Your Backyard Could Be Fairly, however Is It Ecologically Sound?

Your Garden May Be Pretty, but Is It Ecologically Sound?

Some gardeners respond to any mention of ecological landscaping – the amalgamation of environmental science and art – as if it were a compromise or concession intended to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has practiced and taught this philosophy for about five decades, would disagree.

"There is an implication that you are suggesting a vegan diet," said Mr. Morrison, creator of influential designs at the Storm King Art Center in Orange County, NY, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Texas. “A lot of people think that when they hear a phrase like 'ecologically healthy landscaping' they are giving up. But they're not – it just improves the experience. "

From his point of view, the real compromise would be to concentrate purely on the ornamental aspect of our landscape designs, large or small. In the boxwood and vinca world, we risk sensory deprivation, he claims – not when we use native plants in designs inspired by wild plant communities.

What if each plant is selected and placed just for show, without considering other potential attributes? "It looks good," he said. "Then it's gone."

At 84, Mr. Morrison is the self-proclaimed elder statesman in his field. He is an honorary faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he graduated and then taught landscape design from 1969 to 1983, and is a professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Georgia, where he worked from 1983 to 2005. Mr. Morrison reports on this career and life in Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature, recently published by the Library of American Landscape History.

Native plant communities "offer the logical starting point for creating beautiful, functioning regional landscapes," writes Morrison, and attributes the idea to the groundbreaking book "American Plants for American Gardens" from 1929 by Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehmann, a colleague introduced him in the 1960s.

A chapter title in his own book formulates the mantra succinctly: "Merging Ecology With Design".

Of all American scenes, the prairie is Mr. Morrison's "pet landscape". He grew up on a piece of Iowa prairie that was turned into farmland, on a farm that had two small patches of native plants – his introduction to the prairie flora.

The shape and palette of the American prairie can be seen again and again in his work, from the design for the Arboretum Native Plant Garden at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to the cedar planters on his apartment terrace, which he calls his “compressed prairie” – where he is "My old friends from the roadside of Iowa."

Whatever living space inspires a particular design – an eastern meadow on a classic example of modern architecture known as the Round House in Wilton, Connecticut, or a deciduous forest in the historic Stone Mill in the New York Botanical Garden – he wants it get to know them firsthand before starting to design.

It was New Jersey's Pine Barrens ecosystem that he relied on for part of a project at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden that debuted in 2013. Mr. Morrison's inspiration came from excursions he spent botanizing and otherwise exploring the Pine Barrens with Ulrich Lorimer, then curator of the Botanical Gardens Native Flora Garden. Mr. Lorimer said he was impressed with Mr. Morrison's "joy and enthusiasm for projects, plants and places".

"He was as happy as a 12-year-old when he tried to see what Mother Nature was doing there and then put it into a design," said Lorimer, who is now the director of horticulture at the Native Plant Trust in Massachusetts . "Science has somehow separated itself from spirituality and emotion, but Darrel cultivates that side of the experience of what landscapes evoke in us."

In his teaching, as in his own practice, Mr. Morrison keeps four goals in mind – the four characteristics of successful landscaping.

First, it has to be ecological or environmentally friendly, i. H. it must have a level of natural diversity that provides resilience to climate change.

"The species in the landscape have to be adapted to the location and the region and therefore don't need a lot of support like watering or poisoning the earth," he said. "It also means that we are not introducing non-native invasions that reduce diversity."

A landscape must also be eventful, beyond the visual dimension. That means "taking into account the non-visual aspects: the feel of the wind, the aroma of prairie drip grass that permeates the air," he said. "And also the other life forms: the bees and butterflies that move in them."

A design also has to be in the right place – to avert the fate conjured up in a favorite quote. "If you have standardized landscapes with the same plants, all of which are watered and on artificial support, there are none," he said, referring to Gertrude Stein. “A native landscape gives you an indication of where you are. You should know if you are in Des Moines or Connecticut. "

After all, a landscape has to be dynamic and change over time. "We use all kinds of efforts to make our landscapes look the same, mowed and pruned and unchanged," said Morrison. "You are missing out on something, you are missing out on the change from one growing season to another and over time."

Our gardens are evolving compositions that we cannot hold back. “Painting is two-dimensional; Architecture and sculpture, three-dimensional, ”he said. "But landscapes are four-dimensional, with time being the fourth dimension."

He added, "I set things in motion and let them go."

There are a few exceptions, however. Some focused trimming may be needed to keep a key view open and some editing to keep invasive plants at bay, "or you may lose spatial composition," he said. "It's not entirely carefree."

Others – including more than 1,000 university students who have studied landscape design with him and many thousands who have done so in less formal settings such as symposia – may cite or acknowledge Mr. Morrison as inspiration. But he continues to nod to those he learned from and built on the foundations.

This includes conservationist Aldo Leopold – like Mr. Morrison, a native of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin. In his book “A Sand County Almanac” from 1949 Leopold wrote that “our ability to perceive quality in nature begins with the beautiful as in art”.

"The pretty element in a composition can be the way," said Morrison. “But then you start to see the patterns. And then you start to understand the processes that led to it, which you can incorporate into your designs. "

Another indelible impression was conveyed in 1967 by an essay by landscape architect Arthur Edwin Bye entitled “What You See: Landscape Luminosity”: the idea of ​​placing plants with translucent foliage in areas where they are temporarily lit from behind. Mr. Morrison urges us to do this with ferns, for example.

As Mr. Lorimer noted, "Darrel is not afraid to talk about the ethereal qualities of grass seed heads or their luminosity."

The design process he taught the students also has an ethereal, luminous quality. The creative spark for a landscape design could come from a painting – the energy of a vintage Kandinsky from 1914 or "the swirling strokes of Van Gogh that evoke movement" – or even a piece of music.

"Music is so good at beating you up," said Mr. Morrison. "What I enjoy doing, and getting the students to do, is overlaying their base map of a site and letting flowing music carry them, especially in the very early stages of a design – a freeing of the mind."

A few recommendations: the “Muir Woods Suite” by pianist George Duke; Puccini's aria “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot”; and Bedrich Smetana's “The Vltava”, the story of a flowing river.

But it is Denmark-born landscape architect Jens Jensen whom Mr. Morrison describes as “the person who has influenced me the most as a teacher and designer”, even though the two never met.

When a colleague Mr. Morrison taught at Madison asked why he insisted that gently curving paths were more desirable than straight in forest or prairie designs, Mr. Morrison's answer was almost zen – and very Jensen: " Because the view is constantly changing ”. on a winding path. "

For Mr. Morrison, always the willing student, every place has something to learn from, especially the natural areas.

When hired by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, nine miles from downtown Austin, in 1992, he borrowed a sleeping bag and tent and stayed the first night on the 42-acre site.

"It is a good thing to watch the sun go down, smell the scent of junipers, hear the birds singing in the morning," he said. "I think you know the place better for that."

Apparently that caught the attention of the former first lady. Years later, Ms. Johnson received guests at a reception. She had had a stroke and her eyesight was impaired. When Mr. Morrison got on the end of the line, he introduced himself again: “You may remember me, Mrs. Johnson. I'm Darrel Morrison. "

"Of course I remember you, Darrel," she replied. "I tell all my friends how you slept in the country."

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden and the book of the same name.

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