Our Evolving Landscapes
I often get asked to design a low-maintenance garden, sometimes even a no-maintenance garden. Truth is, no man-made garden is maintenance-free. In fact, most of the landscapes where we live, work, and play require at least some level of upkeep.
Most of our residential landscapes include lawn cover as the majority of the green space that surrounds us. This is not because it is the least or cheapest to maintain—it is because it’s the easiest to maintain. If you have a lawn mower, or are able to hire a person with one, voilà, you have a manicured landscape.
But having a garden takes planning, patience, and work in order to create and keep the desired results ongoing. This is because all landscapes are in a perpetual cycle of evolution. They are always trying to get to the next stage. This journey is also called succession. The point at which we want that cycle to stop requires maintenance to do so.
Take for example an ephemeral wetland, which I recently helped to design as part of a storm water management system. By its definition, ephemeral means transitory or quickly fading. Therefore, an ephemeral wetland is temporary and seasonal. The plants that inhabit and bloom are site-specific and put on showy displays only at certain times, usually when rain is plentiful and before the trees leaf out.
However, when creating a wetland of this type, we need to maintain it so that it keeps providing the same level of storm water control for which it was intended. As previously mentioned, landscapes evolve and strive to succeed to their next stage. A farm, for instance, wants to be a forest, and if left to its own devices, will reach that stage over many decades and even centuries. It will go through numerous phases. The same holds true for created landscapes.
When an ephemeral wetland is created, it does not have a canopy cover of tall trees, so much more sun reaches the ground during all times of year. This provides a much different plant palette than a shady wetland. That old adage I’ve written about before comes back full-circle: the right plant for the right spot. If left unattended, the plants that creep in will take advantage of the full-sun and wet conditions of the site. Woody shrubs will grow on the perimeter such as buttonbush and winterberry. Trees will eventually make their presence known too, like red maple, willow, and certain types of oaks. With the trees, come shade and the entire groundcover mix of plants will change.
Plants can be categorized as ephemeral too. Bluebells, trilliums, and some native orchids are a few of the more recognizable. Ephemeral plants have a very short life cycle. Bluebells, a spring woodland ephemeral, whose leaves will emerge very early followed by the blooms, will turn yellow and die back completely to the ground, usually by June.
There are also desert ephemerals which are adapted to the narrow, wet season that many arid regions experience. For a very short time after rain events, the plants will bloom and create magical displays across the landscape like a painter’s brush washing over the sandy canvas. I am sure you have seen images from the American southwest, as well as the paintings those inspire.
I hope this information sparks a reason to do more research into the many different types of landscapes that exist, and how their maintenance or non-maintenance are sculpting the land we call home.
Stay safe, and let’s garden together.
Eric W. Wahl is a landscape architect at Pennoni Associates, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society