Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What If There Was No Landscaping?

What if there was no landscaping . . . only wild plant communities? 


If you have a freestanding house in America, you probably have a yard. And if you have a yard, you probably have a lawn, some foundation shrubs, and perhaps even a few flowering plants. It's a simple set of givens: house = yard = landscaping. This formula is so ingrained in our cultural DNA that it is hard to even imagine an alternative. Think about where you live. Now try to imagine all of the lawns, shrubbery, and planting stripped out of it. What could possibly replace it?

This past week, I was in coastal Alabama to see my sister get married. We had a wonderful time visiting with family and enjoying the beaches and fresh seafood. We stayed in a rented house near Fort Morgan, an isolated peninsula that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Mobile Bay. The thin peninsula is a beautiful, yet brutal natural landscape. The soil is entirely sand; desiccating winds batter the shoreline daily; fires regularly burn large portions of the landscape; and sea surges from hurricanes inundate large portions of the peninsula every few years. 

A house partially enshrouded with sand live oaks, sea oats, & pennywort
In spite of the harsh climate, a rich mosaic of grassy dunes, woody scrub, and maritime forest plant communities thrive. These are some of the most beautiful and endangered native plant communities in the U.S. The plants literally hold the thin peninsulas and barrier islands in place. Without them, the land would literally wash away in the next hurricane, making the bays and populated cities they protect entirely vulnerable. While not as diverse as other plant communities in the southeast, the dune and scrub communities are remarkably resistant to invasions of exotic species. For once, the native plants appear to be more adaptive than exotic generalists. But more on the plants in other post.


What I found entirely interesting is the fact that the neighborhoods built in these dunes were almost entirely devoid of landscaping. It is almost as if the native dune communities swept through, around, and under the houses. Wild beach grass, dune scrub oaks, and cabbage palms cover the ground right up to the base of the houses.


Of course, landscaping is utterly pointless in these developments. Owners live in the houses only a few weeks of the year. Fresh water is scarce. And getting lawn or other exotic landscaping to survive would require enormous effort. And don't let me give you the impression than these developments are somehow sustainable or environmental best practices. These over sized cottages are literally carved into the existing dunes.  They probably should have never been allowed to be built in such a sensitive environment.


But it does provide a rare example of a typical American neighborhood development without any landscaping. It is perfect mix of a wild and human habitat. And what is especially interesting is how the wild plant communities are actually part of the culture of the place. In a state not particularly known for its environmental progressivism (with a few notable exceptions), these beach communities actually embrace the vegetation as a part of the charm of the place. 


And it is entirely charming. Who misses the lawn, the shrubbery, the annuals? Not me . . . 


Would this integration of residential development and wild plant communities work anywhere else in the country? Could this be a model for a new kind of American landscape? Would there be cultural acceptance of this anywhere beyond coastal, tourist towns?


54 comments:

  1. This really resonates with me. As a landscape architect/ garden designer, I often reflect that natural landscapes can be such a relief after designed landscapes which can appear contrived, trying too hard to grab attention. But does this approach work here precisely because it is a harsh environment? richer soils would quickly fill with vigorous ruderals like dock, thistle, nettle - and it would take some years before the natural woodland cover established itself and shaded out the weeds. It would take very tolerant clients (and neighbours!) to wait out this process of natural succession!

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    1. Rose,

      Great point about designed landscapes seeming contrived . . . it's true. I've even had that feeling after several of my own designs that tried to relate to a larger natural context. You either have to plant at such a scale to stand up to the natural setting, or you let your design blend into the setting.

      Anyways, I think you are precisely right about richer soils creating a weedy mess. Perhaps the model would be not to build in an established plant community (exotic or native) with as little disturbance as possible. Though as soon as I write that, it occurs to me that this is not entirely practical either.

      Great thoughts!

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  2. Fascinated by your description of what people do in USA - which you call landscaping. Think it would lead me to violence.....

    I live on the edge of our natural vegetation and it constantly reminds me it would like to expand its range. We would become a house in the woods...romantic. But dark...

    I have wondered about this in relation to the interest in the 'natural' . Not a very useful notion in the UK, unless, like 'meadow,' its meaning is changed to indicate a particular horticultural conceit.

