Design Online - March 2022
Sustainability Committee Designing Sustainable Landscapes by Consulting with Nature By Marie Chieppo
The capacity for our landscapes to have ecological function is in great demand.
and history of land use at the site, as well as by the distribution of flora and fauna over time. Descriptions of ecoregions across the country are delineated and mapped by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service for land management, ecology research and planning purposes. These are geographic areas defined by shared geologic, climatic and hydrological conditions and types of plant communities present. Documents like this and state’s guides to natural communities offer very valuable resources when trying to acquire information about an area and gain insight into what would grow well.
Clients are looking for ways their plants and gardens can be beautiful, sustainable, resilient and productive. Ecological design supports biodiversity and a balance of species, reduces energy consumption, and promotes soil health and carbon capture. Coupling this practice with native plants that have an inherent genetic diversity vastly increases their ability to adapt to changing environmental and human-produced stressors. When I look at nature, I see simplicity. The system below the ground and the interactions above is anything but simple. Nature has been doing this for millions of years.
For example, in Massachusetts, there are nine principal management zones with varying ecologies (see graphic). In the Southeast Coast and Islands, there are two distinct zones: the inland coastal plain and pine barrens. The coastal plain lowland is dominated by oak-pine forest, and the barrens by pitch pine and scrub oak woodlands. Little bluestem, bearberry and intermixed sedges are often found there. The Barrens predominately has sandy, lownutrient soils with acidic wetlands, and the region has a long growing season
I frequently walk to the ocean, woods and marshes. Being amongst them is a designer’s paradise. The variety of grasses, shrubs and groundcovers always have beautiful structure and colors. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) and Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) are a few. Plant communities like this provide us with a workable template. We can also look to nature for answers to challenging conditions. A wet area on my property can be converted to a rain garden. When I observe low areas nearby, the plants in and around it have adapted to low-oxygen soils, are both flood-and drought-tolerant, may have a high PH and may be salt tolerant. I then look for plants that do well in similar conditions, such as Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentals) and others. An important starting point for designing and managing landscapes is understanding the fundamental ecological characteristics of the site. These are shaped by a complex interplay of factors: the underlying geology, hydrology, local climate
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