Lawnmower Man

Michael Geffel is designing landscapes from the back of a Bush Hog.

By Zach Mortice

Geffel mowing in his Thicket Composite landscape. Photo by Nick Sund, Student ASLA.

For a few years after his undergraduate studies in geography, Michael Geffel, ASLA, worked as a gardener, performing the most literally and conceptually reductive type of landscape maintenance—weeding.

But after a while, Geffel, now a visiting professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, found his compositional hand here, even if it was glued to a Weedwacker. “Because we’re removing things that are aggregating, we feel we’re not changing anything,” he says. “We’re removing what’s accumulated and we’re trying to keep what’s there. But in the removal, and how we remove these things, there’s all the different outcomes in the landscape.”

It’s an idea he carried with him while in graduate school at the University of Virginia’s landscape architecture program, where Julian Raxworthy, another gardener turned landscape architect with transformative ideas about landscape maintenance, was then a visiting professor. Geffel pitched a thesis on “the generative capacity of maintenance and how it might be a design instrument,” he says, and was on his way.

Geffel’s Field Mechanics installation, which he mowed with a Yanmar tractor and a 48″ Bush Hog rotary cutter. Photo by Michael Geffel, ASLA.

While mowing his backyard in Virginia, Geffel discovered that by alternating a few variables, and with no tools more refined than a mower, he could encourage new ecologies over one growing season. This experiment, which he called Surface Distiller, had him mow sections of the yard he used most as closely as possible. In the sun, this emboldened the Bermuda grass to predominate. In the shade, these close-cropped areas became a continuous carpet of Viola odorata. The rest of the yard he mowed infrequently and at the mower’s highest setting, which let Festuca tenuifolia dominate.  By shifting “when we mow and the height that we mow,” Geffel says, “you can shape the entire plant community below the blades.

Michael Geffel’s Field Mechanics installation. The site is a former pasture, Christmas tree farm, and nursery. Photo by Michael Geffel, ASLA.

“Whether we’re pulling ivy or whether we’re spraying it, that will produce different ecological outcomes, or whether we’re mowing a field with a Bush Hog or a push mower, we’ll have a different diversity within that field,” he says. “I came to the conclusion that maintenance is always dynamic, it’s always responsive to conditions, and it’s really much more diagnostic than repetitive.” He called the practice that encompassed this work LNDSCPR.

Geffel advocates for iterative, adaptive maintenance processes that are developed and communicated not through drawings or renderings, but through simple written specifications. Geffel’s maintenance regimens are often based on simple, responsive rules: mow in shaded areas, turn when you encounter specific species, mow in a Zamboni pattern. “I really don’t know what it’s going to look like at the beginning, but part of the experiment is discerning what the aesthetic potential of that pattern is,” says Geffel.

Field Moiré suggests how landscape maintenance practices could be applied to postindustrial vacancies to create a richer array of aesthetic properties and landscape services. Photo by Michael Geffel, ASLA.

He begins each project by adapting mowing techniques to achieve practical, concrete goals, each with their own formal expression. Through mowing maintenance alone, Geffel invents patterns that will remove a specific invasive species, promote another, reduce woody encroachment, install fire breaks, or generate beauty. In Field Moiré, a weed-infested lawn is transformed into a purple geometric grid of Prunella, Ranunculus, and other flowers through mowing, an experiment that could be replicated across vacant lots in postindustrial cities struggling with vacancy everywhere. Over time, Geffel has assembled a design language using simple, approachable tools that accomplish some of the same landscape services often thought to be unattainable without more much more invasive and complicated methods. Expanded radically, Geffel’s ideas could be a populist diffusion of landscape design’s value.

Geffel says it’s imperative that landscape architects embrace maintenance as part of the design process because it’s a way to shape the inherent dynamism that comes with using living, growing matter as your primary material. Embracing maintenance “allows us to work with landscape change in a more sophisticated way, and achieve different design outcomes that we could never have otherwise imagined,” he says.

Geffel’s Thicket Composite deals with invasive growth of Rubus armeniacus, or Himalayan blackberry. Photo by Michael Geffel, ASLA.

This strategy produces landscapes that can be monumental in scale and mildly surreal: parallel blocks of bushy foliage that stretch on for acres, like relatively uncreative crop circles. There’s an austere grace to them, as they’re seemingly functionless enough to invite curious, playful exploration. Their proportions and lack of formal precision make it clear what tools were used to create the space, a change from most design professions where methods are made invisible after the fact.

Geffel mowing in his Field Mechanics installation. Photo by Michelle Brookey.

After scaling up from his backyard, Geffel went “a little guerrilla,” mowing infrastructural easements and leftovers. Eventually, at UVA, he found a field owned by the University of Virginia Foundation to experiment on, working with field managers who continued his mowing prescriptions for several years afterward. “You can see on Google Earth the impact of their mowing over time,” he says. He’s currently working on a University of Oregon riverfront campus site, a former quarry filled with construction debris.

There’s also a wider, democratic case to be made for exploring maintenance as a design tool. The Bush Hog mower and landscaping vehicle company says that an area equivalent to the state of Pennsylvania is cut with their tools each year. “That’s really an opportunity for us,” Geffel says.

There are also a number of professional and class implications inherent in embracing maintenance on the back of a Bush Hog, and it’s an opportunity to reconnect with landscape construction and maintenance trades that landscape architecture has separated from in order to professionalize. Geffel says landscape architecture is dealing with an “existential crisis” of relevance, abetting gentrification and displacement at the behest of its narrow client base. “We do need to come to terms with which class of American society we’re serving,” he says. “Using maintenance as a design instrument can be a form of design activism.”

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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