Ecological landscape design is the practice of making meadows and gardens that are both pleasing to the eye and functional parts of the ecosystem, providing resources and habitat for essential wildlife. To share the principles of ecological landscape design and why it is so needed, returning to the podcast this week is landscape designer and author Owen Wormser.
Owen was born and raised in rural Maine and now lives in western Massachusetts, where he runs his landscape design, installation and consulting firm Abound Design. He holds a degree in landscape architecture and penned a book about his methods, “Lawns Into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape.” The second edition came out last year with more detailed information and photos.
In addition to working for individual homeowners, Owen has also done a number of public projects because he wants to get communities to participate in this type of work and create these types of landscapes where they otherwise would not exist. “People are able to see some of those projects in public places, and I think that gives them a more clear idea of what’s being offered,” he says.
Owen is ecologically minded in his design practice and in educating his clients. He says understanding the theory of the ecological gardening approach is almost as critical as having the knowledge to put it into practice. “The practice will figure itself out if you know the theory,” he says.
“You’re working with plants,” he explains. “So you’re collaborating with them, and they’re doing the work.”
While gardeners achieve the aesthetics they want, the plants provide ecological services to wildlife. Everybody wins.
The ecological gardening bug has bitten me big time. I’ve been learning more and more about it for years and, in turn, spreading the message of the benefits that ecological gardening offers to gardeners and wildlife alike. The idea of ecological gardening is coalescing into something tangible that we can all get our heads around.
Earlier this fall on the podcast I debuted my Ecological Garden Blueprint, the 10 essential steps gardeners can take to make a difference for the ecosystem.
The message is starting to stick with more people, and nurseries are getting on board, making it easier to buy the appropriate plants.
“Your landscapes have to be functional,” Owen says. “You want them to be beautiful, but there are all these other factors. And when you’re looking at it through an ecological lens, it isn’t just humans. It’s all these other creatures, including plants, which are alive and sentient in their own way.”
Touting Ecological Landscape Design
Owen explains to his landscape design clients what’s ecological about ecological landscape design and why it will be low-maintenance in the long run.
“I’m fortunate in that I live in an area where there’s a lot of enthusiasm for ecological gardening, and the pushback element doesn’t really come into play much anymore,” Owen says. In the last five or 10 years, people have become accepting and interested, he finds, adding, “I’m sure that’s not the case in some parts of the country, but things are changing really rapidly.”
It used to be that he had to push or advertise what he does. Now, people come looking for it.
Owen’s residential clients ask him for designs that will be low maintenance and more ecologically oriented, if not entirely ecologically oriented, with a focus on helping pollinators, he says.
He says he lives among a well-educated, pretty progressive population in an area of Massachusetts that has five universities but is fairly rural with small towns.
“There’s still a lot of resistance in much of the country because people are so used to the types of landscapes that they’re familiar with, and so change is kind of scary,” Owen says.
Still, in his experience delivering online seminars to groups around the country, he finds there is a strong interest everywhere.
“Change doesn’t happen until people ask for it, and that process has begun, but I think people really need to make it so,” he says. “And that involves organizing, it involves education, and it involves building landscapes that are seductive enough so that people are comfortable with them so that they’re beautiful and functional.”
When Owen tries to help gardeners chip away at the resistance to ecological landscape design, he encourages them to install meadows in less prominent areas, such as backyards, where homeowners associations don’t have a say in what a gardener can plant. These less conspicuous meadows can serve as examples to win over skeptics.
“This is kind of a matter of showing people that it’s okay and it can be beautiful and save you a lot of money and time and help the ecology around you, and ultimately people like all of those things,” Owen says. “So it’s just a matter of really explaining to people and showing them that that’s possible.”
I have heard from many gardeners who have been met with close-mindedness from HOAs and even have had a couple of them on the podcast.
I recognize why a lot of those covenants are there. I get it. But I also feel it’s time for a change. I’m hopeful that in the not-too-distant future the typical front yard will no longer be 100% Bermuda grass. Maybe 50% or more can be native plants.
At the same time, climate change is advancing in the wrong direction, but we can’t let that dissuade us. Efforts to restore the ecosystem and combat climate change are also gaining momentum. It’s not a quick process, but eventually, there will be so much momentum in a positive direction that a critical mass will be reached and there will be no turning back.
“We live in a culture that is divorced from the earth and plants are what sustains life, including ourselves on this planet, and so to not have any regard for that is a dangerous direction to go in,” Owen says.
Those who are interested in going in another direction — millions of us in this country alone — can plant the right plants, he says. “Each year you do that, you get better at it, and you learn things, and you learn about other plants or plants that used to be in your region that went extinct locally, and you can bring them back.”
