Short Essays Section

Below are essays about various aspects of ecological planting design. They are intended to be informative but remain light, informal and accessible, rather than serious academic pieces. I will add to the 'further reading' section over time to help you find out more from leading researchers and practitioners around the world.

1. Ecologically Informed Planting Design - A Brief Introduction

There are various strands to the practice of ecologically informed planting design. In this short introduction I try to set out some of the main strands as I see it. I probably don't do the field justice but I hope to at least give a flavour of what is going on. It gets more complicated by various uses of the word ecological. Generally though, an overarching objective is the creation of sustainable and low maintenance planting schemes. In this context sustainable means: persistence of the planting scheme down the years, while requiring only minimal inputs.

A significant first point is that the issue of the use of non-invasive exotic species is generally treated pragmatically. The idea that natives are always best is eschewed. It is recognised that in many circumstances, particularly urban contexts, the use of non-natives can serve these objectives as well, if not better, than native plants. Although having said this, the native/exotic debate is still very much a lively one. However, the argument that 'native is always best' seems to be undermined by recent research and of course the consequences of a changing climate.

Taking advantage of ecological insights is not of course a new development in horticulture. What seems new is the degree to which this is done. Although, it must be said, work in this field particularly in Germany goes back many decades or arguably longer. Simply put the ecological approach to planting takes a broader interest in plant ecology than is done conventionally. Previously what could be called environmental tolerances was the limit of horticulture's ecological interest. These things include the familiar minimum winter temperatures, required light levels, and preferred soil types. A more comprehensive analysis of plant ecology includes such things as plant life strategies, natural habitats, growth characteristic and plant sociability, to name a few. With such information we can combine plants of similar ecological types. In this way plants will co-exist much more happily and persist with less intervention for longer.

We are in many ways forced to turn to plant ecology. The increasing costs of conventional horticulture, because it requires great amounts of time and energy, is one such force. As well as energy costs, climate change is also motivating this closer look at ecological processes. There are both the general long term trends and the all too familiar erratic and often extreme weather events.

In this regard there has been some interesting work, for example, on the concept of ecological resilience. Resilience here means the plant community's capacity to bounce back from these damaging events. Another concept applied in this area is 'ecological plasticity', which refers to a plant's capacity to perform over a range of environmental conditions. Here we are in many ways in the familiar territory of the environmental tolerances mentioned above. It's just that in this case we need to look at a broader range of tolerances than is usually the case. These concepts really deserve an article of their own which I'll get onto soon. What should be immediately apparent is the need for the planting designer to build up a plant database of greater complexity than usual. It's a seemingly endless task!

There is another interesting aspect of ecologically informed planting that I want to mention. 'Ecosystem Services' is a concept gaining much ground. It refers to the obvious gains that we as a species receive from our environment. Things such as: clean air and water, crop pollination, pest and disease control, climate regulation, recreation and tourism, and many more. The point is that through planting design in our urban landscapes we can not only enhance existing ecosystem services but also create them. It's essentially a perspective of enlightened self interest. I have no objection to this perspective. Perhaps more pure conservationists might view it with suspicion. However, it is a fact that we are not distant observers or 'caretakers' of some abstract 'Nature'. We are part of nature - we participate in it and ultimately are utterly dependent on it. The concept of Ecosystem Services simply recognises our interconnectedness in this regard. It also helps us define areas of importance that we can quantify and value in a way which makes policy makers take notice.

I would add here that we are not just creating planting schemes for utilitarian reasons. The assumption throughout is that culturally we want, and perhaps need, beautiful and colourful planting schemes. It's no small thing. People in towns generally expect to see colourful planting schemes in their gardens and parks. From a certain point of view many planting schemes could well be utterly useless and that in itself would be reason enough to highly value them.

These various ecological concepts and insights will further our chances of creating such beautiful planting schemes in the face of tighter budgets, environmental targets and an uncertain and changeable climate. We can use this knowledge to usher out the desert like monotony of familiar shrubs, clipped to within an inch of their lives, that dominate our cities. Our urban landscapes can become vibrant ecosystems, making more of a positive contribution to the health of our cities, for us and our fellow creatures.

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