Becoming a garden ecologist

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A native meadow on a large scale: a designed, but very natural landscape, in Saucon, Pennsylvania, designed by Larry Weaner Associates. Copyright Larry Weaner Landscape Associates.

On Tuesday I attended a lecture at the New York Botanical Garden, part of the annual Alumni Lecture Series, by garden designer Larry Weaner. Weaner has been designing landscapes focusing on native plants for almost 40 years; look at his firm’s website to see some beautiful examples like the one above.

The lecture was titled “The Self-Proliferating Landscape: Setting a Process in Motion,” and it focused on letting native plants do their thing: designing landscapes that allow for natural progression and change over time, based on careful observational knowledge of how plants behave. Weaner said that we need a new type of practitioner, a “garden ecologist,”  who can plan and then carefully observe, monitor, and maintain native plant gardens.I realized that I’ve been a garden ecologist for almost 20 years. I started in my own garden, went back to school at NYBG to learn the formal aspects of horticulture, and now put the two—experience plus knowledge—together in my horticulture practice. I was thrilled to have someone put a name to what I do.

Gardens are necessarily artificial. We plan them, usually including only a limited number of species, to achieve a specific esthetic goal, and we attempt to maintain that look season after season. Ecosystems are natural and unplanned. Nature “plants” them, including a very large number of species, and their composition changes over time as some species proliferate, some dwindle, new species arrive, climate conditions change. The goal of a garden ecologist is to make a garden behave more like an ecosystem. That means using a large number of native species; choosing species that are right for the site and that live together in nature; recognizing and using the native species that are already present; knowing how to control invasives; knowing how plants reproduce, which plants reproduce vigorously and which need some help; knowing how long different species take to mature; and knowing a lot more besides. The goal is to install a landscape that mimics nature and that provides many of the same ecosystem services–slowing stormwater runoff, attracting pollinators, moderating climate.

This morning I watched a flock of juncos and native sparrows feeding on the snow-covered ground among my perennials, a jay hanging out in the big holly, and cardinals sheltering in the hemlocks. The other backyards I could see were bare of birds. Even on the very smallest scale, a garden can mimic nature and supply some of the priceless services that nature supplies so abundantly. We gardeners just have to set it in motion.

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A native meadow on a very small scale: part of a perennial border approximately 6 x 30′.

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The same border in late fall. Native plants provide four-season interest and year-round food for birds and other wildlife.

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