September 18, 2015

Working in harmony with Mother Nature  


I recently had the opportunity to design and build a landscape on a large country property, and the process offered a lot of lessons. Picture a man-made pond, created 150 years ago and naturalized, untouched since then — a biodiversity jewel.

We were a bit late on the scene and the customer had already contracted someone to clear the land. Not only had Roundup been used illegally (yes, this still goes on), but almost everything had been cut to the ground. Perennials have been doing better than expected, considering that they lost their shade canopy, but it’s still quite a shock to them — hundreds of pink lady’s slipper orchids, suddenly out in the sun. At first I was amazed by Mother Nature’s resilience. Later, I noticed the difference in size, health and bloom duration of the plants in the open, as opposed to those under the shelter of their plant neighbours.

Plants and trees that were left were not necessarily the most ornamental, special (rare, flowering, good habitat, etc.), or healthy. We soon realized that some of the remaining trees had weak or damaged roots or had poor form. The biggest awakening came during a windstorm when we noticed the roots on several trees actually beginning to lift out of the ground! As you can imagine, this necessitated an emergency trip to the hardware store to purchase wires, clamps, hose and stakes to guy-wire the trees to save them until they can establish new, stronger roots. We had to try and save the remaining trees and give them a chance to establish properly. 

A succession plan for older trees
Knowing that some of the trees were under stress also guided us to transplant younger specimens under and around some of the older stands to replace them as they pass on, and help shelter them from wind. It’s important to remember that as trees grow, if they start with the support and shelter of neighbouring trees, they’ll rely on that throughout their life. Removing too many trees will result in the specimens on the edge of the stand falling over, one at a time — good to be aware of! One of the locals took me out to a virgin forest which was being logged nearby. To see the ancient trees, those too big for the loggers, left standing on their own and their slow death from giant limbs breaking off was heartbreaking.

If you’re in this situation, pruning the remaining trees and large shrubs to bring out their form will help the landscape fit into our ideals of beauty. Focus on the best that will need to be enhanced with pruning. It’s rarely optimal to simply limb up trees to get the view. Thinning out a few of the lower branches can create a veil to look through while preserving the tree’s health and structural integrity. Limbing a tree up too far means that the trunk of the tree will not have the necessary energy provided by nearby leaves. The tree will decline over a few years. This means that eventually it will need to be removed — a waste, and an expensive proposition.

Refereeing the landscape
Our next big lesson was about how folks think. What makes us see a man-made landscape as beautiful, and a natural landscape as ‘weedy’? The answer may be in how we landscape designers mass plants, as opposed to the way Mother Nature scrambles them together. Massing allows us to see the beauty of each species separately. The jumble has its beauty too, and of course it’s more resilient and less prone to pest breakouts since there’s a better predator/prey relationship, but we seem to need to see a bit of control. I think of landscaping as ‘refereeing’…helping Ma Nature look her very best.

Take the time to walk a grid pattern, looking for special plants that might need to be worked around. If you must move something, find another area where the species is already doing well and mass them there. Perhaps try moving a couple first and see how they do over time before jumping in with both feet. Generally, it’s not advisable to move something like an orchid, but perhaps compromises must be made so we can live in harmony with nature but maintain the necessary usefulness and aesthetics.

Accordingly, we began by rescuing plants from some areas and massing them together in large drifts. It will be a stylized version of nature — one with biodiversity, resilience, yet still with appeal to humans. This was a moral conundrum for us since, if we didn’t manipulate nature to fit human ideals, someone with a much heavier hand would have been hired to strip it bare and sod over it. We chose to use it as an opportunity for education about how amazing native plants can be… but are still conflicted.

As always, when figuring out how to redesign, consider texture first. A balance of grassy, feathery and bold will make things look great. If you have the luxury, try to hold off from landscaping for a year, so you can take the time to observe seasonal changes, fall colour, winter interest and even interactions with nature. This will allow you to design with more subtlety and success. Perhaps we can all live together in harmony if we think a little more and design more with native plants. It’s worth a try, and seeing the community’s positive reaction to our work backs this theory up.  

Sean James is owner of an Ontario-based environmentally-conscious landscape design/build/maintenance company, an eco-consultant and a popular speaker.