Create a Living Landscape

Learn how to make a diverse landscape that provides room to play for children and pets while providing shelter and sustenance for wildlife.

spring-fed pool

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.

Photo by Rick Darke

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Gardeners want a home landscape that nourishes and fosters wildlife. But they also want beauty, a space for the kids to play, privacy, and maybe even a vegetable patch. Sure, it’s a tall order, but The Living Landscape shows how to do it. The following excerpt is from chapter 5, “Applying Layers to the Home Garden.”

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Space-making with Organic Architecture

No aspects affect the way we experience a garden more than the quality and arrangement of its spaces. Among limitless possibilities, garden spaces can function as outdoor living rooms, dining rooms, playgrounds, bathing or swimming rooms, stages, shelters, museums, wildlife habitats, workshops, nurseries, or food-producing areas. Well-built garden spaces offer living experiences unlike anything that can be attained with indoor architecture. As with all architecture, the characteristics of the materials used profoundly influence the nature of the results, and the relationships between the spaces and the paths connecting them are also integral to their success.

Like building architecture, landscape architecture typically relies mostly on hard materials to create paths and spaces—mortared brick and stone, tile, wood, metal, and glass—and extensive re-grading is usually employed to fit these to the landscape. This approach is both expensive and durable, but there are additional costs to the durability of hardscapes. Hard designs are durably static: they do what they do reliably but with little intrinsic capacity for spontaneity.

Perhaps more important is the relative immutability of hard designs. They are difficult and expensive to modify or to adapt to changing circumstances in the landscape or in the vital routines of the inhabitants. Hard designs are sometimes the only practical architectural solution to required landscape functions; however, in many situations there is a softer, more imaginative option and that is to rely principally on literally organic architecture—plants—for space-making.

The word organic may refer to materials made principally of carbon, as plants are. It is also used (first and perhaps most famously in 1954 by Frank Lloyd Wright in The Natural House) to refer to non-living things such as architecture that have been constructed or have evolved in ways that emulate the growth forms, patterns, and processes of living organisms.

There are many benefits to space-making with truly organic architecture. Spaces made of plants are infinitely mutable. They, and the passages between them, can be shaped and reformed in small increments or with dramatic gestures at a fraction of the cost of hard materials. Spaces made of plants are inherently evolutionary and responsive, since the living materials that define them are constantly reacting to changing conditions, events, and seasons. Perhaps most importantly, a reliance on organic architecture means that more of a garden will be made of plants. If residential landscapes are to play increasing roles in sustaining floral and faunal diversity, this last point is essential.


Providing Water for Birds

Though we take great pleasure in observing birds in our home landscape, our goal has been for the landscape to provide enough bird food that we don’t need feeders. However, since our property is relatively high and dry with no natural water running through it, we decided we would provide an avian facility for drinking and bathing.

Rather than buying something generic, I began with a large stone from a local quarry. With protective goggles on, I used a hardened bit to drill a circle about 2 inches deep. A cold chisel and hammer were then used to excavate the circle while creating a pleasingly textured surface.

We set the freshly filled bathing and drinking stone amid the herbaceous layer, where a mix of cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), woodland wild oat (Chasmanthium latifolium) had previously been established. We counted on these and nearby shrubs and trees to provide sufficient cover to make birds feel safe using the stone bath.

The stone is strategically placed at the corner of a path away from the house but within view from two favorite sitting areas. As long as it is kept full of water, the stone sees continuous use. In early December (opposite top right) a black-capped chickadee avails itself of the bathing facility. —RD


Taken from The Living Landscape © Copyright 2014 by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.