Sometime beyond 30,000 years ago the climate had changed, and the cold and ice advanced out of the arctic covering a large portions of North America, Europe, and Asia. The ice sheet was estimated to be a mile thick and with so much of the water of this planet frozen, the oceans were as much as 450 feet lower than they are today. As the ice sheet advanced to cover what we now call home, it had scraped and scoured the earth carrying soil particles, boulders and anything living in its’ path that couldn’t flee its’ approach. The areas south of the major ice sheets were what might be considered sub-arctic; a tundra and open boreal woodland with very little rain. Around 13,500 to 11,000 years ago the ice sheets receded and the flora that had managed to survive south started to advance north and grow in…
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I’ll say that “life was much simpler once”; at least in a world of gardening and yet it most likely because of the theory that ” ignorance is bliss”. I once was a wooden boat carpenter who when I had my own business it was at my former home and I probability spend more time in my gardens than working on boats. I lived in the middle of the woods, where my gardens were, it was on the land that had been cleared by the former owner for fire wood to heat their little house in the winter. It was a joy to go from nursery to nursery picking out plants and then trying to find a place where they might fit, to spend hours weeding, creating new beds. My gardens were well tended, at least up to the time that I changed professions from a boat carpenter to a person working sales at a plant nursery and being part of their landscape crew, and then my gardens began to transform. For they began to have manage on their own, many of plants were lost, others grew with a vengeance and design and ideas what I had planted began to disappear and the forest started to reclaim its own. I wind up becoming an observer rather than a participant, for many hours are required to work in horticulture field during the season.
It has been a long evolution from a period of bliss to now where my feelings are much more confused; for as I have furthered my education about plants, designing and the natural native landscape I have developed a multi personality disorder. Why not start with lawns for it is a huge part of this profession, it a multi -billion dollar industry from those that provide seed, the chemicals, to the sellers of soil, compost to all of those that sale equipment from mowers, weed wackers, irrigation you name it, it’s out there; with new, improved products every year and to all of the landscapers who job it is to maintain it, keep it green, looking lush and free of undesirables. Then the question is what becomes of the chemicals with names we (or I) can’t even pronounce and wonder what harm they do to us and to all the other living things out there, or do we consider going organic? Even organic requires a lot of inputs, to offer organic the inputs are to feed the soil, that feed the grass. It certainly is a better option than what we call typical lawn care.
Yet do you ever wonder why have a lawn? Where did our idea of a lawn come from? Where it is largest portion of any landscape we might design. Now, I am person sadly that never gets that excited about lawns or cutting my own grass, I do it more so just to keep my neighbors from cursing me and I don’t my clients lawns. When I used to live in the woods I had very little lawn, only for paths and over my septic system and it was nothing I ever planted rather it was grasses and plants that stayed green after walking or cutting it. There were many stone outcrops which meant I couldn’t use a lawn mower instead I used a weed wacker and when it broke, my lawn quickly became a wildflower meadow, not something planned, but from the plants that were already growing there, but when not cut they grew to be 2 feet high, with all kinds of flowers mixed in;becoming a different kind habitat with insects, birds I had never notice before. I let it go for the season and then after I cut some parts and let other parts go, which made my ex-wife much happily. It is a nice idea of a creating meadow rather than lawn, but for where I lived it was landscape of transition for it never would remind a meadow without my intervention. What kind of meadow it might be depended on what was there to begin with, what might introduced by me or the surrounding landscape. What kind of meadow it might be also depended on the soil, water and how it was maintained. when is it cut would determine what would survive, what went to seed, what grows close to the ground that can take repeated cuttings. And if I stop cutting, it would move on to shrub land, then forest.
With this in mind and thinking of design, on a few occasions I have been ask by a client to create a naturalistic landscape, but when I look around the site maybe in the woods, that had been cleared of all vegetation for the house, driveway, septic system with the idea that there is a front yard, a back yard. The woods surrounding the lot has been clean of understory plants for whatever reason I’m never sure, and the client wants it to be natural with flowers, shrubs, maybe plantings with ornamental trees and it is a given that the rest is lawn, regardless of soils that remain. It hard not to tell them that if the site hadn’t been so disturb, with the smallest footprint of disturbance, it would have been easy to keep a natural landscape for it was already there, but what the client wants is not what was already there. For what was there, did flower, for all plants do, but it’s not the show that they or we come to expect. Nor would the client with few exceptions want their front or back yards littered with leaves, twigs, branches like the surrounding area. So we all want to create something that natural, we might think to use native plants, but were they there before or would they have shown up on their own if there had been a natural disturbance to the site? Are the soils, moisture, sunlight of the site either before and after disturbance appropriate for what are natives? This isn’t to suggest that using natives is something that doesn’t matter, it does, it should. But maybe it about much more.
