preaching to the native choir

larry weinerbirchIt was an intervention.  The evangelical were thrown off their game:  zealots  perplexed.  Larry Weiner, organizer of the Assessing and Reassessing Ecological Design Conference “outed” his audience. I call it a mild blitzkrieg. James Hitchmough, Kurt Culbertson and Thomas Rainer were the  monkey wrenches.  Day two of the conference was the wake-up call.  Weiner skillfully planned this intellectual invasion into the native movement. I spent my time listening to the speakers and figuring out where I fit in on the native plant spectrum.


The oddest talk at the the conference was given by Kurt Culbertson of Design Lowry_2Workshop.  His subject:  Sustainability in Full Measure:  Toward Social Justice in Landscape Design.  “Social justice” is not a phrase I associate with landscape design.  That expression is usually delegated to the realm of politics.  Culbertson reviewed some big projects he had proposed for various municipalities; his projects passed city councils, but voters solidly turned down his proposals.

Frustration may have been Culbertson’s initial motivation, but he quickly concluded that imposing a master plan on citizens may have worked for Caesar, but wasn’t working for him.  At the next opportunity, he took a different approach.  All the buzz words of social media:  sharing, connecting and communicating  got into his head.  Culbertson realized that providing diverse forums where citizens could participate in the design process would make them stakeholders. It did.  His projects were tweaked and approved.

james 2


James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology and Head of the Landscape Department at the University of Sheffield (England) is a showman.  He has been metaphorically part of the native plant movement for long time.  His ideas have been kicked under the bus, because he begs to differ.  James is a scientist, a horticulturist and a  psychologist.  “What I do has to be good enough for the average Joe.  I am an edge dweller.  All interesting ideas happen on the edges.” 

olympic park james

Some might say he has an ax to grind, simply because his ideas, until recently, have been hammered by the native plant movement.  “Aesthetics are very important in my world.”  James has studied plants from all over the world (exotics). He has concluded that the combining of plants from around the globe make a tapestry of biodiversity as rich and robust as any native plant meadow. He is not a purist.

Hitchmough’s  graduate students have spent years surveying people in urban neighborhoods and asking them about their reactions to the meadows he has created. This work has led to the belief that without color, constant color, meadows are treated by people as areas to be discarded.  “I want to create joy. These meadows allow individuals to construct a narrative about their existence.” ( photo above from the Olympic Park)


Next on my hit parade was Thomas Rainer, whose blog I love.  His entire talk thomas-rainer-his own gardencentered on  the failures of the native plant movement. He characterized the movement as a train wreck:  polarizing and divisive.  His mission:  to reframe the native plant movement dogma from ideology and propaganda to rationality and common sense.  It was a tough task.  Telling an audience they have an image problem, is something that does not go over well.

219An example of a designer who encapsulates Rainer’s idea of designed plant communities:  Piet Oudolf.  Oudolf is a great designer and Rainer put his figure on why.  It’s not just that Oudolf knows plants and how to combine them.  It’s a lot more than that.  Oudolf’s gardens are based on emotional associations:  What does this garden make you recall?  How does this garden make you feel?  Rainer practically implored the audience to evoke the memory of nature, but not to be a slave to it.

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves.
There is none such.”

Henry David Thoreau

It was James who paraphrased Thoreau. This was one of the best conferences I have attended, because of its diversity of speakers. My takeaway:   I do not long for a landscape that once existed.  I only wish to create something, that might be a memorable and emotional experience  for a great many people, including myself.


  1. Pingback: Why “Naturalistic” Landscapes will Rage On | The L.A.N.D. Line

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