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