Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Spontaneous Gardens: The Next Frontier in Green Design?

Is the ultimate strategy in green garden planting not to plant at all? The concept of spontaneous gardens--gardens that emerge without human intervention--is a relatively new concept in America, but one that has potential to change the way we garden.

Most gardeners spend quite a bit of energy combating "spontaneous vegetation." Unless it happens in a forest or a meadow, spontaneously occuring vegetation in human landscapes is not welcome. I spent an hour last weekend mercilessly attacking Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and Yellow Woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta) in one of my gardens. But earlier this morning, I was blown away by the most beautiful drifts of purple-blooming Henbit and Ground Ivy along the George Washington Parkway. In the urban setting it was a pest; in a more pastoral setting, it was a wildflower.

When you strip away the cultural baggage and consider these plants purely from their ecological function, a new picture emerges. Spontaneously occuring vegetation reduces urban temperatures, provides food and habitat for wildlife, prevents erosion, builds soil, and often performs phytoremediation. In addition, the act of creating and maintaining a spontaneous garden is a completely sustainable process. It requires almost no soil preparation, allows the plant to pick the site, needs no fertilizers or other inputs, and is ridiculously low maintenance.

While the concept of spontaneous gardening resides at the fringes of the American gardening scene, Europeans have worked at the concept for decades. The book The Dynamic Landscape, edited by Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough, is a collection of essays that teach strategies for manipulating spontaneous vegetation to create more pleasing human landscapes. A central theme of the book is allowing spontaneous to flourish, but selectively adding or subtracting species to create desired effects. Very similar to the maintenance strategies of meadows (River Farm meadow pictured below). The planting strategies are based on strong ecological research into meadow and grassland maintenance.

When it comes to planting design and gardening, I am a control freak. The idea of waiting for weeds to take over my prized lot, and then only doing minor tweaks to it makes me insane. But two recent revelations have started to change my mind. First, I used to pass an abandoned yard in Capitol Hill on my way to work every morning. It was a lawn that had gone fallow. Left alone, it was by far the most interesting and beautiful yard I passed. The drifts of clover and buckhorn plantain floated gracefully among the inflorescences of grasses. Pollinators swarmed. I spent more time staring at that dumb lot than any of the other skillfully maintained gardens.

Second, as a planting designer, I spend several hours a day meticulously designing planting plans to look natural. It's hard. In fact, it's damn hard to pull that off without looking contrived or ridiculous. It takes thoughtfully developing strong gestures, then carefully creating layers of interest, balancing grasses with forbs and woodies, creating texture and contrast, then thinking through the seasons of bloom. And to be completely honest, the end result fails as often as it succeeds.

One of the more inspiring landscapes I've seen recently is Piet Oudolf's design for the Highline. He uses a highly designed planting to mimic the quality of the spontaneous vegetation that dominated the abandoned rail track. It is remarkable precisely because it is so reminiscent of the abandoned rail tracks.

It's the realization that all of my efforts at planting design--even the most inspiring planting I've seen--are all aimed at having that certain quality, the je ne sais quoi, of naturalness. Not an imitation of nature, mind you, but an effervescent interpretation of it. The great irony is that creating easy, loose-looking landscapes requires working a design to death.
So maybe there's something to this spontaneous garden thing. Maybe my great crusade to get American gardens to loosen up should start with me. Let those weeds go. Create a "Freedom Lawn." Or a spontaneous green roof. Or throw some seed bombs and see what happens. The lessons from the mean and gritty world of urban ecology might just teach us how to flourish in the future.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In Praise of our Weedy Urban Misfits

I'll admit it: I'm a plant geek. If I have a car wreck, it will not be because I was playing with my Blackberry, but because I was wrenching my neck to see some grass on the side of the road. I secretly love the days at work when someone brings in an unidentified plant into the office--I can identify faster than anyone else. I even remember the street address of interesting plants I see in my neighborhood. "Remember that spectacular Chaenomeles on 12th and Maryland?" I'll ask my wife, who usually rolls her eyes.

But underneath my I-dare-you-to-find-a-plant-I-don't-know bravado, I have a weak spot. My horticultural Achilles heel. I don't really know weeds. Yes, I can write a dissertation on the differences of South African restios. And I can see differences between indistinguishable Heuchera cultivars. But I can't tell you the names of the seven or eight wild urban plants growing in the cracks in my sidewalk. The most ubiquitious of all plants remain anonymous to me.

Until now. Thanks to a book that Rick Darke suggested to one of my colleagues, my weedy dementia will soon be over. The book, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide, written by Arnold Arboretum's Peter Del Tredici is a must own book by every horticultural enthusiast. Del Tredici has elegantly and simply catalogued all of the "weeds" that surround us. Yes, yes, I can already hear your objections. I admit, a book about weeds may not be the sexiest horticultural topic. However, what Del Tredici has done is nothing short of revolutionary.

Almost every other book on weed identification assumes the following: you must be able to identify the weed in order to kill it. But Del Tredici unveils the hidden complexity and value of wild urban plants. In addition to the standard field guide identification, Del Tredici catalogues the ecological functions the plant contributes to the urban environment.

For example, many of the common lawn weeds such as clover (Trifolium repens) or Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) actually improve the soil by fixing nitrogen in its roots. I spent an entire summer in high school pulling up Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album) from the parking lot of a nursery. Now I find out that this European alien provides food and habitat for wildlife, helps to build soil on degraded land, and actually performs phytoremediation by absorbing heavy metals (zinc, copper, and lead) out of the soil.

Del Tredici's book accomplishes two remarkable feats for a field guide. First, he draws attention to a group of plants the entire horticultural universe has ignored, and in so doing, opens a new world for discovery. Turns out, the misfits on the margins of plant society turn out to be some of the more interesting characters. Second, Del Tredici's book upends the traditional categories of natives vs. aliens or "good" vs. "bad" plants. In the mean and brutal world of urban ecology, the good guys and bad guys may not be that far apart. The pioneers of our denuded and abused urban environments may just turn out to be the plants of the future.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Welcome to Grounded Design

Welcome to the first official posting of 'Grounded Design'. The point of this blog is to reflect on the form, meaning, and expression of designed landscapes. Pretty much anything outside the building is fair game for my musings. Gardens, parks, plazas, rooftops, streets, neighborhoods, and towns all will be joyously celebrated or panned; revered or despised; studied or ignored. All to answer one basic question: what is good design?

Good design is not just about beauty; it is about creating spaces of meaning. Spaces that speak to us before we understand what they are saying. Spaces that ground us and remind us of a deeper reality. Here the search begins.

Please do bear with me as I get the hang of blogging. So welcome! I look forward to hearing from you.

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