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Why Systems Thinking Makes a Better Landscape

The landscape conversation is pretty common nowadays. Certainly, every homeowner will consider their landscape at one point or another. Mainstream media and the popular DIY movement has worked hard to keep things simple. Mostly, that dialogue seems to take its cues from the construction industry, integrating design with labor and materials to complete a project – a project with a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

Truthfully, however, when dealing with the environment we become entangled with an organic, dynamic, and evolving system. It’s alive! If you want to simplify that, you can...the beginning is birth, the middle is living, and the end is death. The goal in landscape development and maintenance, of course, is to deliver a beautiful, harmonious construct designed to live and provide beauty and joy for as long as possible – ideally to never really die. 

Unfortunately, in our eagerness to spread the word and get as many people as possible on board with the landscape movement, we’ve left something really important behind. And that is simply that the landscape is a living being with a countless number of interconnected segments, many of which are also living. It’s a community! When we fail to make that connection, we are at best, creating a false applique of beauty that will fade quickly. At worst, we are creating critical damage that may have serious ripple effects - environmentally, financially, and socially.

landscape systems thinking
Gardens smile just like people when they’re happy! Truro Vineyards, summer 2019.

It’s important to remember that when we start to manipulate the outside living environment we are effectively sticking our hands in Mother Nature’s business. It does not make it wrong -- we simply need to be aware that when we consider developing landscapes, big or small, we are getting ready to toy with an existing ecosystem. There is a lot of science involved in bending Mother Nature; the point is to fully own our participation in the landscape development and care processes, while always keeping the larger environment and potential impacts in mind. 

The solution is to positively manipulate that lifecycle chain, to think about landscape development as a process that has a beginning (growth), a middle (maturity) and then…sustainability... A way to draw out the maturity phase and postpone death as long as possible. We are trying to live longer as humans and the same is true about what we are trying to do with the landscape. 

New call-to-actionIn my new book, STOP Landscaping, START Life-Scaping, I write about the complexity of integrating a built environment into the natural world:

“To partner with nature, we need to understand how it works and the living systems involved. These are self-organizing living things that interact with their environment and are maintained by a flow of information, energy, and matter. And we need to understand our part in that entire system... Anybody can make over a yard by rolling out some sod, filling a bed with annuals, or planting a tree. But you are not working with the natural system of how plants and soil and the surrounding environments depend on one another to thrive. If you don’t work within the system, then your new landscape is not sustainable.

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Well-functioning landscape systems aren’t perfect or forced, they’re tranquil and settled in. MaraBenn Gardens, fall 2019

As you consider a more inclusive partnership with nature for your landscape designs, consider these tips:

Hug your landscape, don’t kick it in the shins

Remember that every action we take will generate a response, so when you want to make a change in the environment, consider giving the landscape a hug – don’t kick it in the shins. By that I mean, be gentle, think carefully about how the landscape will evolve over time and make thoughtful, informed decisions about what you’re going to alter so that it doesn’t cause a significant – and perhaps negative – reaction that you’ll regret. Our goal is to have as many positive outcomes or neutral effects of our work as possible.

Listen to the landscape

Every environment and ecosystem has a story to tell. You can learn a lot by taking the time to study the land, understand why it is the way it is, and then use the information you glean to create a site analysis that will provide clues and cues to drive your decision-making. Engaged curiosity is a superpower you can use to align your goals with nature in a partnership that will result in a landscape design the ecosystem can support.*

Take your time. Nature did.

The landscape you’re considering for alteration did not evolve to where it is overnight. For the most part, nature works slowly, and so should you. A common mistake I see is rushing through the process, or worse skipping important segments altogether. Investing enough time to go through the entire development process without rushing is critical to the longevity of your Life-Scape. Anyone can get short term success with a landscape project. The industry has proved that to be easy. What’s missing is long term thinking that supports sustainability.

Most people embarking on a landscaping project don’t set out to harm the land and plants. Everyone wants to succeed. However, it’s easy to get excited about creating a new look and begin to rush. When you rush, you miss critical cues in the landscape and inevitably discover that more time and effort may have been needed to prepare for the new landscape, allowing it to unfold at a reasonable pace to ensure that your creation is successful.

When we slow down to consider precious resources such as water and soil, and the relationship between them, drainage, or the existing mature trees that need our protection, we’re more inclined to make the effort and take proper steps so these resources will thrive after the landscape has been built. 

TWEETABLE TIP

There is a lot of science involved in bending Mother Nature; the point is to fully own our participation in the landscape development and care, while always keeping the larger environment and impacts in mind. #landscape

VIA @GardenContinuum


Demystify Your Landscape by Learning to Pick PlantsNature is a self-organizing, interactive, and diverse system. When we recognize it for the complex entity that it is and approach it with patience and humility, it is an amazing partner with which to work. In the beginning, landscape development is inherently disruptive, but we can manage that disruption so that it is not damaging in the long run. What we have done in essence with our new design, done right, is jump-start a newly imagined environment in partnership with nature. A dynamically integrated ecosystem that will begin to self-organize while repairing the initial disruption so that the system can function on its own again. 

* See the site analysis worksheet in the back of my Picking Plants eBook for tips on creating your own site analysis 

fine gardeners guide to a beautiful and luxurious landscape

Topics: Designing Gardens and Landscapes Landscape and Garden Maintenance