Wild By Design: Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes

Wild By Design: Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes

by Margie Ruddick


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610915984
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 03/17/2016
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 920,958
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Margie Ruddick, principal of Margie Ruddick Landscape, has designed numerous high-profile projects including New York City's Queens Plaza, Shillim Institute and Retreat in India, and the Living Water Park in Chengdu, China. She has taught at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Yale, Princeton, Parsons School of Design, and more, and has received extensive recognition for her contributions to landscape design, including the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. 

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Wild by Design

Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes

By Margie Ruddick


Copyright © 2016 Margie Ruddick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-598-4


A Laboratory for Wild By Design

* * *

The lessons of my own landscape helped me develop a set of rules for how to let a wild landscape emerge: Let things happen, but make sure it looks intentional, so as not just to let things go; try not to create mess in other people's yards; get help. But there is also the design part, which is where the strategies in the chapters to follow come in. You can't just plant a lot of stuff and let it go. The wild garden, or the eco-park, or the eco-city, needs a lot of tending, coddling, nurturing, and sometimes brutal hacking back, in order for it not to devolve completely into a massive tangle of trees, shrubs, and vines.

In order to have a "wild garden" and not a seemingly abandoned lot, you need to walk the thin line between order and chaos. And you need to exercise a greater design hold than many would imagine. The landscapes I make have a strong formal structure, for the most part; at least that is another rule I follow that I sometimes break. A strong formal hand helps to bring out the wild: It is that structural order against which the wild is clearly visible.

I went to Harvard's Graduate School of Design, a school that at the time prioritized "design" over "ecology," from the Natural Resources Group in New York City, where I helped map the wetlands, woodlands, and meadows of the city's natural parklands. I don't attribute my career in landscape design to childhood visits to gardens; rather, I am certain that the wild beaches and back dunes of eastern Long Island, where I spent summers, planted in me the seeds of my vocation.

I have always loved wild places, urban or otherwise: the dunes and scrub of eastern Long Island, which I consider my native landscape; the Shoshone River in Wyoming's Tetons, where I spent two childhood summers; the Ramble in Central Park, where I worked in the mid-1980s. But until recently I didn't realize how much my work tries to capture, even for a brief moment, and even in the city, the feeling of being immersed in a raw, sometimes wild piece of nature. I didn't recognize how dualistic my own design process is, toeing the line between wildness and order. It was not until 2011, when my own domestic landscape was branded a "wild garden," that I started to connect the dots.

In the winter of 2005 I bought a ranch house in a leafy Philadelphia neighborhood. After living in Philadelphia twins, or duplexes, for a dozen years, it occurred to me that what I really needed was a ranch house: compact, efficient, manageable, with a free plan, like the New York apartment I grew up in. I wanted the inside/outside connection that made the ranch the ultimate California type.

As I surfed the Internet for ranch houses in my neighborhood, the perfect house popped up onto my computer screen: butt-ugly, beige and gray brick, sitting in the snow all by itself, but a compact three-bedroom with corner windows and space all around it and a lot of light and air inside. A visit revealed a warren of small rooms packed into the small footprint of less than 2,000 square feet, but the walls would be easy to pull down. My home renovation engine went into overdrive.

However, my fine-tuned radar went blank when trained on what, given my career, some would assume to be the first thing I would tackle: the landscape. The little ranch sat on a third of an acre, with one large silver maple (twin leader, weak crotch) and two bedraggled native dogwoods in the side yard, struggling to survive the lower-limb blight that has taken so many of them down in these parts over the past decades. All else, save the house footprint, the double-wide driveway, and a couple of concrete paths and pads, was lawn. And not just any lawn but a carefully tended, tidied, and chemically enhanced lawn. Once spring arrived and I got a look at all those perfect emerald green blades pushing up from the thawing earth, I realized that we were in trouble: Major volumes of herbicides, fungicides, and othercides were probably deployed to make a lawn that green and unblemished. The spring thaw revealed a sign planted on one side of the lot advertising a national lawn care company with a chemical-sounding name.

People would come to visit, look at the blank rectangle of lawn, and say, "So, I bet you have big plans for the landscape, right?" Well, no, actually. It was a blank slate; I am a designer of the adaptive reuse era. Give me a blank slate and I will have no idea what to do. The same common phrase kept popping into my head: Don't do something, just stand there. So gradually, over the next 5 or 6 years, I inadvertently engineered my own private reforestation and garden project.

That first year I discovered, after one pass at mowing all that lawn, that there was no way I was going to spend over an hour a week mowing. I didn't even want all that lawn. So I figured out how much lawn I really needed — a front path, an ample side yard for games, enough lawn at the back so we could hang out — and made a mowing plan by walking the outline I wanted for the lawn with the mower. That one move, what could be called discerning mowing, stood in for a more strategic design process for the next 2 or 3 years.