A man-made landscape is never a natural landscape. Each has its own set of rules, and the conditions and outcomes of each are very much different. One is manipulated by us, the other isn’t. The design is the end, only allowing for growth and maturity. What plants started there remain, others are removed.
We’ll never go back with the introduction plants from all over the world, not knowing how they will adapt to a new environment and how they might change that environment directly and indirectly. I will mention Invasives for they are and will be very much a part of our profession and our environment. And we have opened Pandora’s box I’m sure that each of us has to deal with them now, just in the maintenance of our customers gardens. we work an area, yet just a few feet away are more that we’re not responsible for and they will be the problem of future maintenance. We in New Hampshire may have stopped selling those plants that are on the Invasive list, but there are already millions of them out there, each producing many more millions of seeds that will produce billions of offspring in the future. So as we design, using plants now not on a list, but may someday be on a list which future landscapers will be dealing with. Can a native that isn’t a native to this region or a ecosystem have the potential to act like an invasive someday?
So where my multi personality steps in is that there are some many different answers to the same question, what is, what isn’t; good, bad, indifferent? So when it comes to design and what is the best landscape, how do we judge? Is it color, form, texture seasonal value in our eyes and that of the customer? Does it serve the function the surrounding landscape does it supplement or compete with that landscape. Or going back to man-made verses natural landscape, at what point does one consume the other and make it nonfunctional?. We like to think what we’re doing is making it better, but it is the future that will tell. For now, I still working in peoples’ gardens, I try to design to what a customer might like. I try to suggest that less is more, native over exotic and yet another part of me is thinking let nature take its course. Why clean a garden when it’s might be best not too. Should a garden look kept and tended to? For it doesn’t seem to fit with that larger landscape that no one has designed.
Oh it is a beautiful day! A nice day for a walk in the woods. We can meet at the hay field down the road and walk in, be careful to park on the field side of the road because as you will notice the field across the way it hasn’t been hayed or mowed for years and show signs of early succession with perennials, shrubs and tree seedlings and at the stone wall on the edge of the road the rosa multiflora and autumn olive has taken over and you don’t want to get too close. It’s about 1/4 mile hike thru the fields, but it shouldn’t be too bad as the fields have had its’ first cut and is just starting to grow anew. As we look what is growing here we see timothy, clover, vetch and annual and perennial grasses such as orchard, rye, switch grasses and maybe other plants that we might consider to be weeds. but for the person who is cutting this field they do try to keep out plants that might be poisonous to horses, cattle and other livestock and introduce plants that might have higher nutritional value. We notice an area that hasn’t been cut and the reason for that is that there are ground nesting birds like bobolinks or meadowlarks who’s brood has yet to fly off from the nest. How this field is maintain is a factor in what plants grow here. If the field were to be mowed once a season we might find that plant species would change over time, for plants that might take longer to flower and set seed might start to replace those that can survive being cut two or three times a season, and if as some time happens, this field is used for grazing of livestock, again over time the plant composition might change again due to the greater input of fertilizer in the form of manure and what plants can survive being grazed on.
We move on and before we reach the edge of the woods we come upon brook and some wetlands and we notice the signs of a past beaver encampment on the brook, large girdled dead trees some distance from the brook, beaver chewed stumps and maybe the remnants of their dam. When the beavers were here they would have ponded the area upstream, the expanded the wetlands that were already here and change the flow of the brook downstream. The area around the pond would have changed ; trees were taken down by the beavers or died from the soil becoming saturated or being girdled and some remain standing. Whether the beavers were evicted or they had moved on to new food sources, this is area is one of transition with the pond being gone, the wetlands area being reduced as the soils dry out and others plant species able to grow here again. Even if the beavers hadn’t populated this area, this brook and surrounding wetlands might still be going to changes; from changes in the brooks’ flow either from changes in precipitation or divergence of the water flow upstream, whether natural or man-made and/or deposition of sediments in the area from land disturbances upstream.