    Xx

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    1. Ha, yes. I know you are rather critical of British cottage gardens (or at least the derivative versions of them), but to me, they seem like a beacon of progressive design. At least compared with the American suburban yard. We are not a gardening nation.

      If you ripped out your garden, what would happen? Would the woods come up to the house? Or would it be a rather wild mix of woods/ pioneer-meadow? Noel says that woodland is very slow to re-establish in Britain. I wonder if that is an advantage or a disadvantage?

      Always lovely to hear from you.

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    2. In New England, the woods would take over. My neighbor, who is 78 years old and lived in her house her entire life has been unable to maintain her property for the last decade. She hasn't cut the grass in five years.The lawn has been invaded with Japanese bittersweet She has sugar maple saplings coming up everywhere, many have turned the corner to trees in a very short time. My wife's family has a cabin in Maine and there is a constant battle to keep the forest away from the house.

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    3. Yep. That would happen here in the PNW as well.

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  3. Now there is a challenge...to build a sub-division without stripping the land to do so. I would love to see it.

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    1. Yeah, I know, a long shot. For me the problem is that in order to allow wild plants to weave through a development, it would require spacing the homes far enough apart that the wild plants would live. Which means a much larger development. The other model is more compact, but as a result, the wildness is kept outside the disturbed zone.

      There are great models of both techniques here in America. Though I think they work best in harsh environments where there is little incentive to create "landscaping."

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  4. Cultural acceptance of native plant communities? In most cases, I don't think so. North American culture is intent on controlling nature to satisfy our needs. We intentionally plant a tree where we need shade or crops where we need food, etc. At best we are inspired by nature and attempt to emulate her in our designs,. Perhaps in the hinterlands -where people don't generally dwell- we can honour the truly natural and grow to see its beauty.

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    1. Yes, I think you are right. Perhaps the "hinterlands", but these developments are problematic to me because they drop buildings in sensitive wild environments (which they probably should not exist).

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  5. A fascinating idea for exploration, though as you mention, it works here because conditions are so extreme and there is a native plant population highly adapted to the harsh conditions. I do think something similar could be achieved, though not necessarily with all native (what's that, really?) plants by creating an artificial ecology. It takes a lot of care, editing for control, close attention to select plants that form a fairly stable community, the willingness to pull out those that aren't working, and constant attention to what is going on. I do wonder if some kind of formula could make it possible for the average homeowner to eliminate lawn mowing and dandelion removal and replace it with hedge rows, allowing some areas go semiwild, introducing appropriate plants for aesthetic effect that may not be endemic to the site, and use of such techniques as coppicing and even mass cutting back for periodic renewal and control.

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    1. Hi James,

      I entirely agree with you about the amount of work that would require to maintain the "wildness." It seems more feasible to me if the development goes into an area with a strong existing plant community, and the disturbance is kept to a minimum. It would likely still require the kind of work you describe, but much less so than establishing an artificial plant community from scratch.

      I wonder, do you think the work you describe is more overall effort than what traditionally goes into maintaining "landscaping"? Mowing, clipping, mulching . . . that all is fairly labor intensive, though it's is labor we as a culture understand how to do. The kind of gardening you describe is much more foreign to us.

      All fascinating . . .

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    2. Perhaps slightly off-topic, but you might enjoy 'Feral' by environmental journalist George Monbiot - all about his concept of 're-wilding' and how even our so-called nature reserves (in UK) are fairly intensively managed and not wild or natural ecological communities at all. Mind you, GM would like to see top predators returned to bring back the balance in our landscapes, as well as the modern day equivalents of long-extinct big herbivores - is Scotland ready for wolves and elephants?! Anyway, I found it a spine-tingling read.

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  6. My hope is that out here in the Plains, with climate change increasing our normal drought cycles, that we'll be forced into rethinking our landscapes and revert to prairie. Of course, if people still demand lawns in the desert southeast maybe I'm off of my rocker with that dream. But since all the land out here has, at minimum, but totally disturbed many times over, what I'm talking about and what you've observed on the beaches are two different things. As Rose says, I welcome the relief of non lawn, non foundation bed designs (with barberry, hosta, spiraea, etc).

