Obsessive Tidiness Disorder or: How we can learn to stop worrying and love nature’s messiness

Why do we do it? It consumes countless hours of our lives. It must cost millions. Every hedge neatly trimmed, every verge carefully mown, every ‘weed’ meticulously eradicated. Obsessive Tidiness Disorder (OTD) is everywhere – and it’s choking our wildlife.

Weapons of mess destruction.
Images: Alamy(RF); cjp/Shutterstock (RF); Peter Broster/Flickr (CC 2.0)

Don’t get me wrong, tidiness can be important. No-one likes to see litter. Long grass can impede visibility at some junctions. Dense vegetation can make urban parks unsafe.

But what I’m talking about is different. It is excessive. It is pointless. It amounts to the relentless sterilisation of precious habitats.

Wildflower patches annihilated with herbicide, autumn leaves purged from lawns, hedges battered into perfect squares, rotting trunks exiled from forests. The examples are endless.

Gardens, farms, parks, verges, canals, woodland, wasteland. Nowhere is safe.

Why are we so hell-bent on tidying our flora and fauna out of existence? What can explain this ubiquitous disorder? Well, I think the first clue can be found close to home.

What would the neighbours think?

We’re a nation of gardeners. The garden is nothing but an extension of our home and the average Brit spends 114 hours a year getting it ‘just so’.

All this toil usually results in a manicured green desert. For me these feel unexciting and forlorn. Yet, messy gardens effortlessly have depth: the understated beauty of flowering “weeds”, a clumsy bumblebee nectaring, the bush crickets’ chorus in the long grass.

And it’s not just me. There’s evidence to suggest higher levels of biodiversity improve our wellbeing and diverse gardens can be more aesthetically pleasing.

I know which I’d rather spend an afternoon in.
Images: Jean Cuomo/Shutterstock (RF); Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr (CC 2.0)

Embracing nature means less work, more wildlife and a more interesting garden. So why don’t more people do it? I think the neighbours may have something to answer for.

Gardens mediate many of our interactions with the people living around us. We chat over the fence and our children play together on the lawn. But this proximity can generate conflict. Disagreements over shrubberies have even been known to result in death-threats. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising we are willing to sacrifice our ideals for amicable neighbourly relations.

Even without any prior quarrels, we all have some perceptions of neighbourhood norms.

Fundamentally, the garden is a very public display. We maintain it, just as we tidy the house before visitors stay. Messiness is a trait we are reluctant to put on show.

Gardens: Britain’s largest nature reserve?

An uncut lawn can be misinterpreted as laziness or neglect. We worry others will think we don’t care about where we live, or are struggling to keep on top of daily tasks.

This can be a major barrier to the adoption of wildlife-friendly gardening.

Public areas can be subjected to the very same neighbourly pressures and tend to get managed with the same enthusiasm for neatness. Green spaces teeming with wildlife can be the most beneficial to our wellbeing. Yet, urban planners continue to opt for neat parks, citing “public demand”.

It doesn’t just stop at places for recreation. Local authorities are often under pressure to keep all grassy areas short. Come summer, and the local rags are filled with residents looking angrily into long vegetation or taking it upon themselves to make their street look “respectable”.

Together, these tidy gardens and immaculate green spaces make up a significant portion of the country. But this is dwarfed by farmland, which covers around 70% of the UK.

The sterilisation of the countryside

Shifts in agricultural policy after the Second World War dramatically changed the face of the British countryside. Small family farms gradually gave way to industrial agribusiness. As fields got larger, the space available for wildlife diminished. The length of hedgerow destroyed over the last century could wrap around the planet ten times.

Engine-powered machinery, artificial fertilisers and herbicides became commonplace. This squeezed higher yields out of the land to produce vast amounts of – often surplus – food.

A casualty of tidy agriculture: the bright-blue cornflower used to be common. Image: Veronika Seppanen/Shutterstock (RF)

Of course, agriculture is complex. Farmers run a business. Space is valuable. And ‘messy nature’ can also harbour ravenous leaf beetles and thuggish grasses, ready to eat into profits.

But tight margins aren’t solely to blame. The simple reason cited by a third of farmers for uprooting hedgerows? “Tidiness”.

