Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Most Important Landscape Book Since McHarg's Design with Nature

I rarely write book reviews, but I am making an exception for a remarkable new book.

Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, written by Travis Beck and published by Island Press, is the first attempt to write a comprehensive text addressing how ecology can and should inform the design of landscapes and gardens.  This may be the most important landscape book since Ian McHarg’s groundbreaking work, Design with Nature, pioneered the concept of ecological planning.

Most ecologically-based designers rely on a handful of truisms to guide their designs: use natives; right plant, right place; consider biodiversity.   But when it comes to actually selecting plants, one quickly realizes that eco-slogans provide few answers to complex questions.  How many different species should we include, and in what proportions?  Do you mass plants, or mix them?  And how should different species be mixed?  What happens when the plants start to compete with each other?  How do you maintain a designed community to encourage the right outcomes?  How do we measure success?

Travis Beck’s book delivers answers.  The book’s scope is sprawling.  Each chapter could itself be its on book.  It covers biogeography and plant selection, assembling plant communities, competition and coexistence, designing ecosystems, materials cycling and soil ecology, plant-animal interactions, biodiversity and stability, disturbance and succession, landscape ecology, and global change.  But this very broadness of scope is the book’s strength.  Beck gives us a survey of the last fifty years of ecological research and boils it down in an accessible language for the designer.

This book could be the defining textbook for ecological planting.  As more landscape architects and designers seek information about how to design sustainable landscapes, Beck’s book will be an invaluable resource.  If you are a designer and are interested in getting beyond greenwashing, Beck’s book provides principles, strategies, and detailed instructions.   

I will be including an interview with Travis in an upcoming post.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nature in the Future Will Look More Like a Garden

Fifteen years ago I went on this amazing hike through a Hemlock forest in the Shenandoah National Park.  Hemlock groves have a wonderful Gothic quality: dark, angular spires of the trunks are contrasted with the intricate tracery of the needles on bended branch.  Ten years later, I convinced my wife to go with me to re-create the experience.  This time, however, all of the Hemlocks were gone—victim to the wooly adelgid.  Brambles and vines stood in the sunny areas where there were once dark groves.  

Hemlock Forests have been decimated by the wooly adelgid

It is hard for me to talk about my love of native plants without thinking about loss.  The scale of the loss is well documented.  The natural spaces that remain are often riddled with invasive species.  Emma Marris' excellent book, Rambunctious Gardens, makes this point quite powerfully.  In 2013 there is almost no pristine wilderness left on the planet.  We have disturbed it all. 

photo by Ernst Schutte
Yet despite this loss, I am an optimist.  I am an optimist because I believe--as Marris points out--that nature is everywhere.  It is the Paulowinia that forces its way through the crack in the city alley; it is the praying mantis in my garden, it is the Burmese pythons in the Everglades, and it is the pockets of rare native orchids in the farmer’s ditch.  Nature is everywhere.  But it is not nature as we once knew it.  It is our nature, our garden, influenced by us.

The problem is that we want nature to be pristine.  The landscape architect Martha Schwartz said that “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women: as virgins or whores.”  For us, if nature (OUT THERE) is not some pristine wilderness, then it’s not nature.  To focus exclusively on the preserving the last of our “virgin” or “old growth” woods is to lose site of the larger issue right under our noses: the spaces that surround us every day.

This realization was quite empowering to me as a designer.  I recently worked on a master plan for a large-scale ecological restoration. The goal was to use the development of a several thousand acre site to re-create a mosaic of ecosystems that we believed were likely once on the site.  Our plans called for the eradication of invasive species by cutting them down, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species.  After this, the site would have to be weeded for years on end to make sure the invasives were kept in check.  Parts of the site would require managing through mowing or burning.  The more I thought about this process, with all its weeding, mowing, and planting, the more it felt like gardening to me.  And any gardener knows that the process of gardening never ends.  

So my first realization is that pristine nature does not really exist OUT there.  My second realization is that pristine nature cannot really exist apart from massive amounts of tending on our part.  

Tending, yes, this is something I know about.  I've spent my professional life designing artificial landscapes for people, and then trying to teach them how to tend it.  It’s not a perfect process, but it is a process that can be replicated on all sorts of sites.  Maintenance matters, but smart design matters more.  

I believe in design.  Today is Inauguration day, and despite the goodwill I still have for our elected leaders, I do not count on much.  Now is not the era of the politician.  No, now is the era of the designer.  Design focuses on resolving conflicts by looking at all angles and finding feasible solutions.

Designer ecologies. Deschampsia and Leucanthemum.  Photo and design by Nigel Dunnett for the London Olympic stadium
One example of the kind of smart design I am optimistic about is the work of British landscape architects James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett.  Their work is aimed at studying naturalistic herbaceous vegetation for use in urban landscapes and parks.  They use a palette of “semi-natural” plant communities (both native and exotic species) to create visually dramatic ornamental plantings.  I featured a post on their stylized meadows at the London Olympics.  What is most exciting is that their work focuses on creating low cost, low maintenance management strategies such as mowing or burning.  Their projects are not simply ecological restoration, but also beautiful, ornamental plantings.  Without beauty, they write, there would be little public acceptance for the ecology.  Their work is one part garden design, one part ecological restoration, and one part community development.  For me, it represents the best of the future: designed ecologies that feed our souls as much as it feeds the butterflies. 

Future Nature: Entrance Garden at Morton Arboretum
The front lines of the battle for nature are not the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of the future won’t just be scientists, engineers, or even landscape architects.  The ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members.  Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature.  And the future nature will look more and more like a garden.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Garden Design Trends 2013

Once again, Cleve West's Best in Show Chelsea garden shows what themes will dominate design in 2013
Oooh, goody!  The 2013 Garden Trends report is out at Grounded Design.  Another post where I stare into my glass ball and pretend to be an expert prognosticator.  Trend predicting is, of course, utterly obnoxious. But I love trying to articulate the zeitgeist without any real accountability (everyone forgets the trends one week later).  With that confident assertion, here are my predictions for 2013:

1. The New Romanticism, Simplified

Yes, I know this was last year’s theme for my trends, but the the romantic mood that has swept over garden design will persist in 2013. As Western states teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, and we increasingly experience the world through our smartphones, people will turn to their gardens for a spiritually authentic, but emotionally-soothing experience.  We crave something real from our gardens, but not too edgy.  This year’s romanticism will be simpler and less fussy than previous romantic periods in history.   Historic revivalism (a la Downton Abbey ) will continue to influence designers, particularly Victorian gardens (check out Cleve West’s Best in Show Chelsea Garden last year for an example), but these styles will manifest themselves in simpler, sleeker ways.  The elegance of the past gardens is stimulating, yet comforting.  Other romantic trends such as exoticism, a renewed interest in the emotional experiences of gardens, and the glorification of wildness will be big themes in designs this year.

2. Nostalgic for Nature

Nigel Dunnet's Olympic meadows were a game changer for planting design
Nature has always inspired garden design (see my recent post on "nostalgia"), but gardens in 2013 will express a particular longing for certain iconic naturalistic scenes: meadows, prairies, forests, and wetlands. The meadows at last summer’s London Olympics are an excellent example of the kind of stylized natural scenes that will trickle into gardens and landscapes this year.

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