Nature as the Blueprint for Better Designs of Intentional Landscapes

Wyoming Wet Meadow

Wyoming Wet Meadow

Why do we value our natural environment as part of design? Maybe it’s just the serenity or peacefulness away from the ‘norm’ of the day. Maybe it’s an internal stirring that we find from a woodland, Savannah, or grassland that justifies borrowing from these basic characteristics as one approach to designing the intentional landscape?

Site design and landscape solutions are generally crafted with varied degrees of formality, complexity, and diversity. The notion of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, aside from proper horticultural principles, can be a matter of preference and flair. Seeking to design a truly natural landscape is one you cannot ‘re-create’ verbatim. Biological relationships and environmental influences are simply unique to the location. For example, take a high plains meadow residing in a relatively ‘stable environment’ and attempt to establish it within an urban influenced context (a considerably unstable environment). It will never result in a true replication. What we seek is to use ecological principals to mimic the natural context and depth of exploration in developing a design approach.

So, thinking of the intentional landscape in human terms, it is very much like a social event. The analogy may help to explain plant behavior and the reasons to carefully select your guests.

Who’s present at the party?

Introduce yourself to a natural area and look to identify the indigenous plant species you encounter — who belongs? The plant community found can vary from highlands to lowlands, exposed hillsides to sheltered river valleys. What region and position in the landscape does your project site closely resemble? You will recognize similarities if you allow yourself to. While new cultivars are offered nearly every year, staying true to the species native to the region will consistently be more adaptive to the soil and climatic influences  — they’re from here (wherever your ‘here’ may be). Also worth noting, incorporating the indigenous palate will begin to celebrate a sense of place and identity of where you reside. Embrace it!

Where are they hanging out and who are they and hanging out with? 

As plant communities develop naturally, they inherently migrate to their preferred position in the landscape based on favored influences (solar and wind exposures, soil types and soil moistures, etc.). If you closely observe these communities, they will reveal how their herbaceous, shrub, and tree layers prefer to share space with each other.  Successful design of the intentional landscape uses nature’s blueprint to provide a similar placement of each plant species.

What are the clues of the natural aesthetic…the subtleties?

So, the observational skills are improving and the ‘who and ‘where’ are beginning to come into focus. What’s next? Continue to spend time in nature. Continue to look for clues and gain appreciation for how really dynamic a plant community is. You’ll find:

Natural plant communities are generational: Sizes and ages tend to range greatly. Schedule different and like species in various installation sizes to suggest a diverse and interrelated landscape.  

Natural plant communities vary in spatial arrangement and density: Break away from plant spacing based on uniformity or mature canopy size to limit overlap. If the nature blueprint says tree groupings tend to intertwine- then intertwine.

Natural plant communities have species diversity for a reason: Honor it, however intense or minimal. By exploring this, you will likely find that context determines dominance of species.

Sounds simple, right? Or is it? The tranquil appearance of nature’s setting consists of layers of complexity that only repeated observation will reveal over time. It will encourage maturation in refining one’s design style that can be engaging and ever improving with each visit. For me, I think the proverbial ‘light bulb’ turned on while conducting wetland field exercises in Wyoming. While inventorying a wet meadow, the landscape form revealed a presence of three dominant sedge species, two grass species, and a trace of rush bound by a thicket of dogwood. Laid out before me, I saw how this could translate to an intentionally designed drainage basin for an upcoming project. Perhaps it was 20+ years in the profession, but most likely it was turning to nature as my blueprint that made it possible for me to submit a perceptively simple composition to my client.

While there are as many design biases as there are leaves on the mighty bur oak, you can give claim that looking to nature as the blueprint can lead to a purposeful outcome. Watch out though…a side effect to quietly studying nature often creates greater appreciation and value placed in the preservation of our wild and natural places.

— Tom Bentley, PLA

Little Boxes Make a Big Difference

They may seem like a small touch to some, but they’ve actually been part of a massive effort to bring about the largest resurgence in the city’s history.

Ten years ago, city leaders recognized that downtown would have to be, as they called it, “clean, green and safe” to attract the kind of reinvestment in downtown they were hoping for and that many thought could never happen. One of the key components of greening downtown was a system of planter boxes throughout the city, adding a touch of life to every block and creating a softer, friendlier environment.

Fast forward a decade and more than $6 Billion invested in the downtown renaissance. That’s Billion. Thanks to the Downtown Council’s Community Improvement Districts, downtown is a place people want to be again and Vireo has been pitching in to green it up even more. Come this Spring, the planter boxes that have been a focal point of the beautification around downtown Kansas City are going to be getting a bit of a face lift.

