Making Beauty Sustainable

Circium seedhead in winter

This past October’s biennial reappearance of the Gillette Forum focused on a topic which many design professionals are wrestling with.  Given the current interest in native plants and the environment, how do we as landscape designers fit those native plants and environmental concerns into the desires of our clients, which are frequently still focused on appearance and formality?  How do we successfully challenge the American suburban aesthetic of neatness?  How do we reach the denizens of “screen world,” where the natural world is filtered through what they see on their electronic devices’ screens?  The speakers—landscape architect and blogger Thomas Rainer, Mt. Cuba Center director of horticulture Travis Beck, and Oehme van Sweden principal Sheila Brady, along with Washington Post columnist and editor Adrian Higgins—offered a lot of thoughtful discussion on the subject.

Thomas Rainer explored the concept of designing using plant communities.  In trying to interpret (rather than re-create) nature in our clients’ landscapes, it is easy to struggle with plant selection.  Thomas suggested we look instead to the sorts of relationships plants commonly form in nature and use that as our guideline.  Instead of focusing just on the showy design layer of plants, then, he recommended we also include groundcovers and non-showy perennials to ensure our native plants receive the support and weed protection they need to look their best and satisfy our clients.

Andropogon ternarius, a "weedy" native grass

Travis Beck provided the panel’s scientific side, discussing the principles of ecologic design.  It’s a real challenge, when you’re aiming for a proper distribution of species in a design plan, to figure out how many of a given species you will need to reach that distribution ratio.  And how do we take into account the competition and succession of species?  Using ecology to determine which new trees to use in rejuvenating a woodland grove, Travis showed us how to tackle this very complex subject.  Travis also suggested the use of a framework to impose a sense of deliberateness on the relative unstructured forms of a naturalistic planting.

Sheila Brady gave insights into the recent re-imagining and re-installation of the New York Botanic Garden’s native plants display, showing us how her team tackled science and expectations to distill the essence of New England native flora across multiple habitats.  Imagine designing the layout for 75,000 plants in a multi-acre space!

Kay in the meadow garden - Andropogon and Muhlenbergia

Adrian Higgins asked us to consider an Adolph Gottlieb quote:  “We always talk about going back to Nature.  Why don’t we ever talk about going forward to Nature?”  Adrian noted that we no longer have the luxury of dealing with the landscape as an exercise in aesthetics—but we do have the advantage of amazing native plant compositions like New York’s Highline which will influence the public’s acceptance of naturalism.

As Thomas stated and the other speakers reiterated, we have reached the point where there is no longer any going back to the untouched wilderness conditions our forefathers venerated.  This is planting design for a post-wild world, and it’s an exciting time to be a designer.


Of course, some recommended reading came out of the lectures.  Travis Beck’s 2013 book The Principles of Ecological Landscape Design was praised by the other speakers for its exploration of the science behind what had been an emotionally charged, subjective topic.  Thomas Rainer’s influential blog, grounded design (, is often cited by other design professionals and happens to be one of those I regularly read.  (Thomas also has a new book, to be released late in 2015, with Claudia West, which will explore the concept and implementation of designing within plant communities.)  Other resources recommended by the speakers were Perennials and Their Garden Habitats by Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl; Design with Natureby Ian McHarg; the Missouri Botanic Garden’s MOBOT (; and North Creek Nursery’s catalog and landscape plug manual. (

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