Changing the Landscape of Landscaping: Shifts to Ecological Design

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

As a landscaping company, we walk a fine line between landscaping to modern expectations and pushing the bar on sustainable and regenerative design. They’re surprisingly not really even in the same category, not historically, although we do our best to bridge that wide and perplexing gap. Examples of beautiful ecological design generally fall short to mainstream expectations, who have in their mind’s eye the picturesque yard. How might we describe these yards? Clean, uncluttered, low maintenance, sharp edges, and well… Unnatural.

It's ironic, isn't it? Conventional preferences have steered landscape design away from the natural disposition of places that often provide us with the most rejuvenation. We gain access to land, immediately seek to manipulate it into something it's never been, and then spend countless hours and resources in an on-going battle forcing it to stay in the image of something it never asked to become.

I think it’s important to take a moment to recognize how we've come into relationship with land ownership. Today of all days (Thanksgiving) feels like an appropriate time as any to explore this topic. Homeowners are generally those who have some access to resources allowing them to move through the world and build enough equity or credit to afford an estate. Some of us might refer to this as “privilege,” which might be any number of cumulative definers that help a person to get through the world with a certain degree or lack thereof of resistance when obtaining wealth. I’m going to define these types of wealth as material, social, spiritual and physical. These are elements of well-being that help a person feel functional enough to exist in these suffocating and soulfully devoid political, economic, educational and social systems.

Some percentage of people make it through this incoherent disarray with enough of their dignity still intact that they manage to own some land, and it might even come with a house on it. Yet, the land’s history didn’t just start the day the government decided that a specific section of land was worth whatever the going rate was at the time, then handing it over to Joe Whoever because he had the cash flow to back the transaction. As homeowners and landscapers we are all tending land that has a history that goes back much farther than so-and-so and his grandparents who owned this land before you.

We might remember some not-too-many centuries ago when long-standing communities were the primary caretakers of these lands. Their working knowledge of these regions and its needs supported the development of entire long-standing cultures. Here in Portland some of these groups include the Multnomah, Clackamas, Wasco, Kathlamet, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin, Kalapuya and Cowlitz, who were only just forcibly removed in mass in the mid 19th century. The land was then privatized by those who saw these regions merely for the resources that they could be derived of (and profited from). Benefactors reaping the benefits from such affairs stepped into land ownership without any knowledge nor pressure to develop a working knowledge of essential land stewardship. And then they passed that total disregard onto us- modern homeowners who are just hoping for a bit of low maintenance tranquility.

The other day I walked into the local Wichita feed store inquiring about possible mycorrhizae mixes that might be in stock. Mycorrhizae are the fungal networks interacting with our plants beneath the surface of the soil- in healthy soils. They help to deliver nutrients to the roots that then feed our plants and help them thrive with minimal intervention. Healthy plants generally combat issues on their own, without the need for herbicides and fertilizers. When we do add such additives they destroy healthy bacteria and fungal networks, creating gardens we've come to know and depend on that struggle without human intervention.

Upon my inquiry regarding the mycorrhizae mix, a confused employee suggested it might be in the Miracle Grow. I am regularly reminded when working in this industry that the people who are selling us our landscaping products are generally just repeating the advice that has been passed on to them. There is no critical working knowledge of how to care for landscapes that support the long term health of plant and human communities.

Acknowledging this on-going disconnect can feel overwhelming and arouses a tangible thicket of despair. Being a designer that promotes whole ecosystems in landscaping has outed itself as a literal niche in the market. A niche! Yet, as the future becomes even more unstable I truly do see ecological design becoming an absolute essential to land care and even human survival.

Of course, there is a lot to know about living harmoniously with natural systems. It comes with a certain degree of privilege to know them. This might come through the privilege of obtaining some sort of “advanced” education. It may also stem from connection to ancestral or cultural groups that have maintained the knowledge of many generations. Unfortunately through colonization and genocide much of this information has been lost; the amount of damage wreaked throughout our history has done irreparable damage to the latter forms of wisdom sharing (although we’re thankfully seeing a resurgence in cultural preservation happening).

Part of our issue stems from our misuse of language and relationship with the land. Take for instance this idea we “own” land. I think about this constantly, along with the complications this brings to accessibility and resource accumulation (topics for a future post, I'm sure). Ownership might be described as dominating, controlling or forcing one’s will upon another. Historically, those who have come into land ownership oversee the land without any understanding of what it means to be a mindful steward. That’s the word I keep coming back to- “steward.” This word to me indicates a relationship that cultivates, is cooperative and in co-creation with a space in order to nurture and protect.

Our work as ecological nature-scapers might equate to being a bridge in the field of land care. On one side stands the sterile world of modern landscaping and on the other, a harmonious and thoughtful relationship of tending to the earth as re-wilders, or those who are reclaiming urban environments for the forest to once again flourish. Our work pushes the edges and the conversations around why ecological landscaping is non-negotiable to a healthy planet. In the not-so-distant future this skillset will be imperative to our literal survival. Yet to convince the masses of this necessity and even the beauty inherent in ecological design will take time. For some this aesthetic is a reminder of the wild- something to be feared and rejected as messy or primitive. For those of us who understand the immense health and resilience in diverse nature-focused spaces, we know the ecological designed landscape is a literal gift to the future.

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