We should be designing plantings that are as interesting, resilient, and balanced as those in the wild. We can do this by designing with plant communities and not individual plants.
As humans, we crave encounters with nature. To become lost in the majesty of the giant redwoods, bask under the filtered light of gnarled oaks, and achieve serenity in the bleakness of the desert captivates our imaginations and inspires us. Yet the pieces of nature we design can be composed of soulless expanses of lawn, sterile clipped evergreens and garish specks of annuals. Plantings are not meant to be static; they’re meant to fascinate us and connect us with nature.
Look closely at a naturalized planting; it doesn’t matter if it’s in the abandoned lot in your neighborhood or the local wilderness/regional park. Notice the intermingling of species, the intricacies of each plant’s adaptation to the site and the lack of bare dirt. Now compare those naturalized plantings to our designed landscapes, with plants being placed far apart over a sea of mulch, and observe the differences. Look at the cracks in the pavement or on the side of a cliff and witness plants thriving in even the most hostile of places. Yet in our designed landscapes we spoil our plantings with richly amended soil, consistent watering, fertilizers, and regular maintenance. While they may thrive after all this care, too often they fail to live up to our expectations.
We should be designing plantings that are as interesting, resilient, and balanced as those in the wild. We can do this by designing with plant communities and not individual plants. Over thousands of years, each plant has developed a specific niche in a symbiotic association of plants. Taking these plants out of context and away from their community creates the fragility that requires them to be dependent upon constant care. Plant communities are immensely complex: Some plants act as rhizomatic colonizers and others as solitary beacons, some add nitrogen and others rapaciously consume nitrogen.
Our goal should not be to simply reproduce wilderness but to utilize the wisdom of plant communities to guide our own stylized versions of them. I don’t advocate for a simplistic view of native plantings as good, and introduced species as bad. Plant diversity and ecological functions are the top priorities. The diverse cosmopolitan associations of plantings that fill the inhospitable cracks, corners and abandoned spaces of our environment are to be revered. Their resilience is admirable and they are performing essential ecological functions. Our challenge is to develop a new stylized and managed nature in our environment that is composed of both native and resilient exotic plants that can perform the vital ecological functions and emotional connections to nature that we need.
Only for the last .001% of human existence have we become so detached from our natural surroundings. Although we may no longer till the soil and gaze at the stars, we cannot escape our yearning for a connection with nature. The incredible popularity of both Chicago’s Lurie Garden and The High Line, in New York City, give credence to idea that people appreciate and cherish natural plantings. With this in mind, we have the choice to lead our profession towards a sustainable future, or be left in the “mulch.”
Patrick Sunbury is a designer in the Laguna beach studio. Image courtesy of brownpau/Flickr.