Keep Off! Don’t Touch!


I'm here in New Jersey with my family for Thanksgiving.  I'm grateful for the family part.  New Jersey, less so. 

I've been unhappy with the state of yard-dom in the Garden State since I was five.  If I were queen, I'd be beneficent. I wouldn't ban red mulch or weeping Atlas cedars.  I'd just introduce the idea of utility–that yards are not petting zoos for spruces, nor passive sponges for weed-and-feed, but places that actual humans should enjoy.

The above, for example, is a bit of landscaping in the small development where my mother lives.  This island of sod used to be completely open…the one place where the few kids who live here could play tag or whiffle ball. The problem was, kids were actually running on the grass. The answer?  Put impenetrable obstacles in their way in the form of a lot of weird island beds.  Never mind that half the shrubbery now appears to be dead from over-watering and over-fertilizing.  Never mind that as the forest trees grow, they are going to shade out the grass and look very forbidding indeed. It's better than having kids run on the lawn.  I look forward to mushrooming here some day very soon.

Another form of utility not well understood in Bergen County, New Jersey is designing the front lawn so people can actually walk up to your door.

Since I find this house beautiful in a very Disney-like way, I am particularly puzzled by the haphazardness of the landscaping here:


Below is another house that only squirrels understand how to approach.  In fact, the shrubbery looks positively ashamed of the human life inside.


Think how nice that sunny yard might look if there were a white picket fence and a vegetable garden instead.

Below is New Jersey as I know it: a rock, a badly-pruned juniper, and dyed mulch.  Why not something of some use to somebody?  A ring of Brussels sprouts or currants?  A few perennials for the flowers?


And, can someone explain the theory behind the island bed to me, please, before I go mad?  Here is what all island beds look like, given time:

Given a complete absence of human interest in, or understanding of, or sense of collaboration with nature, another species enters the vacuum and brutally dominates the scene.


  1. These problems are ubiquitous. People have certainly lost the knack of building a home as opposed to purchasing a house. Whether one realizes it or not, the surrounding landscape is a very real part of the home. It certainly sets the stage for visitors.

    Perhaps much of the blame has to go to developers who concentrate only on the almighty buck. But then, what does this say about the herds of lemmings (buyers) who fall for a fancy front door with brass house numbers and over-sized lamp at the side and a brass kick plate adorning the bottom. Assuredly, if a developer’s house offers those “amenities”, he has a sale.

    As to the thoughtless approach … Does it make any sense to build a beautiful building and then force guests to endure an arrival that says; “Welcome to my (ummm, ahh …) garage!”

  2. I’d be willing to bet my leftover turkey that the dead shrubs in the first photo are due to lack of establishment. Michelle, if you go back, take a tug at some of these (if you can get away with it) and check out what the roots look like. Still trapped in potting media? Wrapped in burlap? Buried too deeply?

  3. I believe many people do not understand the connection and the value between their house and the property it sits upon.
    It is as if they are two separate entities disconnected where the green stuff starts and the construct begins.
    As Dan Mays points out some blame can be squarely laid upon the shoulders of the developers, but its the lack of imagination and vision of the people who take ownership of these homes who really should assume the responsibility.
    It doesn’t have to take a lot of money to install an aesthetically pleasing and well functioning landscape.
    In many cases if the homeowner balances their over indulgent interior consumerism with their exterior property investment , they will end up enhancing/ increasing the value of their property rather than packing their house with depreciating big screen plasma TV’s and useless knick knacks.

    What does that say ? – That many people put a greater value on their interior acquisitions than their exterior spaces.

  4. Interesting.. If I were KING I would tell people to mind to their own affairs. Don’t look if you don’t like what’s going on next door. Better still, don’t buy a house next to one with gardens and trees if you want sun and fertlizer infested lawn grass or visa versa… After 20 years of living in the same older neighborhood with mature trees, the houses around my home, which used to be populated with kind older ‘Gardeners’, have been sold to ‘Lawn Boys’ who continually complain about the abundance of vegetation in my yard. Not concerned with the noise they make cutting their lawns every 4 days, blowing their debris into my yard and street drains with their blowers, or weed whipping eveything including my shrubbery when they think I’m not looking, these people complain about trees that have been in the neigborhood for at lease 50 years. Did they think that these trees were going to disappear when they moved in? These arrogant morons mutilate the trees and shrubs in their yards, kill all the little animals and insects with poisons to protect their babies from mosquitos, and then complain about the Robin trying to make a nest in the plant hanging on their porch, or the Bats that live in the neighborhood and fly over head at night. And I am fine with that as long as they keep it on their side of the property line. But I tire of their need to control what is not theirs… I totally get your desire to have more appealing landscapes, but your taste does not always please someone else. For instance, Vegetables in the front yard may appeal to some, but to me, it’s just tacky unless your whole yard is cultivated and they are designed into the landscape. It can be done well, but usually a few veggeies in the front yard looks horrible, to me. But its YOUR yard so my attitude is: do what you like, unless it conflicks with your neighborhood association rules, that is if you have a neighborhood association. And if you don’t like what’s going on in someone else’s yard, keep your opinion to yourself unless asked, or better yet, put your money where your mouth is and buy it! Everyone has an opinion, and my opinion is there is very little class in the world anymore. Imagine how nice things could be if people showed their neigbors a little respect… Happy Holidaze, Patrick

  5. I could put my neighbor in jail. She rags about to feel more self important about me. Wa state is condembed cause the powers that is can’t be on top.