Rethinking Lawn: Starting with Mowing Plans

Where I mowed the lawn, albeit unaerated, unfertilized, and otherwise untreated lawn, the short lawn remained, growing more mossy at shaded low points where it stayed dampest after rains and sprouting with dandelions, clover, and violets, as well as crabgrass and other "weeds," kept low by their weekly haircut. Where I didn't mow, the grasses and "weeds" grew knee high by July. Sometime around that time each summer I would catch someone, a friend or neighbor, or even a member of my own family, looking askance at my messy front yard, and I would quickly scout around for someone to come weed-whack the naturalizing lawn-turning-to-meadow. Often I would hijack a crew from a neighbor's yard, offering them $50, and they would go at it, but somehow, mysteriously, when I tried to get them back for another pass they would be tied up. My landscape scared even the landscapers.

In a bid to appease the neighbors and attract some skilled landscape help, I decided to clean up the edges of my messifying front yard. I mowed straight strips of meadow and overseeded them with turf grass, creating a tidy border around the property on the sidewalk and driveway sides, and a nice clean lawn path curving up from the sidewalk to the side yard. There, I told myself. Now it looks intentional.

Keeping the Edges Clean

In her book Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames, University of Michigan landscape architecture professor Joan Iverson Nassauer argues that although a messy groundplane promotes ecological health and even biodiversity, we are, at least as Americans, culturally averse to accepting the mess in our own back yards, or our neighbors'. She illustrates that a tidy margin of lawn, for instance, or the orderly frame of the title, increases people's comfort with a landscape that carries the "disorderliness" or mess that supports life. A landscape that has been let go or cultivated for habitat will receive more buy-in if the public edges are kept neat, framed by lawn, walkways, or other devices. I found that once I had mown clean edges my neighbors calmed down considerably. Letting things happen can be instructive and fruitful, but it also can look like you are just letting things go; put a tidy frame around it so it looks as planned and managed as it in fact will be.

By my third year of this experiment, the woody plants that had started to seed into the "meadow" began to harden off and show themselves. One whole bank of former lawn, where the side yard sloped down to the sidewalk, sprouted thick with black cherry seedlings, considered by many to be an invasive threat. Wild black cherry not only reproduce like mad, they also tend to be allelopathic: They send out into the earth at their base certain substances that discourage anything else from growing there. I knew that if I simply let them go, the bank would become a dark black cherry grove where little can grow on the groundplane, and the birds and the winds would broadcast black cherry seeds all over the neighborhood. My neighbors would not appreciate this, and I would just have this dark grove with little of the vertical layering that makes a landscape diverse. So I coppiced the whole stand, cut it down to about 3 feet high, and repeated whenever it looked like it might start to shoot out into a grove again, maybe several times a year.

Coppicing creates a bushy, thick habit, like a dense shrub layer. By cutting back in the spring, we prevent the trees from fruiting, lowering their value to birds, butterflies, and moths. But the practice achieves two important goals: The low, full stratum is home to many more species than a tall open woodland would be, and keeping the trees from producing berries keeps the plants from spreading throughout the neighborhood and beyond. In practice it is a rule, too often broken, that you do not change the topography of your property to send water to a neighbor's land; you do not empty a swimming pool (if you have one) by placing the vacuum hose end directed toward someone else's land. The same should go for dispersing invasive species, although in practice that takes a lot of maintenance. My property is a source of Norway maple, Japanese maple, and other invasive types, but I don't have the heart or the means to remove them completely.

Keeping Stuff We Don't Want off the Neighbors' Property

The regeneration in the front yard was more mixed, because it gets more sunlight — black cherries, but also grasses and sedges that started to turn my front yard into a real meadow. Or so it appeared to me; some people still thought our place looked abandoned, and occasionally strangers would walk right up to the windows and look in to see whether the house was for sale.

That third summer I decided to make a vegetable plot in the front, and I planted a couple rows of tomatoes, and zinnias, and pumpkins for the fall. Kids loved it. Although the emerging forest/coppice had yet to achieve the look of something anyone could name, in the meantime this part of what was the front lawn had become a field.

Exporting Less

The next summer I started to add native plants at some of the edges, to provide a little color and screening of the chain link stretch of back fence — Carolina allspice, oakleaf hydrangea, and a variety of viburnums — and to start to articulate the spaces that were emerging through my mowing patterns. I planted a mix of aronia and leatherleaf viburnum to screen the two back corners (one the leaf pile, the other the brush pile) and the short side of the house, to keep the tools, containers from plantings, and compost bins out of sight. I finally had enough land, and two back corners that could use rounding off, to turn to larger-scale composting than just kitchen waste. More to spread around the garden, less to send to the landfill. Regardless of how many branches felled by winter storms we piled onto the brush pile or loads of leaves dumped onto the leaf pile, by the end of the winter it always seemed as if the pile was the same height as the year before. Gone were branches stuffed into trash bins on trash day; gone were the lines of brown leaf bags. I had composted kitchen waste for years; if we could just stop buying packaged goods and receiving mail we would be able to stop all curbside pickups.