Tidiness symbolises control over the landscape. This closely aligns with the productionist values farmers have traditionally held. Boundless subsidies affirmed the idea that food production is sacrosanct; some farmers use words like “derelict” and “wasted” to describe uncultivated areas.

These ideologies may seem outdated but they are entrenched in social norms of what ‘good farming’ looks like. Most farmers take great pride in their role as custodians. For them, stewardship is about actively making the landscape look cared for.

Tidiness has simply become the sign of a good farmer. Someone who’s on top of things and knows what they’re doing.

Overgrown hedges? The hallmark of laziness. Idle fields? A wasted opportunity. Flower-rich field margins? Sheer incompetence.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: farmers’ specialist knowledge means they perceive landscapes differently. Unannotated image: Shaun Wilkinson/Shutterstock (RF)
From the done thing to the right thing

Laziness, neglect, ineptitude – the things we associate with untidiness are almost universally negative. It’s no wonder we’re all so concerned about the appearance of our land.

How did this pervasive social norm come to be? Well, it may have been to avoid deadly wildlife and diseases. But I don’t think its origins really matter. These justifications are no longer relevant. It continues mostly because it’s the done thing.

This universal expectation of tidiness has been aided and abetted by increasingly powerful machinery to mow, trim, strim, saw, blow and flail. The casual destruction of habitats has never been so easy.

As wildlife gets pushed out, we contract shifting baseline syndrome. We forget just how messy, complex and alive the countryside used to be. Sterile landscapes become the norm, as each generation strives for increasingly immaculate surroundings.

So what can be done to make ecologically healthy areas more socially acceptable? According to Joan Nassauer’s influential essay, ‘cues to care’ are the key. These are intentional features that help prevent ‘messiness’ being misinterpreted as a lack of care. Parts of the lawn kept short, showy flowerbeds, freshly-painted fences, bold patterns and clean edges – anything that shows the owner is in control.

Small touches can make places look cared for and help make benign neglect more palatable. Image: Joe Gough/Shutterstock (RF)

This approach is most worthwhile in communal areas. If a council stop mowing verges close to homes, there’s often an outcry. Locals feel like their community is being neglected. ‘Cues to care’ can help avoid this.

But I think we need to go further.

The norms are so insidious. Pressure to conform makes gardening a burden, not a pleasure. Failure to conform makes people ashamed of their own garden. And most fundamentally, these conventions spawn an aversion to ‘ordinary nature’.

Where it causes no harm, why can’t unkempt nature be the norm?

Making messiness mainstream

If we want to save our wildlife, we must learn to love nature in all its messy glory. Of course some people already do. Throughout the country there are farmers and gardeners doing their bit and embracing nature. Going against the grain often takes courage so this deserves praise.

For a laissez-faire approach to become widely adopted, people will need to stop seeing wildlife as a blot on the landscape.

This needs education. A little bit of ecological understanding goes a long way. It confers an appreciation of complexity. It lets us see nature through a new lens. A patch of obnoxious nettles metamorphoses into a vital nursery for butterflies, that tenacious yellow weed is transformed into an indispensable fount of nectar for bees, an overgrown eyesore becomes the saviour of foraging birds.

Levels of ecological illiteracy may be high, but I firmly believe most people do care about our wildlife. A bit of guidance and encouragement is all that’s needed to turn this concern into positive action.

One promising stimulus is the plight of pollinators (every cloud, eh?). This has become firmly lodged in public consciousness, which appears to have boosted the acceptability of ‘messy’ flower meadows. Admittedly, flowers are the easy bit (pollinators are a diverse bunch that also require nesting sites, dense vegetation and larval foodplants). Happily, there’s evidence people in urban areas can also tolerate drab and messy patches if they are made aware of their biodiversity value.

Concerns about bee declines mean scruffy habitat may have become more acceptable in urban areas. Street art by Louis Masai in Shoreditch. Image: sheilabythesea/Flickr (CC 2.0)
Fields of dreams

Tidiness may be everywhere we look, but our wildlife clings on. We can all do something to help.

If you preside over outdoor space – no matter how big or small – you can make a difference. What’s more, you can do so simply by sitting back and letting nature flourish.

