Ecological Landscaping

“He was as happy as a 12-year-old, trying to see what Mother Nature does there and then work it into a design … Science has kind of divorced itself from spirituality and emotion, but Darrel cultivates that experiential side of what landscapes evoke in us.”

                                ~ Ulrich Lorimer about landscape architect Darrel Morrison

Nature likes a mess, but we humans continue to try to tame it into some ordered, orderly composition. Garden writer Margaret Roach notes, “Ecological landscaping is the merging of environmental science and art to create evolving compositions, not something we can restrain.” She quotes landscape designer Morrison, “Painting is two-dimensional; architecture and sculpture, three-dimensional … But landscapes are four-dimensional, with time being the fourth dimension.”

Every gardener knows that their garden shifts and changes over the seasons. We time our planting to the early, mid-, or late season fruiting or flowering. Each year we try to plan the gardens to take advantage of local variations in shade or moisture and patterns to entice us.

Twenty-five years ago, when we had major construction on our backyard, we moved the vegetable garden and added some trees to the landscape, including a limber pine. Over time the pine grew well, but it seemed lonely in that part of the yard, so we found and placed a boulder next to the trunk. They got along well, and I believe are now fast friends.

Roach continues, “The design process Morrison taught students has an ethereal, luminous quality to it, as well. The creative spark for a landscape design could come from a painting — the energy of a vintage 1914 Kandinsky or ‘the swirling strokes of Van Gogh that conjure movement’ — or even from a piece of music … Music is so good at getting you out of a rut … What I like to do, and have students do, is have overlays over their base map of a site and let flowing music carry them, especially in the very early stages of a design — a freeing up of one’s mind.’”

Morrison’s four characteristics of a successful landscape design:

First, “… it must be ecologically or environmentally sound, meaning that it has a level of natural diversity that will provide resilience against climate change.”

Second, “… a landscape must also be experientially rich, beyond the visual dimension. That means considering ‘the nonvisual aspects: the feel of the wind, the aroma of prairie dropseed grass that permeates the air … And the other forms of life, too: the bees and butterflies that move through it.”

“A design must, likewise, be of the place — ‘A native landscape gives you a clue of where you are. You should know if you are in Des Moines or Connecticut.’”

“Last, a landscape must be dynamic, changing over time. ‘We spend all kinds of effort to keep our landscapes looking the same, mowed and clipped and unchanged … You are missing out by doing that, missing out on the change from one growing season to another, and over time.’”

Plants grow and thrive or die. We look at a part of the garden to see what is missing and what is out of place. Our old house (~150 years old) sits on an old yard with “heritage” plants that just crop up in odd places from time to time. The immediately previous occupant had six coon hounds that had worn the backyard down to packed dirt and mud when I moved in. We sodded and I cleared a space for a vegetable garden, but once we began watering, strange (to us) plants kept appearing — roses in the middle of the veggies, shrubs amidst the lawn, strange plants that could be weeds or become flowers. We transplanted the roses to a better bed, somewhat successfully, and moved the chokecherries to the fence line. Some plants we just dug up or let be. They seemed to know where they wanted to grow.

Most of the relocated roses did okay for a decade or two, and the chokecherries loved it wherever they ended up. (Perhaps too much?) We left the lilacs to their own devices and they thrive, still. An ancient pear tree looms more than 25 feet over the yard and bears an enormous amount of inedible fruit each year, but its companion apple tree collapsed in a huge wind several years ago. Old Man’s Beard vines still decorate one fence line, and several areas host Virginia Creeper. I believe the birds and squirrels eat the small creeper berries and spread them around the yard, so you never know where they’ll show up next. Same with the Sweet Pea vines that seem to magically materialize anywhere that is watered or tended.

There’s a line from “Out of Africa” about trying to control a flooding stream that I relate to, “This water, she lives in Mombasa, Memsahib.”

After years of futile battle, I have learned that there are places that plants want to be, and it may not be worth trying to change their mind.

I guess it’s just in their nature.

Additional information:

Margaret Roach, Your Garden May Be Pretty, but is it Ecologically Sound?, August 11, 2021, New York Times

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