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The Living Landscape: Applying layers to the Home Garden

by Timber Press on August 7, 2014

in Design, Gardening

The richly layered Riska-Dunson garden in Delaware is brimming with life yet is highly functional and profoundly livable.

The richly layered Riska-Dunson garden in Delaware is brimming with life yet is highly functional and profoundly livable.

What brings life to a landscape? Gardening is unique among the arts because its primary materials are literally alive, but are gardens merely beautiful arrangements of living objects?

A growing awareness of a broad range of environmental relationships suggests the traditional object-oriented approach to garden-making is unable to guide us in the design and care of landscapes that are genuinely sustainable. Informed by ecological science and cultural studies, we have an opportunity to adopt new ethics outlining a modern recipe for inclusive habitat: ethics that embrace the changing dynamics of our world while recognizing the need to protect and conserve what is vital and irreplaceable.

A resident phoebe takes advantage of a leafless branch of the venerable dogwood that stretches gracefully from the side of the historic farmhouse in the Riska-Dunson garden.

A resident phoebe takes advantage of a leafless branch of the venerable dogwood that stretches gracefully from the side of the historic farmhouse in the Riska-Dunson garden.

We can promote intensely local approaches to design that are simultaneously cognizant of global realities, with the understanding that even our most humble, necessary journeys can be guided by a universal language of landscape stewardship. Plants will always be at the heart of gardening, but instead of beginning with a set of objects, we can start with a set of goals to ensure the landscapes we live in are beautifully layered, biologically diverse, and broadly functional.

Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of your garden. With a bit of thought and a modest amount of care a garden can be many things—even things that might seem incompatible or contradictory. For example, a good garden must be practical. The care it requires should be balanced with our capacities, yet it must provide for essential needs that vary as gardeners do: safe surfaces on which to walk, run, sit, or play; shelter from storms; a cool place in summer and perhaps a warm place in winter. But that same garden can also be a sensual place that brings varied pleasures into life’s routines: color, texture, fragrance, an outdoor dining room, birdsong in the morning, and perhaps a chorus of peepers at night.

Steps and low retaining walls hand-crafted of local stone contribute to planting niches while furnishing an intimate but functional route up and down the gently terraced site in the Riska-Dunson garden. Essential no-more-thannecessary patches of sturdy turf invite strolling and provide for gatherings of friends.

Steps and low retaining walls hand-crafted of local stone contribute to planting niches while furnishing an intimate but functional route up and down the gently terraced site in the Riska-Dunson garden. Essential no-more-than-necessary patches of sturdy turf invite strolling and provide for gatherings of friends.

As David Abram suggested in 1996, “the sensual world is always local.” Much of the sensuality, breadth, and beauty of local landscapes derives from long-evolved associations between flora and fauna, yet it is also profoundly influenced by local and global culture. Fortunately, the divide separating biological and cultural landscapes is diminishing. A garden devoted to the conservation of a unique ecosystem need not banish a bit of human history that survives in its midst, just as a landscape devoted to human artifice need not neglect a vital remnant of ecological richness within its bounds.

No matter what size it is, a well-designed garden can be both intimate and expansive. It can include intimate spaces that encourage appreciation of infinite detail as well as outwardly focused spaces that direct us to contemplate infinite expanse. The intimate space might be as modest as a nook defined by richly layered vegetation. The expansive space could simply be a deftly placed bench with a clear view of the sky through a window in the canopy.

Fresh lettuce with your native plants—why not? Though the Riska-Dunson garden’s principle plant palette is made up of indigenous species, its broad range of functions includes providing locally grown sustenance for humans.

Fresh lettuce with your native plants—why not? Though the Riska-Dunson garden’s principle plant palette is made up of indigenous species, its broad range of functions includes providing locally grown sustenance for humans.

Reliability and spontaneity may seem like opposites, but they need not be. An inspired design can offer both. We should be able to count on a garden to do many specific things on time and reliably, but each time we return to it, there should be some element of chance, some delightful presence or event that we could never have anticipated.

The local landscape is the most influential because we spend the most time in it. Because it is so close at hand, a residential garden is the ultimate local landscape. For these reasons, two of the most essential qualities of a garden are that it be both walkable and watchable. It should offer practical paths, sensual paths, and a variety of other routes to get us to where we need to be. All the while, these paths should provoke us to watch more closely, ask more questions, and contemplate the dynamic beauty of interdependent processes.

This small spring-fed pool and other moist niches in the Riska-Dunson garden support wood frogs, pickerel frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, spring peepers, and toads.

This small spring-fed pool and other moist niches in the Riska-Dunson garden support wood frogs, pickerel frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs, spring peepers, and toads.

Gardens are often intended to provide us with refuge: a personal place away from the crowds, offering myriad opportunities for individual expression. A personal garden or landscape is a place we can tell our story in our way. It can provide reassurance and offer new insights, even when we’re the only listener. On a different day or during a different mood, that same garden can be most alive when we invite others to share it with us: reacting to it, enjoying it, and finding new meanings in it. When sharing extends beyond human presence, a garden contributes to the sustenance of many forms of life, and they in turn help sustain all of us.

All images by Rick Darke.

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RD_authorphoto_by Ralph VituccioRick Darke is a landscape design consultant, author, lecturer, and photographer based in Pennsylvania who blends art, ecology, and cultural geography in the creation and conservation of livable landscapes. Darke has studied North American plants in their habitats for over three decades, and his research and lectures have taken him to Africa, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, and northern Europe. His books include The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes, The American Woodland Garden, and In Harmony with Nature. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, RickDarke.com.

DT_authorphoto_02_by Jon Baldivieso CROPPEDDoug Tallamy is currently professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, where he has taught insect taxonomy, behavioral ecology, and other subjects. Chief among his research goals is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities. Doug won the Silver Medal from the Garden Writer’s Association for his book, Bringing Nature Home. You may also be interested in the author’s own Web site, plantanative.com.

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“Two giants of the natural gardening world, Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, have collaborated on their best work yet.”—The New York Times

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