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The Living Landscape: It’s All About Relationships

Last week while looking through a bathroom window, I spotted a male towhee foraging in the leafy ground layer of our garden. Melinda and I delight in the birds that share our home habitat, and over the years, as our place has become more wooded, the avian diversity has continually increased. The towhee meant a lot to me, but not because it was a new bird in our garden. My grandfather, a carpenter by trade, had a series of small Roger Tory Peterson "Birds of Our Land" prints hanging in mitered wooden frames he'd hand-made. The towhee print showed a male bird foraging in woodland duff amidst violets, ferns, and jack-in-the-pulpit, and as a child it was my favorite. That same framed print is now in my office, and looking at its depiction of a scene so like many in our garden, I'm reminded of the infinite capacity of living landscapes to reveal, renew, and enlarge upon relationships.


Melinda and I both have backgrounds in ecology, yet we've both spent much of our careers working with designed landscapes. We're intrigued by the global range of plants and gardens and continually find inspiration in wild habitats we encounter along our "necessary journeys," to quote Emerson. My original motivation to include native plants in my own garden and those I designed for others was to build relationships with regional woods, fields, meadows. I know from long experience that this can be highly effective, especially when the focus is on plant associations, not simply plants as individual objects. Authentic, functional associations in the garden offer myriad glimpses into the relationships between plants, animals (including humans), and the nonliving components of the larger landscape.

Whether they're native or nonnative, I've always been intrigued by the stories plants can tell that derive from provenance. Many of the completely ordinary plant species in our garden are of special value because we can trace them to the gardens of friends or loved ones or to places visited near and far. I grew up playing in Grover Cleveland Park in Essex County, New Jersey. Like all the county's parks, it was designed by the Olmsteds, and, while conserving the northern New Jersey flora on the site, they introduced silverbell trees from the Smoky Mountains and katsura trees from eastern Asia. The silverbells planted 25 years ago in our Pennsylvania garden are beautiful and superbly adapted to our conditions, and their continual capacity to conjure early moments exploring the park landscape adds immeasurably to their role. Our garden also includes katsuras, inspired both by the Olmsted plantings and by travels Melinda and I made to Japan. On one especially memorable hike in the mountains outside Kyoto, our friends Shigeto and Ushio introduced us to a Shinto shrine amidst a population of katsuras. A few venerable trees were so large the four of us couldn't touch hands around their trunks. The associations the silverbells and the katsuras add to our landscape are the catalysts for conversations about people, plants, and place.

Katsura in Japan
Shinto shrine among katsuras

Despite my enduring enthusiasm for the "green" elements of landscapes, I originally began studies as a mechanical engineer and am still fascinated by machine design and its impact on the global ecology. Not wanting to believe these two passions must remain segregated, I've increasingly looked for ways to introduce technological-ecological narratives into landscape design, management, and interpretation. My ongoing work at Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Pittsburgh has demonstrated the potential for increasing relevance, functionality, and appeal by weaving together stories of relationships between the site's industrial history and the lush flora and fauna that have regenerated in its wake. On a more intimate and personal scale, our home garden now includes a few artifacts from automotive design history that are in place primarily to provoke conversation about the dynamic nature of the relationship between cars and the living landscape. To date I've determined there's nothing more sensual than the front fender of a 1939 Dodge for illuminating the natural patterns of birch pollen after a light rain.

Pollen on a 1939 Dodge fender

In her capacity as assistant director of the University of Delaware Botanic Garden (UDBG), my wife Melinda (Zoehrer) has worked with Doug Tallamy, professor and, until recently, chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology. When Doug's book Bringing Nature Home articulated the interdependency of specialist insects and indigenous plant species, Melinda and Doug collaborated on the Lepidoptera Trail at UDBG to create a living demonstration of these essential relationships.

Lepidoptera Trail
Lepidoptera Trail at the University of Delaware Botanic Garden

Doug and I knew each other but not well, yet Doug's relationship with Melinda and our increasingly frequent overlap on conference programs eventually made us aware of the potential for us to collaborate on a book. The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden is the result of that collaboration, and producing the book together fulfilled the promise of expanding upon our professional relationship. Doug and I have learned a great deal from each other and about the insights that come from working in a close relationship with someone whose background and training overlaps with yours but is also quite distinct. We're both photographers and highly visual people, yet because my usual focus has been on flora and Doug's has been on fauna, we've observed many of the same landscapes with different and complementary vision. As our excitement with the material grew while organizing the book, we decided to include a chapter on "The Art of Observation" to share our techniques and strategies for looking at living landscapes. Early in the process we knew our basic tack would be to articulate and analyze the layers found in wild landscapes — the vertical, horizontal, temporal, and cultural layers — and then to describe how conserving or reprising them in designed landscapes could ensure both beauty and functionality. In the course of a few long conversations about the niches birds inhabit in tiered environments, I asked Doug if he felt we could create a visual depiction of such relationships. The resulting multipage essay, "Birds in Every Layer," is perhaps my favorite among the book's examples of interdisciplinary storytelling.

One of the challenges we recognized before we crafted our proposal to Tom Fischer at Timber Press was to produce an evenly readable book that also at times preserved our two distinct voices. I'd recently experienced an inspiring technique while working with Annik LaFarge on her book On the High Line: Exploring America's Most Original Urban Park. Though I played mixed roles through the book involving photography, writing, and horticultural fact-checking, a few of my contributions are illustrated page spreads in my voice, and these are identified with a simple byline enhanced by page-color graphic devices. This worked so well I suggested using it as a model for The Living Landscape, and that's essentially what Timber's editor Linda Willms and designer Susan Applegate did. Their creative final design is a visually dramatic creative blending of our two voices and our combined voice.

The Living Landscape

Producing The Living Landscape has caused me to reflect ever more deeply on the difference between gardens that are artful collections of living objects and those that are comprised of living relationships. At home and at work, my goal is to produce a maximum amount of beauty, biodiversity, and functionality with a minimum amount of resources. The key to this is developing techniques for establishing and managing the balance of self-perpetuating populations. This process-based approach is endlessly intriguing because it is ever-changing. It relies heavily on the art of observation, directed at dynamic relationships. And this is what the living landscape is all about.

Our garden

÷ ÷ ÷

Rick Darke is a landscape design consultant and widely published author and photographer focused on regional landscape design. He has received the Scientific Award of the American Horticulture Society, and two of his books, The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses and The American Woodland Garden, have earned book awards. The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, cowritten by Doug Tallamy, is his latest book. He lives in Landenberg, Pennsylvania.


Books mentioned in this post



Rick Darke is the author of The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden

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