As we walk along the edge of the wetlands to the beginning of the wooded area notice that forests’ edge is dense with many shrubs and younger trees we might also notice that some non-native and some invasive plants have managed to get a foothold here with their seed being deposited or blown in from surrounding areas. We walk in to the woods we notice it is a bit cooler, the sunlight only reaches the ground in little patches, the understory plants and trees seedlings are more scattered. As we walk on we see the changes in tree dominance in one area beeches might have larger numbers than oaks or maples. There are larger size beeches with surrounding younger ones that haves spouted from the older trees roots. we travel a little farther on we see oaks and maples mixed with white pine, white ash, hemlock and spruce. Off to side there is dense hemlock stand with nothing growing underneath except for some smaller hemlocks that may be older than their size would indicate, their growth is slow as they wait for an opening when the sun might reach them and then they can take up the space allowed them. We also notice changes in the understory plant material some plants in abundance in one area but not in other areas, including ground covers, sometimes more plants growing where more sunlight reaches the ground. Maybe a tree or trees were blown over in a wind storm allowing more light to reach the ground. We see evidence of past openings with ‘pillows and cradles’ which are mounds next to depressions which indicate that trees had been blown over raising the roots out of the ground and being that the trunks or roots having decayed and the soil dropped where the roots were.
As we have been walking we have notice series of stone walls which indicated that this land had been cleared of forest and was either farmland or pasture maybe dating back more than a couple of hundred years ago. At some point this area was abandoned as farmland and allow to regenerate to forest, we can assume this from the few trees that may have been here for a hundred years or more. Yet we notice that many of the trees by their size may not be more the fifty years old, so we can also surmise that these woods had been logged again and the older trees were left because they didn’t have any timber value or were in locations too difficult to cut and remove.
We all have different perspectives to what these different habitats are and what they mean, and we are just beginning to understand how each of these habitats do effect each other. How changes in one area might have impacts on surrounding habitats from natural or man-made changes or how continuous changes in each affecting the other. They are unique environments that are woven together by the soils, types of organic debris, micro-organisms, moisture and water, flora and fauna. One can spend a life time observing and studying it and still not know or understand it all.
We have reach the top of the hill from here the trail to the right heads off to a old gravel pit long unused and you would see that plants are just starting to get a root hold, just here and there and most likely will take decades if not a century to built up enough organic material to once again become a forest. To our left we look out to see the development below, residential neighborhoods, shopping areas. One thing that might strike you is the vast difference between what we have just experience with our walk and much of our man-made landscapes which mainly is one of well structured islands in seas of black and green. Trees and plants nicely spaced, evenly organized, one of these, three of those or massed plantings for that visual impact. The reason for our walk is about landscape zoning ordinances for if we didn’t have any ,how much worse might our landscapes look? Areas of lawns might be just black top or left as gravel. It would be left up to those who enjoy landscapes and gardeners who always want to add something new to their homes verses others who just don’t care what it might look like. Some we create laws about landscapes and lawn in the hope to improve the quality of all our lives, to bring our changes to the natural environment from development and keep the natural integrity of the supporting landscape. The trouble is when laws are written they meant to be clear and understood by the majority and carried out by good hardworking folks who don’t know much about the nature of trees, plants, soil habitats, what their requirements and how they might impact the natural ecosystems. We can try to control issues of water, pollution, vegetation and it impacts on us and our environment, we write ordinances that call for a tree every 35 feet, shrubs every 6 feet along the perimeter which is certainly better than none, but how does that fit to a natural environment? When ordinances requires ‘ x’ number of trees and shrubs for ‘x’ number of parking spaces planted within the lot; where rarely they remain healthy or even survive given root space, soil conditions; might it not be better to use that plant material to create natural buffers and leave the parking lot for cars.
We have over time develop an ideal of what a good landscape should be, that includes lawns, foundation plantings and with islands here and there. Yet next to the natural landscape does it really fit or does it belong? What if I decided to stop mowing my lawn, allow it to become a meadow; might someone come to my door and cite me for an un-kept lawn? How would I explain my reasoning to that person who can understand what a lawn should be, but not a meadow? How would the neighbors feel if I let my landscape go ‘la natural’, let nature take its course? As more and more of the natural landscape is being taken over by ‘us’ and we replace what was there with what we consider good landscaping, with the technology and equipment to change our environment on an unprecedented scale and no way of knowing the long term effects we might be having on whole ecosystems . For our parts as landscapers, designers it is time to reconsider what is a good landscape, one that takes the whole environment in account, addresses our understanding soils, our choice of plant materials (native and alien), including grass species and give them greater importance in our changes of the natural landscape.
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