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.

  • 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
  • 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.
    Photo by Rick Darke
  • A large stone from a local quarry is drilled two inches deep with a hardened drill bit.
    Photo by Rick Darke
  • After drilling, the bird bath is excavated with a cold chisel and hammer.
    Photo by Rick Darke
  • “The Living Landscape,” by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy is the first collaboration between two of the most original and far-sighted thinkers in the realms of science, nature, landscape, and design.
    Cover courtesy Timber Press

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.”

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Living Landscape.

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.

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