Two of Vireo’s landscape architects just finished creating several different planting designs that will work in areas of full sun, part sun/shade, and fully shaded areas, giving the CID’s ambassadors (the guys in the yellow jackets) several options for greening up the streets for the next decade. Woodland sage, Wood's purple aster (pictured) Blue grama and Blaze little bluestem are just a few of the new additions you’ll see around downtown so, next time you’re out for a walk on Main, watch where you’re going, but don’t forget to look down once in a while.

"A God-driven experience" with a '68 Ford

As landscape architects, we're proud of what we do and we're passionate about creating spaces that make a difference. But it's not every day we get to be a part of a story like this one. In what our clients can only describe as a "God-driven experience", a simple idea to include an old pickup truck in a Memory Playground for a memory care facility connected generations of families from Olathe, Kansas to Kearney, Nebraska.

Workers lifted the modified '68 Ford into place at Cedar Lake Village this week, but its journey started almost 50 years ago.  It's a story you really need to hear, and it's one that reminds us how what we do today can echo for years or even generations to come.

http://www.good-sam.com/index.php/about_us/news_information_read/a3/

 

 

We Love It When a Plan Comes Together

For the past four years, our trail designers have been working on an active transportation trail through Kansas City that will eventually connect 103rd Street at Alex George Lake to the Missouri River. While some parts involve new, wider paths over existing sidewalks, some parts are a lot trickier.

Construction crews worked this week to place an 80-foot pedestrian bridge on a dime, just west of 51st and Hardesty and over a stream feeding the Blue River. The steel and wood bridge, trucked in from Alexandria, Minnesota, weighs nearly 28 tons and had to fit perfectly to the mounting bolts on each abutment, with a total margin of error of about two inches. And it fit like a glove.

Up next is a section of the BRT that finds its way through Swope Park, navigating close approaches with the Blue River, active railroad tracks and the Kansas City Zoo property.

 

 

 

Safer Streets for All

For decades, we’ve been building roads to make way for more cars, but something happened along the way – we made some of them nearly impossible for anything but driving a car. Bike lanes and shared use paths have been gaining in popularity, though, and the Federal Highway Administration wants us to know there’s funding for safer street designs that slim down roadways and make them more pedestrian-friendly. In fact, look for some of those tax dollars at work over the next year as Wornall Rd. goes on a road diet near  75th Street in Waldo.

http://usa.streetsblog.org/2015/08/24/feds-to-traffic-engineers-use-our-money-to-build-protected-bike-lanes/

Overland Park Makes It Easier To Ditch Driving

Overland Park has been known for a lot of things around town, but an extensive network of bike trails and lanes hasn’t been at the top of the list…until now.

The City of Overland Park adopted a bicycle master plan in April that will easily change the face of bicycling in the city and in Johnson County. The City Council overwhelmingly approved plans for 263 miles of bicycling infrastructure throughout the city, including buffered bicycle lanes, marked bike routes, shared use paths and shared lane markings (we call them sharrows).

While it does come with an estimated $27 million price tag, it’s worth pointing out that it’s going to take a while to get it all done, which spreads the price out. The study also estimates that 75% of the proposed bike plan (200 miles) could be put in place for less than $3 million and would be phased in over the next decade or more.

And it doesn’t mean rebuilding existing roads – mostly just reconfiguring how they’re striped when the time comes to redo what’s there already. With that, and a few new trails, the city has taken a really important step in making it safe and convenient to bike from one block to the next or from one end of the city to the other. It’s all in the plan.

LINK TO THE FULL PLAN ON CITY’S SITE:

http://www.opkansas.org/things-to-see-and-do/bike-and-hike-trails/bicycling-in-overland-park/

Vireo spent the better part of a year working with Toole Design Group on their first-ever comprehensive bicycle plan. We can’t wait to see how it changes Overland Park for the better in the years to come.

Let's Ride!

If you've ever wanted to ride your bike right down the middle of Ward Parkway (and live to tell the tale) here's your chance. Kansas City's Cycle In The City is coming up May 16 from 2-5pm and everyone's invited. For the full scoop, check out  www.cycleinkc.com.

During Cycle In The City, Ward Parkway will be closed to motorized traffic and opened to anything on feet or wheels. And it's not just a bike-a-thon. The grass medians will be filled with attractions and activities for all ages from live music to yoga.

