Anarchy Gardening and Uncertainty in Restoration Outcomes

2015-05-02 12.16.07

My grandma was an anarchy gardener. This is of course, not what she’d refer to herself as, but it is the term I used when referencing her style of tossing seeds, seemingly willy-nilly throughout her large back yard in Joliet, IL just waiting to see which species won the epic battle for light, water and nutrients.

While the results of this gardening approach were not typical or arguably aesthetically appropriate for a residential garden, with marigolds growing along with asparagus, and tomatoes with zinnias, in a haphazard arrangement, it was pretty typical of my grandma’s style of doing just about everything – try it, see what happens, adjust according and screw everyone else’s opinion. My grandma passed away several years ago at this point, but as I prepare my own, relatively tidy urban garden for the impending winter, and start to feel guilty for letting some things get a little out of control, I try to remember my grandma’s gardening style, embrace the chaos a bit and smile.


I ALWAYS have restoration on my mind, so this fond little memory makes me compare this unique approach of gardening to ecological restoration. In one of my undergraduate classes, a professor casually mentioned that plant community restoration methods is sort of a “spaghetti on the wall” approach – throw out a handful and see what sticks. As an academic and now practitioner, I’d like to think that we’re a little more nuanced than that, but really, this spaghetti on the wall or my grandma’s anarchy gardening approach is basically what we do. But, we shouldn’t feel guilty about it, because this approach actually makes sense. We don’t know, we can’t know and we often don’t really need to know all of the biotic and abiotic components of every square cm of land and how they interact before we seek to restore said section of land. As such, we can’t really be sure which species will germinate, survive, reproduce or die off or how well they will play with the others in the ecosystem. And that’s ok. Seriously. IT. IS. OK. (Repeat this to yourself in moments of frustration and doubt. I know that I do).

When we restore an area, why do some species show up that weren’t in the seed mix and weren’t really expected to thrive? Why do some never show up or only pop through several years later? As a scientist, I’m dying to find the answers to these questions, but I also recognize that ecosystems are complicated. Ecosystems in human-dominated landscapes, which have been subject to varying degrees of manipulation, development and external influence over several decades are even more complicated. Sometimes, we don’t know the answers to why things work or why they don’t work. At times, this uncertainty means that we need to conduct well-replicated and controlled experiments to find out why and adjust our approaches accordingly. Other times, this type of research is just not possible or time appropriate and we just need to move on, learn from the outcomes, adjust future practices accordingly, and learn as we go. Such is the life of a restoration ecologist. Controlling what we can and embracing a little uncertainty and chaos.

Let’s channel our inner anarchy gardener and get to work!

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Lauren Umek

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One Response to “Anarchy Gardening and Uncertainty in Restoration Outcomes”

  1. Duane

    Well-said. Our profession is built on the efforts of those who came before us, tweaking what they did, and taking risks and trying something new. And much like we do today re. our predecessors, the ecologists of the future will look at what we’ve done, scratch their heads, and ask “what were they thinking?”


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