At first, it may be baby steps. Letting a small corner of garden run completely wild, or giving the mower a break while the clovers are in flower. And then if you have the time, go wild. Add native plants, dig a pond, or create a dead wood pile.

Build it – and they will come.

The humble hedgehog is one garden visitor that prefers things on the messy side. Image: Coatesy/Shutterstock (RF)

And of course, the wildlife won’t be the only thing to benefit. I found converting part of my lawn into a wildflower meadow immensely rewarding. Within a year the patch was abuzz with bees. Come autumn, the garden was filled with the tinkling songs of goldfinches, feeding on the seedheads.

The next step is to spread the word. Be sure to tell neighbours, family and friends about how you’re sharing your garden with nature. Although, don’t merely defend it – be proud of it! Enthusiasm is infectious.

Contact those in charge of public places you use – parks, hospital grounds, road verges, railway stations, etc. Their management probably reflects the assumed preference of public, or complaints from a vocal minority. Let them know you’d appreciate more untamed green spaces.

There are some reasons to be optimistic. A garden which included buttercup meadows and native woodland recently won the public vote at the world’s most influential gardening event, the Chelsea Flower Show. So okay, this may be ordered untidiness, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Perhaps gardening fashions are changing. If enough people release their gardens from the tyranny of tidiness, we’ll forget why we do it. We’ll see just how inefficient, unnecessary and detrimental obsessive tidiness is. Our wildlife would certainly be better off – and we’d be all the richer for it too.

23 Replies to “Obsessive Tidiness Disorder or: How we can learn to stop worrying and love nature’s messiness”

  1. Excellent Douglas a superb post. We have similar problems here, verges and hedges cut, trees felled at inappropriate times of the year and the loss of wildflower meadows, such a dimishing and important resource.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Robin.

      Sad to hear things are not much better in France. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a phenomenon restricted to the UK. I’m just glad our level of obsession over the perfect lawn isn’t quite as bad as in the US!

  2. Absolutely on point article! My grandmas garden is full of bumble bees thanks to a mix of wild natural flowers. Even saw a hedgehog last night!

    P.S the artist behind the save the bees graffiti is Louis Masai!

  3. Great article. I was thinking the very same a few days ago as I saw the contractors decimating the wide wildflower filled verges in Milton Keynes a few days ago. It’s even more strange as MK is a place that marketed itself on green spaces and air to breathe! Not only that most verges are about 10 metres wide so no need to butcher the whole lot – just mow a 2 metre strip at the roadside and maybe a metre along pathways and everything still functions. Not only that, they could save some money on contractors!
    Even more bizarrely no-one seems to worry about bushes over growing roundabouts so not sure the “safety” argument is valid.
    I’m all for a bit of managed untidiness – we have to give wildlife a chance somehow.!

  4. Great article. You might be interested to hear about the use of the blue heart staked out in a re-wilded area? This was started by the BLUE campaign (@bluecampaignhub on Facebook) and has quickly become the national symbol for re-wilding areas of gardens, parks, school grounds, road verges etc? South Glos Council piloted this in 2017 and have now adopted it across the county? The blue heart helps to communicate to neighbours that the action of leaving grass to grow is deliberate. It seems to massively reduce complaints from the public to councils, as well?

  5. It’s about time someone finally posted a public rejection of the manic desire to manicure the environment to death!

    I’ve been a volunteer entomological recorder since 1996, and the bizarre, perverse fetish for scything through natural greenery, in places where it should be left to provide a haven for diverse organisms, has utterly destroyed my recording efforts this year. Places that were once humming with diverse insect life, ranging from butterflies (previously, up to 22 species), through hoverflies and iridescent beetles, to various shieldbugs and dragonflies displaying their impressive aeronautical skills, have been denuded of the richness of the past. I now have to mount special expeditions to designated nature reserves in order to see even common organisms that were once within a short cycle trip of my home, and as for anything rare, forget it.

    The dire nature of the situation was brought home to me early in May this year, when I cycled home along a 2 km stretch of Dandelions that, fortuitously, had escaped the maniacs wielding the industrial deforestation machinery that has become the bane of my life. Despite stopping to search assiduously for organisms of interest along that 2 km stretch, I saw NOT ONE bumblebee visiting the Dandelions. In the past, the bumblebees would have been present in squadrons, accompanied by Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Peacock butterflies. This year, NOTHING. I’ve even had trouble seeing the previously ubiquitous Small White and Green-Veined White, butterflies that in the past would have been present in abundance.

