Native Plant Community Design — Taking Examples from Nature in the Southeast for Sustainable Design
Traveling from Athens, GA to Cullowhee, NC for the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference at Western Carolina University I was able to stop and visit many diverse natural communities on the short drive. My arrival in Cullowhee began with a botanist-led excursion into the serpentine barrens of Buck Creek in the Nantahala National Forest. Finding communities of pitch pine, deer berry, big bluestem grass, and many herbaceous plants that one would just as soon find in a prairie ecosystem in the Midwest than the side of a mountain in western North Carolina, we began to point out and recognize the pattern of plants in this rarely occurring ecosystem. The designer in me was eager to organize the information into an orderly landscape planting design for my clients.
Luckily, shortly after this amazing field trip I met Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, authors of Planting in a Post-Wild World. Their talk and book helped me further my
understanding of designing native plant communities. As a native plant designer, one does not want to get caught in the rut of simply replacing individual plants with a native counterpart. For example, a single ligustrum hedge could be replaced with a wax myrtle hedge, and that could certainly benefit a small area and a few local birds.
However, imagine what one could do when the native plants of an area are seen as a system and a forced design of non-native flora—including exotic, invasive plants— could be replaced with a fully native-plant community that benefits the soil, air, and all wildlife, not just a few species of birds. The ecological benefits of designing and installing native plant communities are clear, but in a post-wild world, designing with native plant communities will benefit humanity in ways that are not fully understood or realized. A meadow on a parking structure roof will add ecological function through filtering storm water and mitigating the heat island effect, but will also connect urban dwellers with natural beauty. In order to bring ecological functions to the urban core and create sustainable, resilient metro-areas, we must design cities that are intimately connected to and function with the natural world, not seen as a separate entity.
Here in Athens, GA, my design work is mainly centered in an area called the Piedmont. This diverse natural community contains twelve common sub-communities including Oak-Pine-Hickory forests, prairies and savannahs, granite outcrops, and floodplains. The Piedmont has many native plant species that overlap community boundaries. This overlap—commonly called edges, where an upland Oak-Pine-Hickory forest transitions to prairies and savannahs—is where the action occurs. This edge is where the greatest diversity of plants and animals is found. I find these edges in my clients’ landscapes in the forms of planting beds transitioning to lawn or tree islands transitioning to parking lots. These are the areas where we can begin to see how different our conventional plantings are from the plant communities that would occur naturally.
Taking our inspiration from nature, a design of a native plant community would be packed with plants that naturally occur together as opposed to the conventional tree-shrub-pine straw-turf formula that is so often seen in modern landscape design. A design based on a natural community would have an innate resilience. For example, a design of a parking lot planting could be inspired by a serpentine barren—a natural community with shallow soil and harsh living environments—or a rain garden design could be inspired by a floodplain—an area that is flooded and drained with rain events.
In conclusion, as one travels through the South and beyond, I encourage us to always seek out and experience the different natural and plant communities occurring within these areas. I find inspiration from these local natural communities as I work to design resilient, functional, and sustainable landscapes. Together, we can work to bring the natural resiliency of these areas to the designed landscapes of our urban cores and begin to build sustainable, ecological cities.