Some gardeners react to any mention of ecological landscaping — the amalgamation of environmental science and art — as if it were a compromise or concession intended to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has practiced and taught this philosophy for some five decades, begs to be different.
“It implies you’re proposing a vegan diet,” says Mr. Morrison, the creator of influential designs at Storm King Art Center, in Orange County, NY, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. “A lot of people think they’re giving up when they hear a phrase like ‘environmentally responsible landscaping’. But they aren’t – it just enhances the experience.”
From his perspective, the real compromise would focus purely on the ornamental aspect of our landscape designs, large or small. It’s in the boxwood-and-vinca world that we risk suffering from sensory deprivation, he argues — not when we use native plants in designs inspired by wild plant communities.
What happens when each plant is chosen and placed purely for show, without considering other potential characteristics? “It looks good,” he said. “Then it’s gone.”
At 84, Mr. Morrison is the self-proclaimed elder statesman of his trade. Honorary associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he did his graduate degree and then taught landscape design from 1969 to 1983. He is also a professor emeritus and former dean at the University of Georgia, where he served from 1983 to 2005. Mr. Morrison describes that career and his life in “Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature,” published recently by the Library of American Landscape History.
Merging ecology with design
Native plant communities “provide the logical starting point for designing beautiful, functioning regional landscapes,” writes Mr. Morrison, attributing the idea to Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehmann’s groundbreaking 1929 book, “American Plants for American Gardens.” , which a colleague suggested to him in the 1960s.
The title of a chapter in his own book succinctly sums up the mantra: “Merging ecology with design.”
Of all American scenes, the prairie is Mr Morrison’s “pet landscape.” He grew up on a stretch of Iowa prairie turned into cropland, on a farm that still had two small patches of native plants: his introduction to prairie flora.
The gestalt and palette of the American prairie are repeatedly apparent in his work, from the design for the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum Native Plant Garden at Madison to the piece of cedar troughs on his apartment patio, which he calls his “compressed prairie.” ‘ calls. ” – where he can feel at home among the little blue-stem grasses and a succession of forbs, “my old friends from the roadside of Iowa.”
Whatever habitat a particular design inspires — an eastern meadow at a classic example of modern architecture known as the Round House, in Wilton, Conn., or an early successive deciduous forest at New York Botanical Garden’s historic Stone Mill — he wants it intimate. get to know, first hand, before he starts designing.
It was the Pine Barrens ecosystem in New Jersey that he invoked for part of a Brooklyn Botanic Garden project, which debuted in 2013. Mr. Morrison was inspired by excursions he had taken botanizing and otherwise exploring the Pine Barrens with Ulrich Lorimer, who was then curator of the Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden. Mr Lorimer said he was struck by Mr Morrison’s “joy and enthusiasm for projects, plants and places”.
“He was so happy as a 12-year-old, trying to see what Mother Nature is doing there and then work it into a design,” said Mr. Lorimer, who is now the director of horticulture for the Native Plant Trust in Massachusetts. “Science has kind of detached itself from spirituality and emotion, but Darrel cultivates that experiential side of what landscapes evoke in us.”
Four principles to design by
Both in his teaching and in his own practice, Mr. Morrison has four goals in mind: the four characteristics of successful landscape design.
First, it must be ecologically or environmentally friendly, meaning it has a level of natural diversity that resists climate change.
“The species in the landscape need to be adapted to the location and the region and therefore don’t need a lot of support, such as watering or applying poison to the soil,” he said. “It also means we are not introducing non-indigenous invasive agents that will reduce diversity.”
A landscape must also be experiential, beyond the visual dimension. That means we have to consider “the non-visual aspects: the feeling of the wind, the smell of prairie grass permeating the air,” he said. “And the other life forms too: the bees and butterflies that move through them.”
A design must also fit – avert the fate evoked in a favorite quote. “If you’ve standardized landscapes with the same plants, all irrigated and on artificial support, ‘there’s none there,'” he said, borrowing from Gertrude Stein. “An indigenous landscape gives you an idea of where you are. You need to know if you’re in Des Moines or Connecticut.”
Finally, a landscape must be dynamic and change over time. “We are doing everything we can to keep our landscapes looking the same, mowed and mowed and unchanged,” said Mr Morrison. “You miss out on something because of that, you miss the transition from one growing season to another, and over time.”
Our gardens are evolving compositions, not something we can limit. “Painting is two-dimensional; architecture and sculpture, three-dimensional,” he said. “But landscapes are four-dimensional, with time being the fourth dimension.”
He added, “I’ve set things in motion and let them go.”
However, there are a few exceptions. Some targeted trimming may be needed to keep an important view open, and some trimming to keep invasive plants in check, “otherwise you’ll lose spatial composition,” he said. “It’s not completely carefree.”
Others — including more than 1,000 college students who have studied landscape design with him, and many thousands who have done so in less formal settings such as symposiums — can hear Mr. Cite or cite Morrison as a source of inspiration. But he continues to nod to those from whom he has learned, on whose foundations he has built.
They include conservationist Aldo Leopold — such as Mr. Morrison, an Iowa native son, and of 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 beautiful.”
“The beautiful element in a composition can be the way in,” said Mr. Morrison. “But then you start to see the patterns. And then you start to understand the processes that led to it, which you can integrate into your designs.”
Another indelible impression was made in a 1967 essay by landscape architect Arthur Edwin Bye entitled “What You See: Landscape Luminosity”: The Idea of Placing Plants with Translucent Foliage in Areas Where They’re Backlit for Part of the Day. Mr Morrison urges us to do this with ferns, for example.
As Mr. Lorimer noted, “Darrel is not afraid to talk about the ethereal properties of grass seed heads or their clarity.”
The design process he taught the students also has an ethereal, luminous quality. The creative spark for a landscape design can come from a painting – the energy of a vintage 1914 Kandinsky or “Van Gogh’s swirling strokes that evoke movement” – or even from a piece of music.
“Music is such a good thing to get you out of a rut,” Mr Morrison said. “What I like to do, and have students do, is to have overlays over their basemap of a site and carry them through flowing music, especially in the very early stages of a design — a liberation of one’s mind.”
A few recommendations: the “Muir Woods Suite” by the pianist George Duke; Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma”, from the opera “Turandot”; and Bedrich Smetana’s “The Vltava,” the story of a flowing river.
But it is Denmark-born landscape architect Jens Jensen who calls Mr Morrison “the person who has influenced me most as a teacher and designer,” although the two have never met.
When a colleague of Mr Morrison’s in Madison once asked why he insisted that gently curving paths were more desirable in woodland or prairie designs than straight ones, Mr Morrison’s response was almost zen – and all of Jensen: “Because the view is always changing. on a winding path.”
‘You slept on the land’
For Mr Morrison, always the willing learner, every place has something to learn from, especially the natural areas.
In 1992, while engaged to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 9 miles from downtown Austin, he borrowed a sleeping bag and tent, and spent the first night camping on the 42-acre property.
“It’s a good thing to do: watch the sun go down, smell the scents of the junipers, hear the morning birds sing,” he said. “I think you know the place better for it.”
Apparently that caught the attention of the former first lady. Years later, Mrs. Johnson received guests at a reception. She’d had a stroke and her eyesight had deteriorated, so when Mr. Morrison reached the head of the line, he reintroduced himself, “You may remember me, Mrs. Johnson. I’m Darrel Morrison.’
“Naturally, I remember you, Darrel,” she replied. “I tell all my friends how you slept on the land.”
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to garden, and a book of the same name.
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