Acclaimed native landscape architect designs in rivers, drifts
What a treat to hear Darrel Morrison, one of the most distinguished native landscape designers, at The Wild Ones annual native plants and landscaping seminar recently. What a realization to learn how unnatural my landscape design is.
Morrison emphasizes planting in rivers and drifts. Observe and mimic nature, he says. Make it look natural, even if much planning and purpose go into the design.
He designed two of the most admired native landscapes in the country, the Native Plants Garden at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. He taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recently returned to Wisconsin.
A long-time advocate of using native plants, native plant communities and natural processes in the design of landscapes, he illustrated principles he uses in designing landscapes.
The four most important goals of any design should:
* Be ecologically sound. Plants suited to their environment that provide diversity to attract wildlife fit this bill.
* Have experiential richness. This includes color, texture and beauty, sound, smell and movement.
* Have a sense of place, highlighting regional differences.
* Evolve and change. Landscapes are always a work in progress, changing with the time of day, season and year.
“Observe something in nature that is transferable,” Morrison suggests. Notice what goes together in nature, what stands out because of contrast, what blends in.
Repeat key patterns found in nature. Learn which plant communities have similar needs for light, moisture or soil type. To get to know plant communities, he recommended John Curtis’s “The Vegetation of Wisconsin.” Written in 1959, it continues to be a leading authority on plant ecology.
Curtis surveyed different types of vegetation in southern and northern forests, grasslands, savanna and shrub communities, fen, meadow, bog and aquatic communities, beaches and cliffs. If you want to know what plants were here before we were, this book will help.
Plant grasses so you can see the translucent effect of sunlight behind them. A river of native grasses will help move a visitor through a natural landscape. Pennsylvania sedge is a good low-growing choice; switchgrass is tall, and could be used more, Morrison said.
Drifts of color complement these rivers, moving diagonally through the space.
Diversify. Use a variety of native species that bloom throughout the growing season to provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. Ferns, phlox, columbine and wild ginger are good early blooming perennials. Spiderwort and butterfly are mid-season bloomers. Burr oaks provide both habitat and food for wildlife.
A diverse mix will overcome competition from annual weeds and ultimately prevent them, he said.
Substitute native plants for often-used exotics. He singled out New Jersey tea, growing to the size of a small shrub, with white blooms.
Edith Roberts and Elsa Rehmann, writing in “American Plants for American Gardens,” first convinced Morrison of the importance of looking at native plants as parts of communities. “It’s such an eminently reasonable way of looking at landscape. Working with the plants that were here before we were is a way to create a real sense of place,” Morrison said.
He’s learned from other acclaimed landscape designers, such as Jens Jensen, who was a “master of light and shadow.” He made spaces feel bigger by hiding part of the view.
He also was inspired by Steve and Rachel Kaplan, psychology professors at the University of Michigan, who work on restorative environments. They studied the effects of nature on people. Their research found office workers with a view of nature were happier and healthier.
In landscape design, he said, Kaplans focus on these attributes:
* Mystery – partially hidden features.
* Complexity – diverse color, texture, heights.
* Coherence – balance, organization.
* Legibility – the ability to read how to move through the landscape.
Morrison is best known for designing wide-open, prairie-inspired gardens. Regardless of the size of your landscape, advice from this 78-year-old expert is worth following: “Observe nature.”