Late that third summer I sensed that my neighbors, who were grumbling about this mess of a yard, would appreciate some splashes of color, more as an indication that someone was home than as a floral display, so I planted fall asters in small masses, along the short driveway and the sidewalk. I mowed a path up the middle of the front yard, separating the coppiced black cherries from the more mixed successional path nearer the driveway. I planted oakleaf hydrangeas along the paths. The place started to look lived in and layered. Instead of a big rectangle with a box on it, my landscape evolved into a series of places you might want to be in, whether to garden in the front, hang out in the back yard, or toss a football in the side yard.

The next two summers I expanded the vegetable patch, and in the chaotic-seeming meadow I started to count, among the successional species such as black cherry, a number of red oak seedlings, probably progeny of the large red oak in my neighbor's side yard. This meadow was rapidly succeeding to forest. If I allowed these seedlings to grow and kept the invasives from shading them out or sending out toxic substances that would prevent them from thriving, I would eventually have a forest, woodland punctuated by useful lawn and a vegetable patch.

By the sixth summer I imagined that my neighbors had come to recognize my front yard reforestation and vegetable patch project as the next wave in home gardening and that they had started to grumble less. There was always a small cadre of neighbors who indulged me and patiently waited through the ugly phase, but there was also some pushback. My kids winced when I suggested that they have friends over. "Our house looks a mess," they would say. True, compared with the tidy front yards of some of their classmates, our house did indeed look a mess, if not outright abandoned. A friend commented that all I needed to do was to set an old refrigerator and rotting couch out on the front porch to complete the look he described, in his Alabama accent, as "gone country." But by this time I was kind of hooked. I wanted to see what would happen if I just let the landscape do what it wanted to do and then managed it, coppicing, pruning, occasionally weeding, adding plants here and there.

What happened sometimes seemed incredible. After the first couple of years of coppicing the black cherry seedlings, I found cherry seedlings popping up with lighter bark and small, pink blooms: ornamental cherries. After a year or two of pruning them up to encourage them to be the specimen trees they were probably originally cultivated to be, I noticed that one along the driveway, right at the curb, had started to lean awkwardly toward the road. Pruning was a problem. By the end of the summer, however, the leaves had begun to cascade down toward the ground. Not only was this not a black cherry, it was no regular ornamental cherry but a weeping cherry. This was when the concept of horticultural karma came to me. When I had done residential work years before and had completed what I thought was a stunning yet understated, elegant design, clients occasionally would say the same thing: "Okay, all good. But where do I put my weeping cherry?" It seemed that a weeping cherry was the specimen flavor of the year, and I dreaded that question. So now, years later, the universe had sent me my very own weeping cherry, in the place of honor, right at the arrival to my house. And I learned to love my weeping cherry, to underplant it with euphorbias and fall asters.

Letting Things Happen ... to a Point

I was not completely surprised when, arriving home one afternoon that sixth summer, I recognized the telltale slip of white paper inserted into my screen door: a summons. A Licenses and Inspection officer must have visited my little plot, for I was cited for violating section 8.4 of the Philadelphia building code, allowing "weeds greater than 10 inches tall, bushes," to grow unchecked in my front yard. I looked at the wild front landscape and then at the vegetable patch; the tomatoes were growing well over 10 inches, as was the rhubarb. Was I being cited for my vegetables or my "weeds"? Does an L&I inspector actually know the difference? Probably an irritated neighbor had called in the city; was it the front yard farm or the weeds that most offended?

I called to get my hearing scheduled in March of the next year. Apparently there are a lot of citations for weeds, or other similar matters, regularly landing in the weed judge's docket. I would argue my case and, I was certain, win. Yet something troubled me. My neighbors, my children, and now the city had a lot of trouble appreciating my wild experiment. What was I trying to prove? Might there be some sort of compromise, so that I could reside somewhere within spitting distance of the normal and not remain an outlaw? My experiment was for my own edification and pleasure; if it caused those around me true discomfort, wasn't that a bad ecological move? To maintain order in my house and on my block I needed to spruce up my landscape. I needed help.


Excerpted from Wild by Design by Margie Ruddick. Copyright © 2016 Margie Ruddick. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Reinvention
Chapter 2. Restoration
Chapter 3. Conservation
Chapter 4. Regeneration
Chapter 5. Expression

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