  6. Oh there we go, disparaging New Jersey again. This problem is not endemic to the Garden State–it’s just that that it is easier to see here due to population density. The problem is even greater than Michelle D. has expressed–which I could rant about for hours btw–it is that as a culture we we now value our land last. We spend too little time outside and when we do as Phrago so aptly put it, we want it controlled. We hire help to tidy it up who have no skills and don’t understand any nuance let alone a shape other than a meatball. Our priorities are skewed. We used to value the land first–we understood that with care it would nourish us in more ways than at the dinner table.

  7. Amen, Susan & Phrago! These weird landscapes are the effect of homeowners who spend little time outdoors and that only on their decks or patios with built-in kitchens. The grass is something to be admired from a distance and the only people who walk on it are the lawn crews. I wonder if those islands are a bad interpretation of the proper way to mulch trees? I guess they’ve never heard that no tree is an island.

  8. I spent my first nine years in a brand-new subdivision in New Jersey, and I’ve got to say that these current pictures compare very well against my childhood memories. Back then it was all lawn, lot line to lot line. The only other plants were “foundation” shrubs planted right against the house, with one skinny “shade” tree in the front lawn and one in the back. No beds, no borders, no groupings, no privacy. Michele’s pictures look like artistic genius in comparison. Kids can play hide-and-seek around those island beds and make a super fort under that big tree in the last photo. And I bet those islands offer food and cover to more kinds of birds than starlings and crows, which was all I ever saw until I was nine.

    That said, I agree that there is some bad design displayed here, as well as poor plant choice and care. Beds, island or otherwise, should be sited, shaped, and planted in such manner as to make the answer to the question, Why is this bed here? a bleeding obvious one.

  9. Not all of NJ looks like that… there are serious, organic gardeners nearby in Montclair, Clifton, Nutley, Bloomfield. There are quite a few of us who have banished the front lawn, created wildlife habitats, raised bed vegetable gardens and native plant borders with streets and yards surrounded by century old oaks, sycamores, larches etc. Next time you’re visiting take a short trip over here in our neck of the woods. You’ll see that so much of NJ shouldn’t be bashed. In fact the Garden Conservency lists quite a number of beautiful Bergen and Essex County gardens each year in its garden tours.

  10. If I were King, well I am sort of as THE TROLL, I would ban decks that protude from homes like a bad apendage. Subjects of mine who want to go outside would be forced to go outside and play.

    Sitting on a deck week after week eventually makes one need some sort of phsyhiatric care. How so you might ask? At first deck people act like they are outside. They do outside like things on their decks. After acclimating to the deck however they start doing inside things on their decks beacuse they are told the deck is an extension of their indoor environs. They begin standing on their second story decks in their underwear drinking coffee on Sunday mornings, ruining the view of others who still still think they are “outside” when on their decks.

    Those still under the “outdoor” influence of their deck then plant these monstrous NJ style evergreens to block those who are doing indoor things on their second story perches.

    And the cycle continues and deepens until the lawn is nothing more than a green organic wall to wall carpet that instead of shampooing gets mowed and weeded.

    Hence The Garden State monicker. But to fool one even more they left off part of the name. After much research the real motto for NJ is
    “The Garden State….Hospital” and Center for Deck Living Analysis.

    The TROLL

  11. Sigh. It’s true NJ is as guilty as sin; but really No guiltier than the rest of North America except for wonderful pockets of sanity we all know about and cherish. Was just in NJ recently myself – having grown up in Nutley and spending tons of time in the Oranges, Clifton and Montclair and there really are lotsa great things going on there. But I gotta say “Bravo Michelle!: Someone’s gotta harp on these issues. Then we gotta get out there and motivate people to change their properties. It’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming SSI for homeowners addresses these issues. Hopefully with a great impact!

  12. I agree with Dan M and Michelle D. I am constantly amazed at people who spend $500k for a house (a lot in my part of the country) and spend about $1000 on a few tiny foundation plants. I drive through these expensive neighborhoods and get incredibly depressed.

  13. It’s suburbia, not just NJ. My neighbors get squeamish @ the thought of actually tending the plants that came with their tract homes. Never mind actually replacing them with something native, xeric (here in the dry West it’s wise), attractive … or merely different than what the folks next door have.

    And those islands ? It’s better than setting trees in sod up to their necks (crowns), watering them like lawn, & then marveling that they rot & topple in a strong breeze. Not that I like those islands, mind you. Just sayin’.

  14. Ouch! I think you’re being a bit too harsh, Michele. This is not just endemic to New Jersey – it can be found all over America’s suburban communities. Whether you like it or not, it IS a common style of gardening and who is to say what is or is not aesthetically acceptable? I agree with a previous comment post that people should be free to do what they like and as they please with their yards/gardens. Island beds in a lawn serve many purposes in a suburban landscape – sometimes they are the best solution for providing privacy or for screening an unpleasant view that lies beyond one’s property. They can harbor wildlife very effectively. Personally, I am not a fan of the sculpted ball school of foundation plantings surrounded by a large expanse of lawn, but to each his own. I’m sure some of my neighbors are not too keen on my lawn-free, shrub and evergreen stuffed landscape either. This is one of those times when garden rant just gets too snarky for me. Can’t we all just get along?

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