave of the future for landscape designers.  How to design a landscape that allows for a little neglect without looking like the Clampetts?

We are still in the early phases of this transformation, but I do believe that more and more people are realizing how beautiful a little “chaos” can look.

I am sure that everyone who passes these two houses is struck by the difference:


I took a walk past these two houses yesterday.  The neighbor on the left was outside with his leafblower.  I could see the neighbor on the right through her big bay window.  She was eating a sandwich and looking outside, probably admiring the seedheads of her Miscanthus glowing in the afternoon sun.


For more on Design Principles, check out the following links from my fellow Roundtablers:

Garden Designers’ Roundtable

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

David Cristiani : It’s A Dry Heat : Albuquerque, NM

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

16 thoughts on “Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Entropy

  1. I like Gertrude Jekyll’s solution; informal planting within formally shaped beds. I can be as “random” as I want in the beds, but, so long as I keep the grass edged, it still looks controlled enough for my husband who used to be an architect, and wants gardens to look architectural.

    • I totally agree, Deirdre. “Line” is my favorite design principle because I feel like as long as there are obvious edges in a garden, there is at least some sense of order. Sort of like when you have a messy room, but as long as you make the bed, it looks pretty decent.

  2. I think your comment about reclaiming wilderness from a place of safety is right on! My own garden threatens to fall over that thin line and into chaos (a subconscious revolt against all of our neat-freak neighbors?), but it’s beautiful to me.

    • Me, too, Jocelyn. The older I get, the more I appreciate the things a garden provides that go beyond visual aesthetics. To get those benefits I think we have to give up a little control….

  3. Wonderfully put…and I so agree…I think letting go of that notion that we must control everything is a step toward happiness. I find so much joy in the little serendipitous moments in my own garden…things like the self-seeded Verbenas…or a lax stem (that should probably have been staked) draping over another plant, creating a combination I could never have planned. I much prefer a garden that looks as if it has a little bit of the wild still about it…not something primped and cosseted within an inch of its life. I like the Geraniums tickling my ankles…and brushing shoulders with the Eutrochium…and the sound of bees is sweeter to my ears than the whine of leaf-blowers or the roar of lawn mowers.

  4. What helps me to design is to always think, “what will this look like if it reverts to no care, drip irrigation tubing eaten by rabbits, weeds grow in, etc?” Letting go to a point is good. Maybe it prepared me for our present drought…now I ask, “what will really, really take this dryness?” Always something…

      • “Entropy in the Desert” might be a good blog post!

        A professor friend studied feral landscapes in LA with interesting findings. But here where it’s even drier, it would be increased spaces between plants, and only the toughest plants left – including invasive weeds depending on rain.

  5. I’m curious – there seems to be no real division between you and your neighbour’s plot? As opposed to the fence, hedge or other demarcation that we all have in the uk, and which would make taking an end on view of both gardens impossible except from an upper window.

    Such divisions don’t restrain all elements which people might wish, but do give a strong sense of integrity to each plot. You don’t have to see what your neighbour does if you don’t like it. And if you try to see, that’s being a bit intrusive..

    Problems arise with huge hedges and with trees and creeping weeds, of course. But not with rival aesthetics. Is my analysis quite mistaken? Hard to tell from here really.. *peers across the Atlantic*


    • Anne, Thanks for your comment. Your are right; in most American suburbs there are laws against constructing a fence in the front of a property. I think that typically a 4′ fence is permitted but no higher. Some HOA regulations probably prohibit even that. I guess the idea is that tall fences would ruin the pastoral, egalitarian effect desired by the suburban planners. Ha-ha.

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