Green House Exhibit Gets it Wrong on Landscaping


DutchgreenbldgLord knows I hate to rain on the parade of this important exhibit at D.C.’s National Building Museum:  "Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design."  And you know I’m all aboard the sustainable train myself.  And to echo all the good press the exhibit’s been getting, I applaud it for its very existence and prominence (including a Laura Bush drop-by), if not for getting it right in the details.

See, while one of the 5 excellent principles it espouses is responsible land use, the devil is in the details:  "Exposed earth absorbs rain and runoff." HUH?  Seems that "green" is no longer green but the color of bare earth.  Couldn’t any gardener have told these folks how ass-backwards that is?  Not only does bare earth NOT absorb rain well but it doesn’t stay bare for long.  I was going to cite some soil erosion sources on the importance of plants but is that really necessary??  (See it for yourself here.  Scroll down to #3 and let your mouse reveal the advice.) 

And there’s more.  Under the heading "large environmental footprint" – bad homeowner – the exhibit tells us that lawns are expensive to maintain and pesticide-dependent.  Well, if museum curators would only read gardening blogs they’d know the lawn picture is waaay more complicated than that.  My own good-enough lawn needs one organic feeding in the fall and about 6 mowings each season.  Plus, it does a terrific job of absorbing rain.  So there.

Then there’s this misleading but politically correct declaration: "Native plants require minimal water and pesticides."  Why can’t they just say "Use plants that require minimal water and pesticides"? 

But back to the exhibit.  It’s running until June of 2007 so check it out next time you’re in D.C. and give me a reality check – Am I being overly crabby?

The National Building Museum, built in the 1880s to house the old Pension Bureau, is worth a look-see all by itself and it’s easily accessible by subway.  Take a virtual tour of its main hall – the site of almost constant fetes, including inaugural balls.  Unbelievably today, this hall was originally filled with rows of government clerk-typists.


  1. Not to dither with YOU, dear Susan, but I believe it was a poor word choice by the exhibitors when they said “BARE earth.” As an architect and thus someone who’s privy to the verbal tics of my profession, I believe they meant bare earth as opposed to earth that had–eeks–a building or an impermeable parking lot upon it.

    I agree though that overgeneralizations re: fertilizing and native plants are legion in my profession. In my humble opinion, most architects don’t know jack about plants, be it grass or flowers or bushes or trees. I think a lot of what “green architecture” is trying to do, as are you in your wonderful blog, is change the general aesthetic of what is “good.”

  2. “Exposed Earth prevents rain and runoff” In the context of how that was shown it appears to me they are asking for less pavement to be used, not “dirt” ground as a solution. They spent a lot of time talking about run-off so I didn’t think it was too bad.

    But the next box down they point out the desire to have less lawn-so go figure.

    As for the other I think they threw in the phrase “native plants” because it sounds “green”.

    Anyway, that’s my .02cents!

  3. “Native plants require minimal water and pesticides.” What an ignorant statement! Native alders and willows certainly need more water than native ceanothus or redbud. I would say that a native willow will need a lot more water than a Cistus (rockrose) which is not native. As far as pesticides, take a native plant out of its habitat, stick it in a “hell strip” at the grocery store parking lot and see if it doesn’t at some point need treatment for insects or disease.

    I am with Susan on this. This is amazing that such poor information is being given by so called experts. I also agree with El on the fact that “most architects don’t know jack about plants, be it grass or flowers or bushes or trees.” Now I know there are landscape architects like Rick and El who do know about plants, but many of the ones I have worked with have an amazing lack of information on the “green” part of the landscape. El continues “I think a lot of what “green architecture” is trying to do, as are you in your wonderful blog, is change the general aesthetic of what is ‘good.’”

    Change is good but only if it’s based on truth. The statements that Susan mentions in the above post only further a misunderstanding of the natural world and gardening, while continuing to give the impression that architects are not very knowledgeable about the “green” side of their business.

  4. Re: “Native plants require minimal water and pesticides.”

    The Myth of Xeriscaping: Use of Drought-tolerant Plants Reduces Residential Water Consumption


    The Myth of Native Plant Superiority:
    Always choose native plants for environmentally sustainable landscaping

  5. I don’t see the big deal about what is so misleading. The bare earth thing made me gasp until I went to the website and realized they meant “non paved” earth.

    The statement about natives is a bit naive, but I don’t think that’s much to hiss about.

    What bothered me most was under #2 “Improving Indoor Air Quality” where there was not one mention of using plants. I thought that was strange.

  6. I managed to track down the links that Anonymous was trying to lead us to and they’re SO good, I’ve just subscribed to the new magazine edited by the linked-to writer and produced by Washington State’s Cooperative Extension Service. More on her in my next post. But A. Non, why so coy?

  7. Wait. Did you say you only mow your yard six times? How is this possible? Do you just live with really long grass? I’d get fined at worst or glares from the neighbors at best if I tried that. Do tell.

    As a new home owner mowing the yard is quickly becoming the thing I hate MOST. And I haven’t used any fertilizers or pesticides (and you can tell) at all.

    I’d love to hear your advice on taming the great green beast. And no, I’m not ready to chuck the yard entirely or try a different groundcover. I can barely afford plants for the non-lawn bits as it is.

  8. Linda Scott Chalker (links up above) reiterates that plants (exotic and native) need the right conditions to do well. Context and environemnt is important.

    The push to favour native plants I view as a counter-balance to years of dominance by a gardening culture that was focused on European traditions. Expanding our view of what constitutes a garden or gardening is what I’m in favour of. A simple premise. Hmmm, maybe?

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