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    1. Do you think we can retrofit prairie into existing developments? Even if every single neighbor in your subdivision were on board with establishing prairie throughout the neighborhood (and Lincoln eased up on their mowing regulations), would it be possible?

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    2. Stunning landscapes and photographs, Thomas. I live in what was Tallgrass Prairie and Oak Savanna, 35 miles NW of Chicago. My neighborhood was subdivided in the late 1800's-1920's into small lots--my lot is 50' x 125' and my Sears bungalow was built in 1927. In those days, developers didn't take away the topsoil and I have deep mesic prairie soil. I moved here in 1997 and designed my gardens and planted the front yard the following spring and never looked back. i was (and am still) a pioneer; there are definitely things I would do differently. I wouldn't plant any tallgrasses or Silphium other than Prairie Dock oe any of the Woodland Sunflowers. I have lots of short grasses and sedges, and approximatly 100 forb species. I'm very fortunate in that there is a native plant nursery less than 10 miles away. I did design the gardens, but rhizomes and seedings of many of the plants and disappearance of others have muted that. I would say that my gardens have the look of cottage gardens. I have a small lawn that serves as a path through the prairie and savanna. I don't water or fertilize and do very little weeding; I do a controlled burn either late spring or fall. Most of my neighbors like it; I give away lots and prairie plants are showing up in many gardens. I have also designed lots of gardens both large and small.

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  7. Another thing to consider in this context is that the native dune vegetation is critical to holding the sand dunes in place during a storm. For this reason, it's typically illegal to remove or disturb any native dune vegetation. The houses were likely built prior to this regulation. The harsh environment creates a condition where people MUST rely on the resilience inherent in a native plant community in order to protect the land their houses stand on.

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    1. That's absolutely true. Great point. There are legal requirements that protects these plant communities. If those were not in place, perhaps there would be more lawn and flower beds, even in this harsh environment.

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  8. I love the post, I have seen several "natural" landscapes that could not be improved upon by humans. I think these landscapes exist in areas where the diversity of vegetation is lower, maybe in areas where nature is very forceful. Humans then accept the control of nature. I am sure that the landscape before the settlers was harmonious in most places. Gardening and gardening design is our urge to connect with nature

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    1. "I think these landscapes exist in areas where the diversity of vegetation is lower, maybe in areas where nature is very forceful."

      This strikes me as entirely true.

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  9. Imagine!
    Shades of John and Yoko 2013. Love it.
    As always, Thomas, awesome post!

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  10. I absolutely loooove beach communities with their dunes and wild grasses. If I weren't scared to death of being blown away or flooded out, I would totally want to live in any of those houses.

    I always thought of that Hollin Hills neighborhood right here in Northern VA as being kind of a model for what a neighborhood built in an Eastern Woodland SHOULD look like. I'm not sure how much of an ecosystem it is, but the trees sure give it a strong sense of place.

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    1. Hi Mary!

      Yeah, I'm a dune-geek myself. Especially after this last trip. I'll be blogging about them for the next two years I'm sure. Hollin Hills is a great example. I think you're right: at the canopy level it works, but a bit less so on the ground. But still conceptually it is a development in the woods . . .

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  11. This post, as usual, got me thinking, Thomas, thank you very much. Where I live, an older neighborhood in Southeast Tennessee in a very small town with mature trees, it would take no time at all for the tree seedlings to take over completely. It happens to abandoned houses, trees growing right up through boards in the porch and up through the roof. Once the roof is compromised, nature is in total control. What I would like to see as landscape around houses would be meadow type plantings of wild asters, goldenrod, ironweed amongst the various grasses. That can still be seen in places that are never mowed and is beyond beautiful.
    Frances

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    1. Yeah, me too. You see a lot of expensive modern houses built with meadow surrounding it. Of course, those houses are always on huge pieces of land. Wonder how it would work in denser developments? More patches of meadow. Still interesting to ponder.

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  12. Alpine communities also tend to have a more natural landscape in this way due to the harsh environment. There just aren't that many plants that can deal with a foot of snow in June. Some people try to garden like they used to in the low lands, but they typically give up eventually and go with the flow. They usually end up putting the garden plants in containers.

