Since I have the audacity to call this blog “Good Landscapes” and to offer advice for creating such places, I think I’d better start out by defining what I mean by good.
From my perspective, a good landscape possesses these three basic qualities:
- It contains comfortable outdoor spaces that support everyday living.
- It provides at least some amount of habitat and ecosystem services.
- It is thrifty in its consumption of the earth’s resources.
These attributes simultaneously underlie and float above considerations of beauty, appearance and style. They are simply the necessary elements of a landscape that works well and feels right, which I call good.
Comfortable Outdoor Spaces
What makes outdoor spaces comfortable? The answer naturally varies with who we are and where we live. In my experience, however, there are a few conditions that nearly always lead to comfort and ease.
First, a landscape should contain a place for people (several, a few, or just one) to enjoy being outdoors. This space should be just the right size for the intended use, not too big and, if possible, not too small. It should be relatively convenient to get into and out of, meaning not too far away from, and not too many steps above or below, the door that leads to it. This, of course, is unless the space itself is intended to be a separate destination or meditative “away” place, in which case the getting there should be part of the fun.
Whatever its size and purpose, every outdoor gathering space should be interesting or unique in itself, and not just a copy of commonplace ideas. If possible, some degree of privacy is desirable, as are opportunities for warmth during cold times and coolth during hot times, and some scene or thing to visually enjoy.
A second outdoor place that must be comfortable is the car space. To be good, a driveway and its associated parking/turnaround spaces should be inviting and easy to use, big enough, but not too big. Access from the car space to the door where people are supposed to go should be clear and convenient. Vehicles should not dominate the view from any important rooms of the house. The pavement itself should pitch at least a little bit to make sure water runs off, preventing puddles and icing, but it should not pitch so much that driving is difficult or dangerous, nor that the pavement or adjacent ground will erode in heavy rain.
Habitat and Ecosystem Services
To support a variety of seen and unseen wild creatures, a landscape should contain at least some regionally-native plants, and preferably many. Ideally, some of these plants will be growing in groups or semi-wild “conservation patches,” to provide a wide variety of conditions and niches. Mowed lawn and other non-living ground surfaces should occupy no more than half, and ideally much less, of the overall acreage. The remaining land should be filled with thriving vegetation in any combination of meadows, groves or woodlands, shrubs, orchards, pasture, hayfields, food crops and gardens.
“Ecosystem services” are the work that nature does for us. Such work includes obvious things like providing food and fuel, and less obvious things like regulating climate and controlling pests. Our individual landscapes can contribute substantially to this work of nature. How? By containing as much area as possible where diverse, multi-layered vegetation provides the base of a complex food chain, where soil absorbs and purifies rainwater, and where abundant woody plants produce oxygen for us to breathe while storing carbon from the atmosphere.
All landscapes are full of ways we can choose to protect the earth’s resources. To achieve this, we need only look at our gardens and grounds through a new prism of conservation and humility.
There’s noting like scarcity to inspire saving. But we should not delay changing our actions until resources become expensive or rare, nor until we alter the planet beyond repair. We can be smarter than that. So no matter where we live, we should design our landsacpes to need minimal watering, soil amendments, garden chemicals, and gas-powered maintenance. And until solar and wind replace coal and gas as our main sources of energy, we should also use, in our good landscapes, the least possible electricity.
The qualities described here are general and flexible but roughly the minimum conditions for what I term a “good landscape.” There is no exact formula for how to achieve them, and in what proportions, arrangements, materials and styles, but this is what makes landscaping so much fun.
Future posts will expand upon and clarify these ideas, illustrating how they can be implemented in countless ways, in every kind of landscape.
“We have worked closely with Sue Reed for over 15 years, on projects both modest and grand. She has a great blend of engineering knowledge and design, and can see the opportunities and pitfalls clearly. Her sense of how to site a house in the landscape is uncanny. When we are able to work together, the projects gain value both functionally and aesthetically.”