domingo, 31 de enero de 2016

Planting in a Post-Wild World - Designing Plant Communites for Resilient Landscapes- English Version

(Si prefieres leer esta entrada en español, la puedes encontrar en el siguiente enlace de este mismo blog: Planting in a Post-Wild World - Designing Plant Communites for Resilient Landscapes- Versión en español)

Among the gardening books published last year there are two that caused particular excitement in social virtual worlds I am familiar with: Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman's Life by Noel Kingsbury, and Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. Both are very interesting if you like gardening and really exciting if you like naturalistic planting style. This entry is dedicated to the second one, a book I waited for quite impatiently as it is no exaggeration to ensure that a significant part of this blog exists thanks to Thomas Rainier. With his fantastic Grounded Design Thomas gave me the reference of what I would like to achieve with my blog. If I have met my goal or not, is my fault.  If I keep trying, is his fault.

Planting in a Post-Wild World has been written collaboratively by Claudia West and Thomas Rainier, two professional landscapers that develop their activity in the United States and consider that now is the time for resilience and sustainability to take the lead in gardening. Both prove that different and distant memories may converge in common concerns and aesthetic tastes. Thomas grew up in Alabama watching how builders devoured forests that had been the scene of his childhood. The scenario of Claudia's childhood was on the other hand the polluted and impoverished landscape of East Germany. But Claudia had the opportunity to experience the fall of the Berlin Wall, a unique historical moment that brought about a very different economic, political and cultural model that opened a door to the rebirth of nature in places where even the most optimistic wouldn't have expected to see it again. Thus the story of Thomas is a story of lost nature and the story of Claudia a history of recovered nature. Both stories are actually chapters in the same story, a story of omnipresent nature that has been profoundly altered by humans.
Some time ago, I wrote a review about Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. The author encourages us to stop seeing nature as something hidden in the few landscapes protected from human influence. Nature surrounds us, from the weeds that dare grow in our back garden to the immense Amazon rainforest. With an important difference:  it’s unlikely that the average person will have an important and direct influence the Amazon, but it’s sure he can do something beneficial for nature in his back garden. With this change of perception, we can all become guerrillas fighting to protect the planet, and back yards or urban wasteland will become battlefields as important as the most protected national park.  Rambunctious Garden concludes as Planting in a Post-Wild World begins.  Human influence on the environment is so powerful that we must accept that the care of nature requires our design and management. Naturalism and humanism should go hand in hand to work on the most attainable and curable elements. Gardeners must work together with scientists and engineers in the fight for ecology. It’s time we took Gilles Clement’s Third Landscape seriously. The time has come for us to listen to Fernando Caruncho and become the Earth’s gardeners. Thus, the book is dedicated to anyone who would like to transform a plot of land in an ecological way.
Among the many fronts in this vast battlefield, the book is dedicated to one of the most important: planting design. Simplifying a lot, gardening has traditionally consisted in placing a series of decorative elements seeking a final aesthetic goal. Plants have been (incredibly not always) an essential part of such decorative elements, and any additional value such as sustainability of the garden, has often been relegated to a much lower level compared to the aesthetic goal. Thomas and Claudia propose, instead, to create spaces that add natural beauty to its surroundings and provide an aesthetic value, and these two objectives will have equal importance. In order to balance aesthetics and sustainability we must stop thinking about plants as isolated species serving a decorative function. Instead, we have to use plants as groups of compatible species which interact with each other and with their environment forming a community that will be able to operate in the most autonomous way.
If our plant community must be maintained over time with a minimum requirement of inputs and an enrichment of the environment, our plantations should be designed and managed according to very clear principles. Among those mentioned by the authors, my favourite is the acceptance of stress as an asset. Instead of trying to convert the garden into a paradise of fertility in which anything can grow; an unrealistic ideal because there is no place in which anything can grow, let us focus on selecting species for which our limitations are beneficial. We can follow Beth Chatto's example that shows us how an exuberant garden can grow even in the poorest gravel field. Another basic principle is the maintenance shift towards management. Both may seem the same, but while maintenance involves a static order of things and the preservation of the garden in a given state, management moves us towards evolution and adaptation to change, in a cycle fed steadily by design and motivated by reducing the inputs required by our plantation.
Talking about the aesthetic value of the garden, the authors champion the creation of plantations that are able to activate the memory of nature in the viewer’s eye. This memory can be both personal and collective.  It is quite possible that both have long been asleep in the shade of the concrete blocks that surround us and awakening them won´t be easy. But those successful gardens may awaken in the viewer such personal and atavistic feelings that they could prove to be as unforgettable as modest Proust's Madeleine. But personal memory is a very well hidden treasure, so the authors propose to focus on that other collective memory that obeys recognizable patterns and stimuli. To make a plantation awaken in us the memory of nature, it is necessary for the patterns of nature to be translated into a horticultural language. Identifying these patterns based on the study of different natural ecosystems would be an unapproachable task, given the enormous variety of existing systems. Big doses of abstraction are necessary. Thus, to obtain the basic patterns that form the main plant communities in temperate climates, the authors offer a series of archetypes or main patterns from which it will be easy to derive specific cases. A forest can be a pine forest, a beech forest or a forest with a big diversity of broadleaved trees, but all of them will share common characteristics, because after all, a forest is a forest. Claudia and Thomas propose four archetypes which are a gradient of plant communities depending on the wood density: grassland, shrubland or woodland, forest and the border between forest and any of the former. 
Transition between grassland and woodland or forest is very common
All of these have a series of characteristic patterns which help us to design our plantation. Unfortunately for all of those who wish to design gardens, these patterns are not enough, they are only a starting point, because good garden design requires a much more complex approach. Claudia and Thomas point out that great planting design is the result of three harmonious interactions: the relationships of plants and place, plants and people, and plants and other plants.
