The Power of Naming


In my last column, I admitted I prefer my own garden to Garden Shows, though it does depend on how far under the snow my garden is buried at the time the shows are happening.

Symposia, on the other hand, are special treats. I invariably find them valuable, especially when the speakers are chosen to reinforce each other’s themes. I walk away from these day-long (or multi-day) events with pages of notes and a mind full of ideas, and often a crucial new awareness about gardening or life.

Unlike Garden Shows, which exist partly to sell us stuff, symposia exist to transfer concepts. This is what delights me about them. I am not opposed to shopping, but my capacity for concepts is practically infinite, whereas my capacity for stuff is limited (by space and money, at the very least). So I can walk around a symposium absorbing concepts with great abandon, while I have to keep my guard up against absorbing too much stuff at a Garden Show.

I came away from a recent ReThinking Idaho Landscapes symposium with a new appreciation for what visual creatures we humans are, and how one image, or one observed moment, can instantly reconfigure our thinking.

Thanks to Julia Rundberg for capturing this moment from a recent presentation on Hellstrip Gardening. I hope my book and talks on the topic will help this trend to spread.

This is really my aim when I give a talk. I try to choose powerful images that will convey new concepts. But though an image is worth a thousand words, I’ve found the words stick better if I can also find (or make up) names for those concepts.  Just a word (perhaps a short phrase) is like a suitcase, complete with handle, that can be handed off. The name is the key, reminding people of what’s inside the suitcase.

For instance, one concept I am trying to spread is the “freedom lawn.” These chemical-free lawns in which a person mows whatever grows have steadily become the norm in Canada (Quebec banned cosmetic use of pesticides for lawns in 2003, Ontario and New Brunswick in 2009, Alberta and Prince Edward Island in 2010, Nova Scotia in 2011, Newfoundland & Labrador in 2012, and Manitoba’s ban takes effect this year), and they are coming back into favor in the USA as well.

Freedom lawns allow diversity to sprout in mowed areas, along with some pollinator habitat and a longer season of green (with perhaps more seasonal changes such as flowers and fall color). They also free us from the cost and ecological consequences of using lawn chemicals.

Once people have a name for this concept, it seems more able to grow into a full-fledged, legitimate option in their minds. It may not be something they choose to do, or feel they CAN choose due to neighborhood pressures or other concerns (or their own aesthetic tastes), but it does become something they can evaluate and consider and discuss, now that it has been named. And that makes it easier to keep the option open to choose it in the future.

I’m also hoping that the power of naming will help to ignite a change in how we landscape our hellstrips. These fragments of land between sidewalk and street are called by different names in different parts of the world, in different states and cities of the US. Perhaps a discussion about them using one unifying name (easy to remember, too!) will help people to find more solutions and to share them with one another.

What do you think? Does naming help you to think about and discuss a new concept?



  1. Ev, I love this article. You are so right about the name capturing attention and simplifying intention into something concrete and doable! I relate to “Freedom Lawns” in that I relate with and aspire to freedom in all its forms! This helps my mind wrap around the concept perfectly. Thanks for your knowledge and wisdom.

  2. A picture may be more valuable than 1000 words, but just a few of those words can bring the picture back to us at any time.

  3. i recently created a 20×30 patch of meadow as a lawn replacement. My goal is to absolutely minimize inputs and get maximum habitat.

    I’ve resorted to applying an herbicide to maintain diversity. Urban weed pressure has led to a take over of rye grass. I’ve tried herbicide free methods but they are more intensive. They disturb the soil. Involve a lot of energy use.

    So called “chemical free” practices are not always best. The goal should be minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing environmental gains. Not choosing one method over another.

  4. At our current house, I intentionally sowed some clovers years back. Didn’t see much at first, but it’s starting to spread. The color is amazing just after it’s mowed. It will grow where other things can’t. And, ( could be my imagination ) it seems that the lawn as a whole is healthier. Even where there isn’t much/any clover.

    But beforeI mow, I let the flowers pop and I have noticed more and more bees each year. I can only let them at it for so long before I have to mow because it does look a bit too wild for my taste. Flowers return in short order and so do the bees.

    Now imagine if my whole street not only *stopped* the -cides, but also sowed in some bee/butterfly/bird friendly.

  5. No questioning the power of a good catch phrase but, frankly, “freedom lawns” is just too generic and jingoistic to get my vote. The “Freedom Fries” fiasco was foolish enough. Can’t we do better? How about “living lawns” or “kid safe lawns” or “carefree lawns” or “chem-free lawns” or “guilt free lawns” or maybe even “cost free lawns” to hook in the crotchety but thrifty old codger whose anthem is “Get off my lawn!”

