Ecological Planting Approaches

This is an excerpt from the Book called “The Authentic Garden   by  Richard Hartlage and Sandy Fisher. Continue reading to learn more about Ecological
Planting Approaches, thanks to the author.

Calvin Coolidge  

Planting styles based on the idea that plants should be arranged by their native ecologies were first proposed by German and Dutch landscape designers, and arrived in America only after works by their early proponents were published in English. Karl Foerster (1874-1970) was one of the earliest to initiate and promote these concepts, which have had immeasurable influence on garden design ever since.  His core goals were to reduce maintenance and management in finished gardens, to limit the need for applications of fertilizer, and to reduce excessive water usage.  Ecological plantings are not always based on an exclusive use of native plants; more often, interest is added by grouping plants from the same ecologies but different countries or continents.  An example of this would be combining moor grass from Eurasia, coneflowers from North America, and knotweed from Asia-all are meadow plants.  The same approach can be applied to perennials, trees, shrubs, or bulbs.  Plants from similar habitats simply require fewer resources to manage if placed in a garden setting that replicates their their native environment.  This all sounds logical in hindsight with our now-ingrained ecological sensitivities, but it was a revolutionary theory for its time.   

Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl wrote a very comprehensive book, perennials and their garden habitats, originally published in German in 1981, that includes dozens of site assessments and formulas for specific planting applications.  It is a compendium of keen observation, clear illustrations, tables and lists of plants to be used together, and information on soil conditions, light, water regimens, and maintenance protocols.  It is essentially a textbook filled with formulas for modern planting style.  Piet Oudolf has also published many books in English now, with Henk Gerritsen and Noel kingsburry.  piet’s own garden-and former nursery-Hummelo, which he runs with his wife, Anja, were the proving grounds for the development of his own interpretation of this style.  His work has now become familiar to U.S audiences due to his participation in millennium park, in Chicago, and on the high line, in new York city.  His books often include extensive plant lists, and their evocative images make them enticing and accessible.  Roy Diblik expands on these ideas in the know maintenance perennial gardening, a title that is intended to be friendly for the North American home gardener.  Cassia Schmidt, who is virtually unknown in the United States, teaches planting design and manages the Schau-und Sichtungsgarten Hermannshof in Weinheim, Germany, and is driving the style further.  he publishes prolifically, gives away tested plant combinations to the trade, and defines maintenance regimes for his planting associations, but all in German so few are aware of his work in the English-speaking world expect in association with the popular fountain grass Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Cassian’s Choice,’ named by plantsman Kurt Bluemel to honor his friend. 

Creating Plant Communities 

Matrix planting is related to ecological planting in that it often features a complex mix of species that replicates to some degree how native plant communities seed in the wild. Designers, however, make choices about color, texture, and form that reinterpret the natural look; this point of view reflects what nature teaches about composition but distills it for impact.  Matrix planting, as opposed to drift or mass planting, is becoming increasingly popular.  Individual species plants are not used in continuous groups that are kept separate from one other, but are interspersed.  Whole communities are built up in this manner and the communities gradually shift, creating very artistic landscapes.  Layering is key; it maximizes each cubic foot of soil.  Bulbs and ephemerals-plants that emerge and go dormant quickly, most common in woodland ecologies-are commingled in matrix schemes with longer-growing perennials and even woody plants. 

ecological planting
Ecological garden

Plant selection for ecologically minded gardens can be geographically wider-ranging; it need not be limited to a site’s native plants. Today’s cultural environmental consciousness sometimes tempts designers to try all- native plantings, but if a plant like blue flag(Iris Versicolor),which requires a lot of water, is planted with a little bluestem or Andropogon, which are adapted to dryer soils, one will fail. While all are North American Natives, they are not from the same ecologies. On the other hand, Echinacea grows wonderfully next to Salvia nemorosa, though they are form different continents.  

It is useful to study naturally occurring plant communities in situ so that natural associations can be expanded upon and stylized in a garden setting. Another key component to the ecological style is choosing species that can be age and go dormant without grooming, by leaving forms with inherent structural interest or seed heads, for example. This celebrates the whole life cycle of a plant and is in opposition to planting styles where staking, deadheading, and generally intensive efforts are spent manipulating plants for compositional and/or aesthetic reasons.  

Examples from Different Ecologies 

Ecological plantings that blend species from around the globe create an overall effect of many different plants growing happily together, yet relating to one other in some perceptible way chosen by the designer. That being said, many designers take liberty with the various components of this technique. Piet Oudolf often plants in fairly defined groupings, for example, which creates a composed- looking and emotionally impactful design; he usually limits his color palette to muted tones to unite the whole. Roy Diblik, owner of North wind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, has fused the matrix style and plant choices similar to Oudolf’s into his own vocabulary that is painterly and sophisticated. His planting designs are inspired by the look and feel of the Midwest Prairies. He is adept at mixing plants from around the world, often combining grasses and perennials in equal parts. He looks to his native landscape for a point of departure and his planting plans strongly reflect the region he works and gardens in, as can be seen at his garden for the Art Institute of Chicago.  

Adam Woodruff, a designer from Clayton, Missouri, has been strongly influenced by Piet Oudolf. He is a rising designer from the younger generation, with a deep knowledge of plants and a flair for visually intriguing combinations that result in artfully naturalistic gardens that look at home in this own corner of the Midwest. He has much to contribute and a long career ahead.  

The talented group of gardeners at Chanticleer, near Philadelphia, never stop experimenting and never fail to put their own spin on current trends. The project featured here, a lawn near the pool, is a perfect example. The closely shorn, traditional prototype was thrown out in favor of a charmingly shaggy replacement studded with bulbs and self-sowing hardy annuals. The effect is imaginative and memorable. Elsewhere in the garden, they have mixed native cedars with little bluestem and backed them with the seed heads of sunflowers, they embrace innovative plant combinations and associations, much to the delight of visitors.  