Achieving a good relationship between plants and place requires knowing and understanding the location of our garden very well. We are not only talking about scientific knowledge based on aspects such as the structure of the soil, climate zone or number of hours of sunshine, but also about an artistic vision that is fed by constant watching and listening, which can lead us to discern what archetype our landscape requires. Remember: Consult the genius of the place in all.
A successful relationship of plants and people faces the paradox that enormous doses of design are needed to make a garden that efficiently evokes the wild. We do not seek to copy nature, but to create an attractive interpretation of it, because a garden that just copies nature will almost always be mistaken with an abandoned lot and it will hardly evoke anything. To achieve an evocative effect, the plantation must adapt to two frames, a conceptual one and a physical one. The conceptual frame will show us the archetypal landscape which must be addressed and which special features our garden impose. Should we hide a wall or cut back those shrubs? Do we want to evoke an open space or a protected environment? All of them are decisions that will determine our conceptual framework and we must answer them by designing a series of patterns that will be legible and attractive to the public. This requires selecting, distilling and amplifying character-giving elements and having structural elements that bring order and coherence to the planting. Aspects such as the shape of the planting beds, the height of the plants or certain elements such as a walls, hedges or fences which can frame the plantation, are key if we want our plantation to become intentional and evocative.
Its curved shape and the contrast with the mowed meadow are key if we want this plantation looks like a plantation. 
Finally, the relationship of plants with other plants will define our plant community. Claudia and Thomas have drawn from studies of authors such as Richard Hansen, Friedrich Stahl, John Philip Grime or Norbert Kühn to define a simplified model of selection and combination of plants. Condensing selection systems based both on the idea of ​​using plants that grow naturally in an environment similar to our garden's environment, and survival and adaptation strategies of different species, they conclude that we must sequentially add interlocked layers that will cover the ground. The authors detail four layers: structural plants, seasonal theme plants, ground cover plants and filling plants. Together, the four layers will be able to provide the aesthetic and visual component throughout the year, and the diversity and coverage that a plant community requires to be beautiful and resilient.
IMiscanthus are structural plants, Hemerocallis are definitely seasonal theme plants, and Daisies can be both.
I like this book because I think it summarizes ideas that have never been presented with the clarity and conciseness Thomas and Claudia convey. I find it informative and inspiring and as a Hispanic amateur gardener, it has given me some food for thought:
  • The challenge of artistic creation: Claudia and Thomas don't give us lists of species, nor an instruction book, but they give us a conceptual framework that each designer can adapt to their creativity and circumstances. And that means facing the inescapable fact that garden design is artistic work which does not allow for shortcuts if you want to get somewhere interesting.
  • Only naturalism? The book claims that the design of plant communities isn´t necessarily limited to naturalistic gardens. And indeed among the three gardens discussed at the end of the book they include one by Heiner Luz where naturalistic plantations develop within a framework of formal hedges of boxwood. Another good example could be any of Christopher Bradley-Hole's gardens where exuberant plantings of perennials grow within blocks of Corten steel cubes which have been placed following strict geometric rules. We could say that Heiner Luz's garden is formal and the Christopher Bradley-Hole's gardens are modern, but I think the essence of both is purely naturalistic. By the way, the two other gardens that they use as examples are in their own style two wonderful naturalistic gardens: Federal Twist Garden by James Golden (who is indeed another great inspiration for this blog) and the iconic Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage which once inspired the masterful Beth Chatto.
  • Mediterranean archetype: although the authors quote four different archetypes as sources of inspiration, I think they consciously or unconsciously opt for the prairie as a reference model. It is not surprising since both of them drink from Dutch, German and American sources that have contributed so much to the perennial planting style. But in Spain and the majority of Mediterranean landscapes, the main archetype is what they call shrubland. For us it is so important that we can’t even agree on the name: matorral, garriga, chaparral, maquia or just "monte bajo". Our landscape tends to evolve after forest degradation or abandonment of crops and grassland, and move towards vegetation communities where shrubs dominate. Maybe that's why Mediterranean landscapers of a naturalistic style such as Olivier Filippi or Heidi Gildemeister, find their main expression in that archetype in which shrubs are much more predominant than perennials. 
  • The fifth archetype: the agricultural landscape. We can think the agricultural landscape is the opposite of a wild landscape and therefore it must be outside the scope of the book. But at the beginning of this post we said that we must change the paradigm and consider that nature is all around us. Thus we must accept that an olive grove in Jaen is as natural as a beech forest in Asturias. I suppose it's due to my Mediterranean spirit, but in grasslands, shrubland and forest I can't identify our olive groves, great dehesas, vineyards, cereal crops or orchards around our towns. All of them are ecosystems that can be sustainable and that, like those showed in the book, provide a pattern that can be used in order to trigger an emotional impact on the viewer. What is 'Mas de las Voltes' then? On leaving aside agricultural landscapes, we miss the opportunity to achieve two things: first, if we work with this archetype we can improve the treatment of agricultural ecosystems balancing sustainability and aesthetic factors with the pure productivity goal that now prevails. On the other hand, many gardeners who do not feel motivated by naturalism, but instead find inspiration in geometric and formal patterns, can find an attractive model in the agricultural archetype. Last year we took a trip to Tuscany, Provence and Catalonia. These are areas where there are plenty of inspiring landscapes, but if there was a place where I found a special feeling, it was a small olive grove in a village in Girona. The land had not been plowed for a long time and olive trees grew among grasses. The contrast of geometric planting with wild meadow, and sculpted forms by pruning olive trees with the spikes of grasses, was spectacular. So spectacular that I think I have found my particular archetype.
    Il Colombaio of Ferenc Maté. Can we find a more archetypal and seductive landscape that this transition from vineyard to olive grove and from olive grove to the forest?