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    1. Yes, alpine communities are good examples. I say a beautiful house yesterday (online) dropped right in the middle of an alpine plant community. It was stunning. Interesting that harsh environments make wilder plantings more successful.

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  14. I live in Mobile, Al., it is really nice that you made it down to our little area of America.

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    1. Hi Dennis,

      I have a sister who lives in Mobile with her family; and I lived there (briefly) as a child before moving to Birmingham. It's a beautiful corner of the world, and I am proud to call Alabama home.

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  15. Our Team really enjoys all the interesting articles, ideas and activities that you post on your Blog. Great Job!

    We as Landscape Design-Build professionals at, URBANE LANDSCAPERS www.urbanelandscapers.com, promote and get hired to create outstanding sustainable landscapes for our Clients. As we work with them, they continually ask for suggestions and tips, such as some of those you present in your articles. We will be sure to send them a link to your Blog Posts so they too, can take advantage of your expert advice, ideas and all the wonderful suggestions and photos in your articles, as we believe they will be beneficial and enjoyed by all.

    Thanks so much!

    Sincerely,
    Team Urbane

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  16. I look forward to a time when you will examine why natural landscapes, that are breathtakingly beautiful in the countryside and in the wild, appear so aggressively ugly in many urban and suburban environments. No one articulates these subjects better than you do.

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    1. Wow, Allan. That really is a brilliant question. Well put, too. As usual, you have given me something to think about.

      Always great to hear from you.

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  17. You end your post by asking "Would this integration of residential development and wild plant communities work anywhere else in the country?" If another way to ask the question is "Does this integration of residential development and wild plant communities exist anywhere else in the country?" I will offer you some other examples. On Dune Road in Westhampton Beach NY, which is also a barrier island, the same natural conditions you describe in coastal Alabama exist, and for similar reasons. I have also seen the same natural conditions in other beach areas, Martha's Vineyard, MA and coastal Maine, as well as non coastal areas like Vermont and New Hampshire. Anne Wareham is right on the money in pointing out that in non coastal areas where natural conditions are woodland houses would be engulfed and dark. Allan Becker's question asking if natural landscapes appear ugly in urban and suburban environments is a good one to consider. Afterall ,in the Northeast of the USA where I live the natural landscape was, before development, dense forest. So, unlike a coastal barrier island natural landscape which is windswept and so low enough houses can rise above it, and therefore houses can be put in the natural landscape without obstruction, in an area which naturally would choose to be dense forest it is not possible to put houses without removing the existing landscape.

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    1. Hi Amy,

      Great points. I am aware of several of those locations you mentioned. I've had projects in a few of them. Considering a woodland development is interesting. I'm sure there are precedents for it, though the density and character of the development would make a huge difference in the quality of the wild vegetation. I also agree that Allan's point about context is great.

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  18. Would this integration of residential development and wild plant communities work anywhere else in the country? - As noted above, yes it is working , from wooded inland areas to coastal communities.

    Could this be a model for a new kind of American landscape?
    Many Land Arch's and Arch's view The Sea Ranch as a model for this type of planned community. Having worked and lived for a number of years at The Sea Ranch I can say it has it pros and cons.

    Would there be cultural acceptance of this anywhere beyond coastal, tourist towns? - I think it entirely depends on how the CCR's were drafted.
    As with The Sea Ranch , which encompasses the coastal bluffs, the mid land meadows and the slightly inland redwood forest, the residents must obey the CCR's which are very strictly enforced inregards to maintaining an indigeonous landscape.

    This is one of the reasons why we see a fair amount of L and U shaped homes designed so that a small courtyard can be enclosed for a bit of unbridled gardening passion.
    I've found that many of the people who live full time in these communities , especially those who are retired, enjoy to putter in the garden and eventually get a bit antsy to plant a small plot of flowery greenery.

    Personally, speaking as a plant obsessed gardener, I find it a nice place to visit but I don't like living there.

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    1. Hi Michelle,

      Sea Ranch is good example. Your experience with it is interesting. Seems like even in developments with strict covenants, there could be ways to allow a bit of gardening in key areas.

      I, too, am plant obsessed. Though lately I find wild planting infinitely more interesting than my own creations.