Ecological planting styles are perhaps even more useful and important for arid settings. Steve Martino, based in Phoenix, Arizona, has worked throughout the Southwest on projects that reflect this style, and which are based on his deep and direct experience with native desert flora. He relies heavily on native plants, but does not use them exclusively; he adds softness to his projects by incorporating desert perennials and ephemerals with the stronger and more expected forms of various cactus. The final result is a mood of lushness in the desert, although this at first seems like an oxymoron. He also creates bold architectural statements both with plant material and with a fearless application of color to hardscape elements. His gardens are dynamic and invigorating, making them a welcome respite in hot climates. 

Although the principals of Colwell Shelor both formerly worked in Steve Martino’s office, they have achieved a distinctly different point of view . Their designs feel deliberate and unified, and are often deep studies in a narrow range of form and texture. The project illustrated here does not a first seem like a ecological planting, but upon closer inspection the viewer realizes the various species are inter-planted and arranged in drifts.
evergreen tree
Evergreen tree

John Greenlee started his career as a nurseryman specializing in native and exotic grasses for the California market. He has long conducted trials to understand what could and would grow dependably in Northern and Southern California, and he has accordingly been tapped to design gardens based on his unique experience with grasses in their native habitats, including with James Corner Field Operations. His plantings are always very animated, because grasses move so much and change with the environment and the light. In his more recent projects, he is beginning to add structural plants to provide strong focal points including aloes and agaves; these also offer striking contrasts to the finely textured grasses when used in close proximity.  

Land Morphology, our firm, made use of the ecological style of planting at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle for one very practical reason: the garden is only three-quarters of an acre but receives in excess of half a million visitors a year, and perennials thrive in dense communities. The firm created a strong framework of woody plants to define and form space, but layered in thousands of flowering shrubs, perennials, and bulbs to cover every square foot of the garden, maximizing the limited planting area. In most areas of the garden, we achieved five to eight flowering cycles of various plants in the course of a season, ten in a few places. Due to the intense visitation numbers and the corresponding expectation that the garden will constantly be in bloom, the firm also planted violas, pansies, and ornamental cabbage and kales among the permanent plants for winter and early spring interest. It is a plant-dense garden, with flowers to view in every week of the year.  

Emphasis was placed on using perennials because they have a longer flowering season than shrubs and bulbs. Careful selection of the flower colors has been considered to accentuate and visually support the glass art, either through complementary associations or contrasting colors. The art is fully integrated into the plantings; the combinations of organic and inorganic elements are very much intended to help them play off each other. Since many of the glass forms are derived from nature- saguaro cactus, eel grass, marlins, herons, snake heads and more-the resulting dialogue between forms is rich.  

Ron Lutsko, who is based in San Francisco, has created ecological gardens based on native meadow plantings as well. This requires a base knowledge of various ecological systems, and both have taken on residential projects sited on mountain slopes that use the surrounding low, native vegetation as inspiration ketchum, near Sun Valley in Idaho, is a harsh climate to garden in.  The summers are scorchingly hot and the winters bitterly cold, so any plants Lutsk selected for cold hardiness also needed to be adapted to dry summers.  he relies on lower-growing vegetation from dry prairies, and the design of the garden also feels a little more crafted and intense than the surrounding landscape, which announces to visitors that they are not in a wild landscape, but rather just on the edge of it. 

For a residence in Palo Alto, California, Bernard Trainor amassed an absolute copia of succulents, many of which relate to the vibrant aqua of a nearby swimming pool.  The result is a real lesson in what can be achieved with this plant family in terms of color and texture.  


Moving back to the temperate zone, the Blume project designed by our firm, land  morphology, was based on a request from the client for a naturalistic garden that would soften an otherwise formal landscape and create a strong and romantic foreground to the view of lake Washington available from the house.  All plants used are meadow species, but since the desired effect wasn’t for an actual meadow, a mix of native and nonnative species was selected.  A heavy emphasis was placed on forbs and summer-and autumn-flowering plants. Plugs helped the area to mature quickly and now that it is established, it requires less maintenance that the lawn that was in the space previously- and it’s far more interesting to look at.  

In Lousiana, Jeffrey Carbo combines a modern framework with deft planting design adapted to extremely humid summer heat. He, like many designers represented here, is adept at moving between several planting styles and at selecting the most appropriate for the project at hand. A modernist at heart, his strong, rational, and well-detailed built forms are paired with complex plantings that feel welcoming and intimate. He is adept at combining trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses to create immediately recognizable associations or, equally, in displaying plants in a sparer and more sculptural way. Shade is important in the South, so trees are often grouped into bisques and under planted with diverse collections of ferns, sedges, and grasses to create woodlands that are, above all, refreshing.  

Environmental Stewardship meets sheer beauty 

What Karl Foerster pioneered in Germany in the mid-twentieth century is here to stay. As garden design moves toward celebrating plants first and built forms second, and as awareness of the necessity of environmental stewardship continues to seat itself deep in the collective cultural psyche, the ecological planting style begins to look increasingly compelling. This style of planting allows designers to explore the diverse plant offerings today’s global connectivity provides while helping to conserve resources for tomorrow. Environmental considerations are the single bigger driver causing professional landscape architects and designers to learn more about new plants again and to develop new and inspiring ways of using them, and the gardens are benefiting. As an appreciation for design in general has spread to the masses, the demand for well- crafted and intriguingly detailed gardens-public and private- has increased. Plants used in an attractive way can make people celebrate local ecology, leading to increased curiosity about the environment and a whole and perpetuating the cycle of good environmental governance. 

Ecological Planting Approaches