  6. Oh, I love “freedom lawn” and had never related it to the silly Freedom Fries connotation. Freedom from what? With lawn we know it means freedom from dosing our lawns with pesticides and excess fertilizer. Hand-weeding, too. Mowing still a problem.
    Which reminds me, I had a great chat today with the guy behind Pearl’s Premium. BLog post to come. Susan

    • Great news. I almost mentioned Pearl’s Premium and the other mixes now available, but this was already fairly long-winded… looking forward to your post!

  7. Great post, Evelyn! I do think naming is important, but not crazy about “freedom lawn” either, as noted by Joe above. How about “lazy lawn,” letting whatever decides to seed there (or what you seed) just do its thing? Should appeal to homeowners who don’t want to do a great deal of gardening “work.” Hope to see you back in my Minnesota “lazy lawn” garden sometime.

  8. I like all your ideas for renaming Freedom Lawns. The name comes from Stevie Daniels’ book The Wild Lawn Handbook. (Wild Lawns, there’s another great name!) I seem to remember it was an old phrase she was trying to resuscitate.

    I also like reading your stories of how it’s going for you, the challenges and successes. Keep ’em coming! Those vicarious gardening experiences will help the rest of us figure out what might succeed in our own yards.

    Thanks also for your encouragement. Happy gardening, everyone.

  9. I vote for “barefoot lawn,” although if the lawn has clover—and bees—that might not be the best way to enjoy it!

  10. How about the “SuperMega Patriot Lawn” for your more conservative audiences, and “Inclusive Lawn” or “Non-Poaceae Normative Lawn” for the more liberal set?

    If you’re counting votes, I like Freedom Lawn. Or what about Leisure Lawn?

    I enjoyed your post!

    • Thank you, Mary. Yes, I’m interested in everybody’s votes! Nice addition to the mix: Leisure Lawn has that alliteration going for it, plus I’d rather think of myself as a leisurely gardener than a lazy one, though of course both are true 🙂

      • Seems to me it would be smart to focus on Millennials, as the rest of us are pretty set in our ways and soon to be heading out the door feet first. With that in mind, I offer “Selfie Swards – roll your eyes, not your lawns”.

  11. Several months ago, a Garden Rant shared that one horticulturist (at an arboretum perhaps) used “management” instead of “maintenance.” I have been using this word in my presentations and it has been embraced by gardeners. How can a living thing be maintained? It grows and changes. Just manage it and enjoy the journey.

  12. What – nobody mentioned Orwell?

    “Does naming help you to think about and discuss a new concept?”

    In 1984, Newspeak was invented partly to reduce the vocabulary of the population. Fewer specific words made it harder for people to think of and communicate concepts.

  13. I have been watching the progress of the pesticide ban movement in Canada for a few years now. Only from afar but it seems like it has been a difficult fight. Though people overwhelmingly supported these bans in some cases the pesticide companies fought back hard and even co-opted print media to make it seem like these people were asking for something really radical. (Demanding clean air, water and soil is radical?)

    Words like freedom and wild still have meaning for me because I am old but I have seen how over time they are losing their power. Partly because marketers have used them for nefarious purposes but also because people have become so urbanized. Newer generations just don’t seem to have wilderness experiences anymore. They don’t understand what they’ve lost.

    If there is one thing most Americans seem to have in common it is a great fear. They seem so very worried about everything that some of them even want school teachers to be armed. So maybe the best way to sell pesticide free lawns is to call them safe lawns. Safe enough for bare feet and butterflies. Or since this idea is owned and fueled by grassroots efforts maybe work the word grassroots into it.

    There is power in a name. We see the evidence everyday in advertising’s evil magic. I wish you the best of luck.

    • “Grassroots lawns” is brilliant. Greenwashing has been sucking the soul out of really innovative and localized solutions to environmental issues for way too long already. If we were to combine the grassroots notion with a good old “down in the dirt” competition for the most, or most obscure, species in a lawn, there might be a chance to wrest the issue back out of the claws of our corporate overlords. Never underestimate the appeal of gardening as a competitive sport.

    • Beautifully written, Debra.

      Safe Lawns is a term used by fellow Lawn Reform Coalition member Paul Tukey in his campaign to change how we manage our turfgrass in private yards and playing fields. Paul wrote an excellent book called The Organic Lawn Care Manual. He’s very concerned about pesticides and other chemicals used on lawns. Here’s his site:

  14. I used to have the most lovely clover in my old (built 1925) house, but can’t seem to find seeds for that variety. The clover was TINY and created a nice, soft, low-growing mat over the yard. It grew well in the sun and shade, and needed very little maintenance. I would love to know if anyone knows where I could get seeds! I also loved the carpet of moss that took over my low, damp spot in that yard. Unfortunately I moved to a new house where they’ve “lawnscaped” the soil to death so I’m working on bringing back some variety to the sad, tired lawn.

    • If you do a search for white Dutch clover, you’ll find many sources. One caveat, make sure they are talking about the shorter variety for lawns, not the 12″ forage and pasture variety often called New Zealand white clover. I’ve seen both referred to as Dutch clover and both are listed as Trifolium repens.

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