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08 January 2024

Éric, the “punk gardener”. When humility and counterculture serve biodiversity

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Observing instead of mowing. Questioning rather than executing. Eric is a “punk gardener”. He praises slowness and considers himself a guest in our natural environment. Because “the time has come to take a step back and curb this unsustainable civilization”

Éric Lenoir describes himself as a “punk gardener”. Wherever he is called to work, he first takes the time for observation. Days, weeks, or even months if needed – to understand what nature is like, what the interactions among the varieties of plants are, and how to optimise them. But, first and foremost, to question the dominant thinking that “humans are the masters of nature.” “Centuries of history have taught us to shape the environment according to our economic and cultural needs,” he says. “But it's now time to take a step back and restrain our unsustainable and irresponsible civilization”. Yet, he is far from being a visionary outsider. A graduate from Paris's most prestigious gardening school, he acknowledges for instance that “fertilizing is obviously needed”, but that lots of resources are already available in nature. Together with nitrogen, phosphorus, which is a crucial component of all main fertilizers, is abundant in the young shoots and leaves of trees, he emphasizes. “Cutting young branches and placing them at the foot of plantations is a very sustainable and effective solution.” Inspiring industry and research too, his quest for circular alternatives mirrors the one by BFerst, a European project that is now testing a wide range of bio-fertilizers based on nutrient recovery, to reduce our environmental footprint. “Because all we need is already around us,” resumes its coordinator, echoing Lenoir: “A lot is just about giving back to nature what is nature’s. We should rediscover some humility and resize our role in the environment surrounding us,” says this “theorist of a botanical revolution”, as he is presented in the preface of his book “Le grand traité du jardin punk” (“The Great Treatise on the Punk Garden”). 

First of all, what is your “punk approach” about then?
If I'm asked to do something I think is absurd, I just don't do it. If I'm told something can't be done and there's no money, I'll do it anyway, but differently and without money. The punk approach for me is about putting yourself on the fringes of mainstream thinking. It's about stopping doing things just because "that's the way it is” and about saying “no, I'm not doing it” because it doesn't make me happy, because it's harmful to nature and I don't want to contribute to this way of life.

What exactly don’t you want to contribute to?
As a gardener, I was trained with the idea that we were the “masters of nature", whereas today my approach is more to say: "Watch out! Nature already does things very well. Let it be and we'll be surprised.” Even if I've adapted my garden, I still consider myself a guest. I first let nature express itself to the full and then found the role I could play in it.

Letting go, trying to do as little as possible: your approach is at the antipodes of traditional gardening...
The consumer society wants us to satisfy customers’ needs as quickly as possible, so we're brought up to fulfil them, no questions asked. Whereas everything should start with observation, by looking at what's in a garden and whether we really need to intervene.

Figure 2. Credits to La Flerial Eric Lenoir Paysagiste
Figure 2. Credits to La Flerial Eric Lenoir Paysagiste

It sounds a bit like “anti-gardening”: observing rather than acting…
It's a praise of slowness. I sometimes spend months observing a landscape to see how it changes with the seasons. You'll see, for example, that plants you haven't mown will also be inhabited when they're dry, and that even dead plants will play a role in their ecosystem. No wild area is ever ugly. But if you look at private gardens, there you can find real horrors!

How did you get to develop your approach?
I studied at the Ecole du Breuil, Paris's historical and most prestigious horticultural school. I went there because I wanted the places where people live to be more beautiful. But when I started working, I quickly realized that I was being asked to do things that were absurd in terms of natural functions and species diversity. I felt like I was helping to make things worse.

And then?
I tried to suggest alternatives, but my bosses, my clients and the local politicians systematically told me that it would be too expensive and too complicated. From then on, I spent 10 years looking for answers to these arguments. And by dint of testing, I found lots of cheap solutions that didn't require any particular maintenance or skills.

You even say that there are no weeds...
In one of my punk gardens the soil is very muddy when it's wet and hard as concrete when it's dry. Yet I have hundreds of different trees and plants, and that's also thanks to dock and thistle, which are usually considered weeds. As their roots go very deep, they can draw water and make it available to other plants that have shallower roots. What's more, as they are quite large, they also protect young trees from sunburn, strong winds, and, in some cases, even predators.

Should we then refrain from doing anything?
In some places, nature's ability to express itself has been so damaged that a little support is required. Fertilization may be needed. We just need to know how and how much to fertilize. There are lots of natural products that can be used.

What did you learn from your “punk gardens”?
When I had my soil analysed, I realised that I didn’t need to use a lot of manure, having a rich and diverse meadow around the trees was already enough. Organic matter produces a lot of what we need. For example, there is a lot of phosphorus in the young shoots and leaves of trees. Cutting young branches and placing them at the foot of plantations can therefore be very effective in itself.

Should we then take a step backward?
As we haven't been humble and kept our place within the living world, we've ended up in an untenable and completely irresponsible situation. Today, our priority must be to re-evaluate our needs and do without everything that is not essential. It's not a question of leading a sad life, but of finding alternatives.

Do we lack the courage?
On a social level, it's difficult, because people are frightened when they move away from the mass, just like when animals leave their herd. But once again, a “punk attitude” can help. Why is punk such an inclusive movement, based on mutual aid and resourcefulness? Because standing on the fringes of mainstream thinking makes you vulnerable, but also leads to new forms of solidarity, social links, and innovative solutions.

Figure 3. Credits to La Flerial Eric Lenoir Paysagisteion provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.