Inspiring Living Landscapes

I attended a lecture by Doug Tallamy at yesterday’s Plant-O-Rama event. I was absolutely inspired by the topic and the delivery of his talk, which was based on the new book he authored titled, “The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden“. For a little background, you must know that I have a degree in landscape architecture and am actually pretty passionate about the topic. But I wiped my hands clean of the profession, for the most part, after practicing at two landscape design firms in Central Florida.

I attended a fairly progressive Landscape Architecture program, believe it or not, at Mississippi State University. I thought landscape architecture was about reinserting nature into the built environment, ecologically sound siting of buildings and manmade features, increasing biodiversity and doing all of it with simplistic grace and beauty. Turns out, that was a highly idealized concept for the profession, perfect for my learning process but very upsetting as I entered the field of practice. I worked for firms that designed planned communities, resorts, theme parks, business parks and residential estates. I felt the firms I worked with where letting the client, which was usually a developer, lead us by the nose. All we where doing was putting parsley around the pig. I wrote manifestoes about the inputs required by the landscapes we designed (including water, petro chemical derived fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, the massive poor immigrant workforce, machines spewing CO2 and noise pollution, etc) and the lack of productive return we gained from these landscapes (it was all ornamental plant species). They where actually vicious cycles of input to grow and work to control and repeat. I was laid off, twice, not necessarily for the manifestoes, but due to the housing bubble burst of 2008. I took menial jobs but devoted a large chunk of my personal time and energy teaching people about organic gardening and permaculture with the Simple Living Institute. I re-found my passion and meaning for which to apply my knowledge and skill-set.

When I moved to NYC I had a short contract to perform construction management for Million Trees NYC. It was no design position but I thought it worthy, and still do. While I have met some practitioners who are pushing their practice towards better values, those professionals are actually fairly rare. Long ago I decided I would discontinue my pursuit of a professional license to practice landscape architecture. I have not really looked back at landscape architecture too often, aside from helping the ASLANY chapter organize a productive landscape symposium and a few other flourishes of pushing my ideals onto the profession. While I love to entertain the idea that the things I write, the words I speak and most importantly, my actions, could affect the profession of landscape architecture at large, I am nearly sure that I am not a player in that world and never have been or will be.

It is for this reason of helplessness and the observation that the profession was not budging, I met this presentation yesterday with such delight. While most talks at gatherings of nurserymen and horticulturists includes extraneous lectures on new ornamental varieties, I would almost expect round-up ready roses at this point! This talk was nuanced in its delivery of a strong voice advocating for biodiversity, less lawns and more bio-regionally appropriate designs, plant community clustering and a focus on ecological services that could be provided by our human shaped landscapes. Mr. Tallamy spoke of biological sampling of different woody plant species to look at the number and different speciation of caterpillars found in native trees and shrubs vs. introduced ornamental trees and shrubs. The native species host hundreds of individual catarpillars and dozens of species, while introduced ornbamentals only hosted less tha a dozen individual catarpillars and a measly one or two species. Catarpillars are important as they are a major source of food for birds. In this way trees could actually be seen as bird feeders, native varieties bing big, full feeders and non-natives representing small empty feeders (but taking more resources to mantain) He detailed how native trees and shrubs produce berries that are necessary for wildlife populations at the appropriate times of the year comparing that to berries produced on non-native ornamentals that are more like junk food, providing sugars but laking essential fats. The results where eye opening.

The discussion was furthered on many fronts including information on the evolutionary codependency our native insects and animals have with the native plants and how introduced species, while they may naturalize (AKA not be wildly aggressive and outcompete for resources due to lack of natural predators) they also do not help the wildlife in the same way the native plants can and do. The lecture was given in astute and extremely knowledgable fashion with beautiful photography of the flora and fauna being discussed.

In addition to being upbeat and positive, I think it really broadens the dialogue between those passionate about native species and those who argue the merits of plants no matter where the origins lie. All to often, pro-native species arguments come from what i would classify as an “anti-immigrant” type of standpoint rather than a meritocracy position. I believe that adding the merits of natives to the biodiversity and ecological function of a landscape contrasted with the demerits exhibited by introduced, selected ornamentals, is a much better way to frame the conversation.

While I am not sure of the proper direction for the assimilation of this knowledge, I find it reassuring that these ideas are being promoted amongst the landscape trades. It may be true that the client, or the end user, may be the one that needs convincing in order to accept a landscape design that doesn’t conform to their preconceived ideas of what an American landscape is.  But this culture shift will have to change on many fronts. I think if the trades folks present at yesterdays lecture can market the merits of natives over the superficial qualities of non-native ornamentals, the industry as a whole will begin to shift, An even stronger position the trades have is to stop growing the lack-luster ornamentals all together and make them unavailable, this would necessitate change rather than just encourage it. On the other side of that spectrum, it is of utmost importance that landscape designers get up on these ideas and reassert themselves as the professionals with the knowledge and ability to do more than simply produce pretty designs with plants. While beauty can be achieved responsibly, a reshaping of what beauty actually is must be instituted upon society at large. Landscape designers must stop allowing clients to lead them by the nose. Stop chasing the money! It has lead us down the wrong road too many times already. This times it not just our economy, jobs and livelihood at stake, we are tinkering with the balance of nature, if we do not acknowledge this fact and refuse to at least try to work within the parameters of a health ecosystem, then we as a species may just be laying down the foundation of our own demise. We rely on ecosystems for so many things, from fresh water, food pollination, clean air and the many resources we use to build shelter and make clothes.These are our basic needs and we have become so far removed from which they actually come from we find it hard to connect our building habits with the functions that allow us to continue living on this planet. I often speak in hyperbole, but I feel it is justified. We live in the Anthropocene and it is high time we acknowledge it through our everyday actions.

More info here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/garden/at-plant-o-rama-in-brooklyn-the-message-was-that-beauty-is-no-longer-enough.html

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