Some gardeners react to any mention of green landscaping – the fusion of environmental science and art – as if it were a compromise or concession meant to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has practiced and taught this philosophy for about five decades, disagrees.
“There is the implication that you are suggesting a vegan diet,” said Mr. Morrison, the influential design creator at the Storm King Art Center, Orange County, NY, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. “A lot of people, when they hear a phrase like ‘green landscaping,’ they think they’re giving up on something. But they’re not – it just makes the experience better.
From his point of view, the real compromise would be to focus only on the ornamental aspect of our landscaping, large or small. It’s in the boxwood and vinca world that we risk sensory deprivation, he says – not when we use native plants in designs inspired by wild plant communities.
What happens when each plant is chosen and placed purely for the show, with no other potential attributes considered? “Sounds good,” he said. ” So let’s go. “
At 84, Mr. Morrison describes himself as the oldest statesman in his trade. Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he obtained his graduate degree and then taught landscaping from 1969 to 1983, he is also professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Georgia, where he worked from 1983 to 2005. Mr. Morrison recounts this career and his life in “Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature”, recently published by the Library of American Landscape History.
Merge ecology with design
Native plant communities “provide the logical starting point for designing beautiful, functional regional landscapes,” writes Morrison, attributing the idea to the groundbreaking 1929 book by Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehmann, “American Plants for American Gardens “, which a colleague presented in the 1960s.
A chapter title from his own book succinctly states the mantra: “Merging ecology with design”.
Of all the American scenes, the prairie is Mr. Morrison’s “wildlife landscape”. He grew up on a piece of Iowa prairie turned into cropland, on a farm with two small patches of native plants – his introduction to the prairie flora.
The gestalt and palette of the American prairie appear repeatedly in his work, from the design of the Native Plant Garden Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to the expanse of cedar planters on his patio. apartment, which he calls his “compressed meadow”. “- where he can feel at home among small barbon grasses and a succession of herbaceous plants,” my old friends on the side of the road in Iowa. “
Whatever habitat inspires a particular design – an oriental meadow to a classic example of modern architecture known as the Round house, in Wilton, Connecticut, or a deciduous forest at the beginning of the estate at the historic Stone Mill in the New York Botanical Garden – he wants to know it intimately, first-hand, before he begins to design.
It was the Pine Barrens ecosystem in New Jersey that he invoked for part of a project at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which began in 2013. Mr. Morrison’s inspiration was drawn from trips to the land spent botanizing and exploring the Pine Barrens with Ulrich Lorimer, then curator of the botanical garden Native flora garden. Mr. Lorimer said he was struck by “Mr. Morrison’s joy and enthusiasm for projects, plants and places”.
“He was as happy as a 12-year-old trying to see what Mother Nature is doing there and then fit that into a design,” said Mr Lorimer, who is now director of horticulture for the Native Plant Trust in Massachusetts. “Science has sort of separated itself from spirituality and emotion, but Darrel cultivates this experiential side of what landscapes evoke in us.”
Four design principles
In his teaching, as in his own practice, Mr. Morrison keeps four goals in mind – the four characteristics of successful landscaping.
First, it must be ecologically or environmentally sound, meaning it has a level of natural diversity that will provide resilience against climate change.
“Landscape species need to be adapted to the site and the region, and therefore do not require a lot of support like watering or applying poisons to the soil,” he said. “It also means that we are not introducing invasive non-native species that would reduce diversity. “
A landscape must also be rich in experience, beyond the visual dimension. This means considering “the non-visual aspects: the feel of the wind, the aroma of prairie grass that permeates the air,” he said. “And other forms of life too: bees and butterflies that move there.”
A drawing, too, should be local – avoiding the fate mentioned in a favorite quote. “When you have standardized landscapes with the same plants, all irrigated and on artificial support, ‘there aren’t any there’,” he said, borrowing from Gertrude Stein. “A native landscape gives you an idea of where you are. You need to know if you are in Des Moines or Connecticut.
Finally, a landscape must be dynamic, evolving over time. “We go to all kinds of efforts to keep our landscapes the same, mowed, cut and unchanged,” said Mr. Morrison. “You’re missing out on something by doing that, missing out on the change from growing season to growing season, and over time. “
Our gardens are evolving compositions, not something we can hold onto. “The painting is two-dimensional; architecture and sculpture, in three dimensions, ”he said. “But the landscapes are in four dimensions, time being the fourth dimension.”
He added: “I set things in motion and I let them go.”
There are, however, a few exceptions. Targeted cropping may be needed to keep a key view open, and a bit of editing to control invasive plants, “or you lose the spatial composition,” he said. “It’s not completely carefree.”
Others – including over 1,000 university students who have studied landscaping with him, and several thousand who have done so in less formal settings like symposia – may cite or credit Mr. Morrison as inspiration. . But he continues to wink at those from whom he has learned, from whom he has built the foundations.
They include environmentalist Aldo Leopold – like Mr. Morrison, a native son of Iowa, and the University of Wisconsin. In his 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac”, Mr. Leopold wrote that “our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty”.
“The pretty element in a composition may be the way to go,” Mr. Morrison said. “But then you start to see the patterns. And then you start to understand the processes leading up to it that you can incorporate into your designs.
Another indelible impression was delivered in a 1967 essay by landscape architect Arthur Edwin Bye, titled “What You See: Landscape Luminosity”: the idea of placing plants with translucent foliage in areas where they will be backlit. part of the day. Mr. Morrison urges us to do this with ferns, for example.
As Mr. Lorimer noted, “Darrel isn’t afraid to talk about the ethereal qualities of grass seeds or how bright they are.”
The design process he taught the students also has an ethereal and luminous quality. The creative spark for a landscaping could come from a painting – the energy of a vintage 1914 Kandinsky or Van Gogh’s “swirling strokes that evoke movement” – or even a piece of music.
“The music is so good to get you out of the rut,” Mr. Morrison said. “What I like to do, and have students do, is have overlays on their base map of a site and let the fluid music carry them, especially in the very early stages of a design – a liberation of the spirit. “
Some recommendations: the “Muir Woods Suite” by pianist George Duke; Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma”, taken from the opera “Turandot”; and “The Moldau” by Bedrich Smetana, the story of a flowing river.
But it is Danish-born landscape architect Jens Jensen that Mr Morrison calls “the person who influenced me the most as a teacher and designer”, although the two have never met.
When a colleague Mr. Morrison taught at Madison once asked why he insisted that gently curving paths were more desirable in wood or prairie designs than straight lines, Mr. Morrison’s response was almost Zen – and very Jensen: “Because the view always changes on a winding path.
“You slept on the earth”
For Mr. Morrison, still the student volunteer, every place has something we can learn from, especially natural areas.
In 1992, when he was hired by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, nine miles from downtown Austin, he borrowed a sleeping bag and a tent, and spent the first night camping at the 42-acre site.
“It’s a good thing to do: see the sun go down, smell the junipers, hear the birdsong in the morning,” he said. “I think you know the place better for that. “
Apparently this caught the attention of the former first lady. Years later, Ms Johnson was entertaining guests at a reception. She had suffered a stroke and her eyesight was impaired, so when Mr Morrison reached the head of the line he introduced himself again: “You may remember me, Mrs Johnson. I am Darrel Morrison.
“Sure, I remember you, Darrel, she replied. “I tell all my friends how you slept on earth. “
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way of gardening, and a book of the same name.
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