    Among the other insects that used to be present at the location in the past, I used to see Green Shield Bugs, a wonderful assortment of hoverflies and jewelled soldierflies, Cardinal Beetles and an array of organisms whose scientific names would clutter this post with a Niagara waterfall of weird syllables. Now, they’ve all gone. It’s even reached the point where the previously pestilential Bluebottle is a rare encounter!

    As for the flora, I used to see Germander Speedwells and Hemp Agrimony in profusion, all attracting their own insect communities, and on some occasions, I’ve even had Bee Orchids and various Dactylorhizas put in an appearance, along with Ox-Eye Daisy and lush carpets of Birdsfoot Trefoil providing food for the Common Blue and Six Spot Burnet. No more.

    Suddenly, my local authority decided to cut loose with industrial sized mowing and strimming machinery, and the site I used to love taking my camera to, now resembles a palm oil deforestation atrocity in miniature. By way of illustration, in the years 2013 to 2016, I shot over 18,000 photographs of the insect life and floral diversity of that site. In 2018, it’s been pointless bringing the camera to the site.

    It seems my entomological recording activity is now reduced to documenting extinction.

    1. Thanks for sharing these insights, David. Sobering stuff.

      The catastrophic declines you speak of really make me wonder how many knock-on effects are yet to transpire. There was a study just this week making a link between the drop in moth caterpillars and cuckoo declines…

      I guess the one glimmer of hope is that some of our wildlife (especially insects) can bounce back very quickly – if given half a chance.

    2. Thank you for penning this, I am sure so many of us feel as frustrated and upset as you do at the unwonten destrustionof all our beautiful wild places. I remember when at night if you left the bedroom windows open and a light on the room it would soon fill with moths and other insects. Now, nothing comes in. No wonder the birds are finding it so hard to feed their young and we are seeing fewer and fewer swallows, swifts and martins. It is a tipping point for everything and something must be done fast, before it is really too late.

  6. Very true. Can’t understand people being obsessive about lawns, grass is just a glorified weed in any case. I may at times cut short, but I never use herbicides and I enjoy seeing splashes of colour from dandelions, daisies and buttercups in the lawn. The creation of a wildlife meadow is planned… Nettles grow 4 ft high along all the fences, and they provide one with the benefits of nettle tea and nettle soup.

  7. We are trying to change things here on Dartmoor, where there is a perception there’s “no problem” with diversity! “Look at it, it’s so green”! It’s green, yes, but the reduction of diversity has noticeably escalated even in the last 4 to 5 years. We are writing to councils, organising talks, encouraging Living Churchyards. We’ve held a Bioblitz in our local churchyard and are changing the management as a result of a shift in attitude. Good photography helps to change people’s mind. Thanks so much for this excellent article!

    1. Additionally, the brush cutter/strimmer cords are doing a lot of damage to historic headstones, often scraping away vestigial lettercutting. Leave them alone !!

    2. Ah yes, I forgot to mention churchyards – definitely a really important resource for wildlife. I’ve come across ‘Caring for God’s Acre’ which sounds like a similar initiative; working with communities to encourage more wildlife-friendly management.

  8. Fantastic article, a must-read and a great call to action. Lately there seems to be less needless mowing and trimming in my city (Winchester) than there used to be, although the cynic in me suspects that’s probably mostly because of council funding cuts. I do wish though that the council would shift the focus of their efforts, and redirect what resources they do have, to things like litter picking in verges (which I do for them), putting up bird and bat boxes and insect houses, and sowing flower meadows. In other words: doing something constructive rather than destructive. Our local biodiversity officer’s heart is in the right place; he has already made a start in certain areas, in collaboration with the University of Winchester, including the use of ‘cues to care’. Now we need to encourage the council to step it up and roll it out, and your article has stiffened my resolve to contact my council again. Many thanks.

    1. Thanks, Myra. Yes, I’m sure funding cuts have played a part but I suppose it’s the outcome that matters, not how we get there. Some feedback/encouragement will hopefully mean they’ll be braver and roll it out further.

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