Principles of ecological landscaping: Part 1- Plant selection

How do ecological landscapers select plants for use in a design? What can we learn from how plants choose where they live and who they live with?

By adopting an ecological perspective to landscaping , we can gain insight into designed landscapes that would otherwise be missed by more traditional approaches to plant selection. Travis Beck’s 2013 book, “Principles for Ecological Design”, digs deeply into how learnings from ecological science can inform landscape design.

According to Beck, good horticulture is often defined as “the right plant, in the right place”. Adopting an ecological view of plant selection in landscaping takes this basic assumption of plant physiology and viewing it through an ecological lens. Thinking of plants as more than just their visual or practical functionality allows us to create systems that are informed by how plants behave in nature, and how we can work with those behaviours in an intelligent and sensitive way.

Traditional landscaping leans heavily into international garden trends to inform plant selection, design styles and aesthetics generally. Ecological landscapers may still be informed by these trends and styles, but their designs embedded in the local ecology of the area. From an ecological landscaper’s perspective, the selection of a plant or collection of plants comes not just from their individual character, beauty or fashionability, but from how they interact with each other and the environment around them.

By considering the ecological processes and core characteristics of a landscape that influence plant growth and distribution, ecological landscapers can design gardens and spaces that celebrate their local bio-region and fit within the landscape context of the area, while being resilient, low maintenance and aesthetically pleasing.

Indigenous plants have evolved over millennia to local conditions and are well suited to an areas biophysical characteristics like temperature and precipitation ranges, wind and soil types. They’re phenology or life cycle is also adapted to local conditions. Additionally, plants have adapted to co-exist in local ecosystems. Understanding these various adaptations and consciously working with them deepens the practise of landscaping and adds another layer of potential to the landscapers pallet.

In traditional landscaping, a selection of plants is called a ‘mass’ and plants selected for a larger area are called ‘plant pallets’. These terms emphasise the aesthetic basis of plant selection in landscaping. In contrast, ecological landscapers consider plants as composed of populations and communities as plant ecologists do. The characteristics of these populations include the spatial, genetic, morphological and age structures of plant communities. By working with indigenous plant communities we can create robust, resilient and self supporting systems that require far fewer inputs and management interventions than traditional plant selections. Designing planting communities that mimic locally occurring populations creates a local ‘likeness’ in the design that exhibit a large variety of benefits, from increased resistance to pests and diseases, to improved support of local wildlife and reduced maintenance costs.

We are blessed in the Garden Route to have access to a wide range of beautiful and diverse plants that are globally unique, aesthetically beautiful and multifunctional. Our exposure to mountains, forests, rivers, sand dunes and plateaus gives us access to a variety of plant communities that suite a broad range of niches in the built environment. From water wise succulent gardens that are extremely low maintenance, to richly diverse fynbos gardens and forest plantings, working with our local ecology gives us huge scope for the integration of nature into human spaces. By working with locally indigenous plants we can create habitats for local creatures that are well adapted to co-exist with plants form the area. Because our plants are well adapted to local conditions, it often means they require less intensive maintenance and care to thrive.

Adopting an ecological perspective to landscaping opens up opportunities for deeper understanding and connection about the world around us and how the natural world can interact in and around our homes.

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