When we think generationally, we can bring this way of living in harmony with nature back into the norm, according to Owen.
“In your yard, you can have something that’s ecologically valuable as opposed to this huge monstrosity from the perspective of its ecological footprint,” he says. “… You can plant ginseng in your own yard. You can plant golden seal. You can plant all of these plants that, they might not be around much now, but they were. And so we can bring them back and we can essentially create a healthier planet right in our own communities that way.”
We don’t have to settle for that relatively small list of choices on offer in the big box store garden center. So many plants are out there aside from tightly cropped hedge plants.
When I speak with people who have traded out ubiquitous big box store shrubs for native plants, I see them come alive as they describe the blooms and the special insects that the plants are hosts for. They see something that is new to them and make the connection between a choice they made and a positive change. That seems to be the linchpin — the thing that gets them going and wanting to do more and more and more.
Many homeowners don’t maintain their own yard. If that’s the case but they still want to dedicate their space to ecological landscape design, it can be difficult to find a lawn service and landscape company that will oblige them. But if enough consumers ask for landscapers who will refrain from using blowers and applying pesticides, eventually landscapers will have to pay attention.
“Until enough people say, ‘Hey, I need someone to take care of a native plant garden,’ or ‘Can you plant a native plant garden?’ then they’re not really going to pay attention,” Owen says. “And it’s the same way with nurseries selling native plants. It’s the same way with nurseries using pesticides on pollinator plants. If people don’t ask, if people don’t involve themselves in that way, nothing changes. Because it’s like any other industry — it just kind of rolls along.”
Good things are happening already. In California, legislation prohibits putting in lawns that require irrigation. In institutional design, landscape architecture is going in the right direction, Owen says, and that will filter down to the residential level.
Underpinning Ecological Landscape Design
The main underpinning of ecological landscape design, according to Owen, is using plants in a way that takes advantage of key attributes. These include not requiring supplemental watering and fertilizer applications while also being able to tolerate insect damage.
These plants may have years when they don’t do as well, but they are resilient and will bounce back because that’s how they have evolved to work with the natural world over time.
To find plants that have these attributes, choose natives. Native plants, once established, don’t need your help to survive — aside from removing invasive species that will outcompete natives. Using native plants will support wildlife while also combating climate change and habitat loss.
“Plants are the solution to putting it back together, so to speak,” Owen says. “It’s like we have broken things. Regardless of whether you just focus on carbon or not, there are myriad problems with the ecological reality pretty much anywhere on the planet. And plants are central to being able to heal that and to correct that. And ultimately, we come from a culture in the Western world where people aren’t taught that we can be beneficial, that we can actually help that happen. And so we can actually hold some of the keys to improving the ecological health around us, whether it’s in your own yard or in your community.”
We’re so used to being a problem that we don’t realize we can be the solution too, he says.
Another important component of ecological landscape design involves understanding how plants behave and putting them together in such a way that they will keep weeds at bay and create texture that lasts throughout the year, Owen says, noting that color comes and goes.
“The idea is to sort of set the landscape into motion so that then the ecology of that little space of that garden or that yard is able to go on its own as much as possible,” he says.
Planting a perennial meadow from seed is an example of delayed gratification, as it can take some time before those seeds sprout and the plants size up and bloom. But Owen says converting a lawn into a meadow by using transplants can have instantaneous results.
Owen encourages working with plants that are workhorses — tried and true plants — before getting too much into the details and the full range of plant choices.
Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), Echinacea (coneflower) and Monardas (bee balm and bergamot) are used a lot in ecological landscape design and a good place to start.
“These are plants that are really effective at what they do, and ultimately you want to use plants and put together designs that are going to get you the results you want,” Owen says.
Being too ambitious at first is like a chef trying to master a five-course meal before learning how to make a one-course meal well.
“It’s important to go step by step and even to try a small area at first and try out plants and get a sense for how they work,” he advised. “Do they like your yard? Do they like the amount of sunlight or moisture? If you have any questions about that, one of the best ways to find out is to try them out and to give yourself time to learn this over the course of years and decades even.”
Books and podcasts help to figure this out, he says, but you have to figure it out yourself by doing.
“The only way to really get good at it is to start trying,” he says. “And if you complicate it too much, it might not work as easily. And then there’s that sense of failure or you’re not getting anywhere. So I would say to keep it relatively simple at first and try to use plants and designs that you know are really likely to work.”
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Owen Wormser on ecological landscape design, you can listen to this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you incorporated ecological landscape design into your yard? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“Lawns Into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape” by Owen Wormser
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