While it may be a novelty around here, open streets festivals like this one have been growing in popularity around the world. You can check out a brief history here: https://vimeo.com/78886448.

Biohacked Blooms: the Nerdy Gardener's Dream?

Flowers that change color in the garden aren’t a new idea. Just ask hydrangea lovers. But petunias that change color in 24 hours are new. It’s not science fiction, a Colorado-based science duo have already produced a petunia that blooms red when watered with a special solution, and then goes back to blooming white when watered with normal water.

The team set up a crowd-funding campaign to financially back further development of the petunias to meet United States Department of Agriculture standards. Once the petunias pass the USDA’s approval checklist, they can be released into the market where gardeners will be able to purchase them at their local garden center. The first petunias could hit the market in 2017.

Check out the team’s IndieGogo campaign page to get more information. If you’re a nerdy gardener like me, you may even want to float them a few campaign bucks to make it happen.

The same team, Revolution Bioengineering, is also working on developing a petunia that changes from pink to blue and back to pink. It will cycle from one color to the other every twelve hours, based upon the plant’s natural circadian rhythm; no chemicals, just sunlight and soil. They’re calling this one the “Petunia Circadia”. Now, that’s nerdy-cool.

How to Choose the Best Time to Plant Perennials

perennialplanting.jpg

When we get this question here in the Midwest, we tend to answer generally, “It’s most appropriate to plant perennials in spring and fall.” Spring and fall usually mean more rainfall and moderate temperatures in our region, both of which are beneficial for plant establishment. However, when to plant really depends on what you are planting.

Season of Bloom

If a plant normally blooms in spring or early summer, it will most likely benefit from late summer to fall planting. Tucking these guys into beds before winter dormancy gives them an opportunity to root in and become more established before expending their energy in bloom come spring. If your posies bloom in late summer or fall, a spring planting will do just fine.

Size at Planting

Larger-sized plants, when referring to root mass, overwinter more safely than little guys who can get pushed up and out by the freeze-thaw cycle. If you’re planting quart-sized or smaller plants in fall, check on them periodically to ensure their root masses are still firmly in contact with the soil bed. If they heave, they can dry out quickly and become a winter casualty.

Day Length Requirements

Many plants require specific day lengths to trigger their bloom time, which is why you have plants that bloom at different times of the year, and why we discussed planting based upon season of bloom above. But day length, or photoperiod, affects more than flowering.

Some plants need longer periods of daylight to stimulate any growth. Take hostas for example. Most hostas require long day lengths to promote root and leaf development. If you plant hostas from mid-July through fall, they may not put on any significant new growth. If you plant small, very young hostas at that time of year, they may not bulk up or set roots in time to reliably survive the winter.

Is there a best time of year to plant that fits all perennials? Not really, but taking the above recommendations under consideration and following up with proper watering and maintenance will take the trickiness out of establishment and get your landscape in and growing.

Gardens for the Soul

Part of what we get to do as landscape architects is to create places – places to relax, places to play, even places to work. We know that how we do our jobs makes a difference, we know the right integration of nature into our built environments can change everything and we know that bringing people in closer contact with nature can bring them closer to the divine.

As far back as the 5th or 6th century BC, religious scholars wrote of the essence of beauty and creation and that’s what we read from Genesis in the Holy Bible today. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…Then God said 'Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.' And it was so. Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky'..."    And so, we were inextricably linked to nature.

According to Judeo/Christian teachings, we are created to harmonize with nature so it should come as no surprise that we find serenity in places of natural beauty. We feel differently when we experience significant places of natural wonders we feel changed. For many, this is experienced as ‘the spirit moving within’ and is both a natural phenomenon and a spiritual awakening. It is our soul becoming re-connected with its origin where spirit and earth mix, where God and humankind meet.

"God created humankind so that humankind might cultivate the earthly and thereby create the heavenly" (Meditations with Hildegaard of Bingen, p.88).

Every day, we take every chance we get to connect people with nature for the simple fact we know it makes a difference. Whether it is a corporate campus or healing garden at a hospital, we know a sensitively-designed landscape has the power to make people happy, less stressed and more relaxed. But once in a while we get to connect them to something more. Over the years, I have designed nearly a dozen dedicated prayer gardens where we strive to “create the heavenly”.

Creating a space that can help people feel a connection to the divine is truly one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my professional life, for if I have helped one individual cultivate the garden of the human soul, I will have done my job. Such is my earthly goal and my divine mission.

Dave Ciaccio

Photos: St. Francis Prayer Garden, Omaha, NE