Painting with Plants: Exterior Decorating Run Amok

Modern landscape architecture and garden design are often so disconnected from nature that they become an exercise in painting with plants (large drifts of the same plant) or exterior decorating (lots of hardscape, few plants) rather than the co-creation and nurturing of a beautiful, healthy, sustainable ecosystem.

So what’s wrong with painting with plants? Let me count the ways…

First of all, nature doesn’t believe in monocultures or artificial segregation (of people or plants), so attempting to keep artistic drifts of single cultivars free of invading neighbors (exotic or native) creates an ongoing, expensive maintenance nightmare requiring human servants and/or toxic chemicals to keep up the artist’s design. (The advocates for Trump’s Wall have also forgotten this basic law of nature).

Leonardo, Monet and Picasso never had this kind of problem with the survival of their artistic creations; when the oil dried on the canvas, the beautiful images could last relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.

Also, too many horticultural designers seem to have forgotten that plants are not mere lifeless objects like paint on a palette, but rather are living beings like ourselves and the rest of nature. True gardeners understand the cosmic and even sacred life force in sun, soil, plants, place and animals (including human animals - we’re part of nature too), but some professional landscapers have become convinced that plants exist merely to impress the designer’s genius on the landscape (as a complement to growing amounts of concrete and decking), disconnected from both humans and the rest of the natural environment.

Mother Nature’s idea of a landscape is very different: an ever-evolving, incredibly complex ecosystem of integrated plants, animals and elements. Those who attempt to impose our own vision on a particular place without consulting the current residents, the genius loci and the Ultimate Owner find ourselves in a battle we can’t win. What we regard as “weeds” and even “pests” are merely plants and animals in what we decide is the wrong place. We suffer from the modern industrial delusion that somehow humans are separate from and superior to the rest of nature, so of course we’re in charge!

Those who tend gardens and parks also need to keep in mind the disturbing fact that both our planet and our particular backyard are experiencing ever-changing climate conditions. The plants that grew well in a particular place a few years ago – or even a hundred years ago - don’t necessarily thrive here today and may be completely impossible ten years from now. Perhaps our landscape designer prescribed plant X two years ago – maybe even a native plant -- but what happens when conditions change to the point that it is no longer the best plant for the spot? The “war on invasive, non-native species” is sometimes as futile as the battle to keep our pristine flower “drifts” free of grass and wildflowers.

Nature is never static, which seems to bother a growing number of hardscape-minded “landscape” designers who carve up our backyards with concrete, decking and a few drifts of unified “color” or small groups of no-care plants as an afterthought. We try to simplify by eliminating; repeating 10 cultivars instead of enjoying an intermixed 100 cultivars that nature might prefer. Sadly, many modern people lust after this kind of seeming control over nature, rather than seeking deep immersion in nature (which is deeply healing). And of course the professionals we hire are glad to oblige. They now put in more and more hardscape in our “garden” designs – partly because they can charge more money for that than for introducing a wide mix of plants.

So what’s the nature-friendly alternative? Permaculture design and sustainable agro-ecological approaches offer alternative paths that are grounded in the art and science of understanding how nature designs landscapes. They offer the possibility of combining human cultivation with nature-inspired beauty, working in collaboration with the planetary ecosystem designer, Nature herself, rather than against her. And isn’t she the ultimate artist on our planet? Few of us cannot be moved by the more-than-human artistic masterworks we find in natural settings around the world. A new humility would allow us to use biomimicry and modern ecology – plus our capacity for deep appreciation of beauty – to co-create with the rest of nature superbly moving, healing and inspiring outdoor landscapes.


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