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  19. I have 2 acres that were logged for Douglas Fir by the PO and I tried to let my open spaces become a wildflower meadow, only to find they were swamped by hundreds of dock and thistle plants, then wild grasses and horsetail rushes and 3 kinds of blackberry vines also fight to take over, as well as squirrel-planted hazelnuts and Big-leaf maple seedlings. I think maybe controlled burning could shift the balance to more desirable plants but is not allowed here. I'm in the process of trying to find native plants that can take over. I have areas of native plants like Salal, Oregon holly grape, and some native ground cover woodland plants but they have trouble being invaded with the grasses and blackberry vines. I wish there were some easy way to re-establish a natural plant community here....

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    1. Hi Hannah,

      Yes, this is much more the kind of experience I would expect in inland sites like yours. Early successional species tend to favor troublesome exotics, not natives.Your last sentence is something I've said to myself many, many times.

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  21. Dear Thomas, if there were no landscape beyond your dunes, someone would have to step up, and commit me to a home. I so agree with Allen Becker. What seems so charming in the academic, or intellectual world rarely charms or engages me. Yes, wild earth moves me. It always has. But the work of countless landscape designers from every era, all over the globe, is the work of individual and really talented people that I admire. I really and truly respect the voices other than the voice of nature. If my vote counts, I would vote that the work of gardeners and landscape designers world wide would trump your dunes. Just saying, Deborah

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    1. Hi Deborah,

      It's great to hear from you. Always love your point of view. I actually entirely agree: a world without gardens is not one I would want to live in. My musings of a world without landscape was not meant to imply that I think there should be no designed landscapes. Just that this could be one model among many others for the kind of environments our homes are in.

      Gardens are a conversation between ourselves and otherness ("nature"), right? So I personally think a crisp clipped hedge can have as much meaning as a patch of native grasses (and the interplay of the two even more layered with meaning).

      So yes, absolutely, your vote counts. But the ballot does not have to be either/or. Why not both/and? The dunes are disappearing; landscape designers are not.

      By the way, I was searching the internet the other day for images of pots and your gorgeous creations came up in a Google search. Always inspiring.

      Best to you!

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  22. Thomas, thanks for your kind mention of my container gardens-I appreciate it. Vis a vis my landscape practice, I believe that comparing a designed garden or landscape to a wild or untouched landscape is of little use. But a designed landscape that is informed by a sense of the natural landscape might be all the better for that influence. As for the dunes disappearing, the dunes on the west coast of Michigan bordering Lake Michigan, are all protected. 50 years ago my Mom participated in a project/study with Wayne State University in Detroit as part of her Masters degree in Biology- mapping native dune plant species. What bored me beyond all belief then is of interest to me today. Thanks, Deborah

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  23. The area doesn't need any landscaping because it already looks good when left unattended. The grasses grow just enough not to cover the house. Besides, the big land area is perfect for a rugged look of nature while having a good-looking house. :)
    - ArtisticLandscapes.com

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  24. Landscaping is just as important as any other aspect of homeownership. People look at both the property and the yard as one in the same.

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  25. your blog is really eye catching and beautiful. I’m glad you posted something like this one. thanks so much for sharing!
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  27. I don’t think many of websites provide this type of information. Annapolis landscaping

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  28. This is a great article. I think a lot of people love landscaping their own homes and really enjoy it as a past time, however, a lot people don't realize that this could really be something that they could enjoy doing for their careers. For example, my sister has an excellent garden, magnificent and perfectly edged grass and more vegetation that I couldn't even begin to describe. I saw this article the other day and I sent it to her more of a serious hint rather than a joke. Just imagine if landscaping became as glamorous as interior design (or something similar). People could really great some beautiful homes/lawns.

    For anyone interested, this article is about landscaping careers and how easy it is to turn your current skills into a position you'll love. It's a great read.

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  29. If there is no landscaping then we will expect to see our front-yard strewn with uneven grown wild grass and unwanted weeds and will be unsightly to see. But thanks to landscaping, any front lawn or garden will be pleasant to eyes and will have economic value.

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  30. An eye opener . I'm intregued in learning landscape architecture

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