With plants, design is everything

Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2005

David Lendrum

Landscaping in Alaska

Plant selection and placement are the essence of landscape design; they speak to the real function of the designed landscape. The desire to use an outdoor space, to initially experience it, repeatedly view it, or have it as a setting in which you live your life, depends on a sense of satisfaction with your place in it. We as humans live in a plane of experience, with familiarity and predictability on one side, and wildness and complexity on the other. Our lives are fulfilled as we negotiate our way between these extremes, combining a hint of one with a taste of the other. A little spice, some salt and a dash of fruit make a dish worth refining, and the same sense of the familiar with a slice of the constantly new keeps a landscape exciting. Compositions that continue to entice recognize this need, the rhythm of the backbeat providing a base for the improvisation and melodic variation that enchants the soul, which keeps the experience alive.

Providing the right blend of pattern and diversity creates a subtle tension in the experience. When there is a larger natural landscape to play against it, is one thing, but providing it in a setting where all the spaces are created ones is more difficult. This is why trimmed lawns against mixed shrub beds or controlled trimmed evergreens along a tumbling waterway work so well.

Our tools as landscape designers are the living components and their spatial arrangements; we use these to create spaces and experiences. Our daily guide and overall mentor is the human experience of the natural world, the familiar and predictable playing with the new and changing. The natural world is not a random jumble; similar species with similar needs group themselves together in similar conditions. They repeat themselves on a landscape scale. Prairie grasses flow over the land, punctuated by low, shrubby willow masses along creeks; mixed hardwood forests open to repeated glades of sunloving understory and meadow; and wild iris identifies undulations in wetlands as it rises above the more moisture-tolerant forbs and grasses.

We use the same sense in our domestic landscapes, identifying use areas, directing attention and protecting security by the repeated use of similar groupings of plants. We choose those species to combine both by their needs and ours. They must be able to thrive in the same conditions as their neighbors. Soil types, moisture requirements and light exposures are the obvious ones. Less obvious but as important are similar vigor and longevity, although many combinations are selected for their ability to sequentially mature. Nurse groups of poplars' being felled as protected masses of red cedars grow larger is a prime example.

Our landscape needs are complex, too. We want similar leaf sizes to be contrasted against other ones, complimentary colors at similar seasons and required maintenance tasks to be grouped into easy-to-schedule modules. The mantra of the right plant for the right place is constantly repeated. Even when it's possible to make unsuitable neighbors live together, the social and physical inputs are exhausting.

Hardy, low-growing shrubs like Little Princess spiraeas and dwarf cranberry make good companions to the smaller rhododendrons. Soil covering perennial groundcovers like red flowered epimedium or lush lily of the valley fill the open spaces below the shrubbery. Taller, multi-stemmed bushes like high bush cranberry, lilac and honeysuckle fill the mid-scale and our selection of small trees grows each year. Spring-flowering or fall-coloring species provide focus and attention to gardens or public spaces, and larger trees give framework and structure to the places we make.

The ability to provide attraction and change is heightened when we use perennials as components in our designs. The rapid change through the season as the primroses emerge, grow, bloom and seed, followed by astilbes and geraniums, then ligularia and asters under spires of delphiniums and lilies, is exciting. Colors and forms abound; shape, scent, movement and relative scale shift so quickly all spring and summer; and then the season winds down. The autumn colors in our created landscapes are mostly carried by the leafy perennials and in our larger wild places by the perennial wetland grasses and meadow shrubbery.

Successful landscapes are ones that, once established, require minimum inputs. Modern lifestyles call for designs that use enough plant material to fill the available spaces, but not overgrow it. So they need constant trimming to maintain proportion. They include species that engage all the senses, but compliment each other on every level, and that share cultural requirements for long-lasting harmonious relationships.

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