Good landscapes aren’t just sustainable, Mary Palmer Dargan insists; they also sustain us. Gardens grow our food, give us shade, calm frazzled nerves and nudge us toward the deep solace that a quiet connection with the natural world can provide. They provide play sites and recreational opportunities for children and families, social venues for adults, and the occasional retreat for those seeking solitude. Properly designed and maintained, they age gracefully and allow us to do the same.
Dargan, a landscape architect who with her similarly credentialed husband co-wrote an earlier book focused on the aesthetics and strategy of landscape design, takes a slightly more abstract tone in her new book, Lifelong Landscape Design. While the former effort discussed mostly design principles, this book casts a broader, more philosophical net. Dargan still argues the merits of beauty and good design, but here turns toward their more far-reaching virtues and influence.
The underlying structural patterns of good garden design can number in the hundreds, Dargan says, and are site-specific. The essential components are far fewer, and that’s where the book aims. The first among them, in the author’s list, is connection with the web of life. That is, the proper context for landscape design isn’t merely the incidental topography of the site or the architectural style of the home. Those things matter, but so do the surrounding community or neighborhood and the biological ecosystem that supports them. We must both rely on the resilience of nature and respect its limitations for self- healing, and that means treading as lightly on the land as possible:
• Leave natural elements alone when possible: Compaction from vehicles or construction equipment can damage soils, feeder roots of trees and most small plants.
• Restore balance to the site: Soil erosion is typically one of the first consequences of site disturbance, so try to prevent/correct washouts, stream silting, and other problems by grading and planting the area for stability.
• Use sustainable building materials: Locally obtained natural materials often cost more than manufactured alternatives, but over the long term they typically involve a much lower demand for resources and energy. Recycled or easily recyclable manufactured materials can also offer this benefit.
• Harvest and conserve water: With more than half of the country experiencing drought conditions in 2012, there could hardly be a timelier message than this. It isn’t enough to manage the flow of water to prevent soil erosion; being able to capture, store and use rainwater is an essential feature of a sustainable landscape.
• Let nature rest: We don’t sleep with the lights on, so why should birds and other creatures in our midst have to do that? Landscape lighting fixtures should be low and small, to enhance aesthetics and safety while not disturbing the surroundings.
• Keep up the good work: Occasional maintenance is a requirement for a healthy garden or landscape. Compost leaves, clippings and other organic materials to enrich the soil, and pay attention to plant health throughout the year.
Dargan offers similar guidelines for what she considers other essential components of good landscape design: encouraging social interaction and recreation, creating “passive” spaces where one can retreat briefly from worldly cares, promoting stress reduction and healthful physical activity, and other priorities.
Most of the recommendations stay centered around the four parts of master planning that her earlier book offered for landscape design: the approach/arrival features, which serve as a welcome mat to visitors approaching the home; the house itself, which serves as the hub for the surrounding landscape; perimeter spaces such as patios, decks, planting beds and other elements adjacent to the home’s exterior; and destinations with linkages, purpose-built spaces or features placed in the landscape and connected with pathways.
Readers looking for the nuts-and-bolts techniques of landscaping how-to or specific recommendations for plants and materials aren’t the intended audience here. There’s no shortage of those gardening guides, and the more regional the sources the better. Dargan has set her sights on less tangible aspects of fashioning a landscape, on the atmosphere that design choices ultimately create. This won’t be the guidebook you keep on hand while installing flagstone pavers or grading a slope into graceful terraces, but it could help you imagine the many potential dimensions of your landscape.