5 comentarios:

  1. How enlightening to read about your perspective on the book as a garden designer in a Mediterranean landscape.

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    1. Thanks James. It is a pleasure to hear from you.

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  2. Miguel, I wonder if your term "monte" has the same meaning as Amalia Robredo's use of "monte" to describe an indigenous shrub community in Uruguay. I have the sense Amalia uses the term to describe only a local type of plant community, but perhaps its usage is the same in all Mediterranean-type landscapes. Is that so? She also uses "pradera" for the grasslands surrounding the monte.

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    1. I'm not sure James, but I guess we are talking about the same ecosystem. In Spain the word Monte is used in a very generic way. Almost anything other than a cultivated or constructed field is called Monte. Monte can be both forests and shrubland and grassland, but Monte Bajo is an ecosystem of grasses, perennials, bushes and trees of low height. Quercus coccifera, Cistus, Rosmarinus, Lavandula, Thymus, Helychrysum and many others often form these ecosystem in the Mediterranean, and depending of the area and the specific ecosystem they have different names as garriga or maquis. I guess Amalia refers to an ecosystem with the same generic characteristics but different species.
      For grassland we also use the word Pradera.

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    2. Thanks, Miguel. The term Monte Bajo seems to share the physical characteristics of the Monte I saw in Uruguay, but the species in the plant community is entirely different--just as you speculated.

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