3 Keys to Understanding Biophilia in Landscaping

I recently sat down with Rick Martinson, owner of Winter Creek Restoration, to discuss Biophilia as it relates to landscaping.  Biophilia is a philosophy based on the bond between human beings and other living systems and while it has gained some traction in the architectural industry, it only just beginning to be explored as a methodology for landscaping.

Tom and Barb have certainly embraced the principals of biophilia for the entire Desert Rain project.  To someone unfamiliar with the concept, its application in landscaping is a great starting point.

Whether you have had a chance to chat with Rick and his team from Winter Creek at Desert Rain, or you have run into him at your favorite local coffee shop, it only takes a moment to understand that Rick is intensely passionate about the relationships between plants and people.  But when pushed to winnow the philosophy down to a few key points, he happily offered these 3.

New plants for Desert Rain

3 Keys to Understanding Biophilia in Landscaping

It’s not the current norm to give considerable thought to how each created landscape functions as an ecological and integrated system. Most frequently, we see landscapes that have been designed solely as an aesthetic component of a built environment. But if we look at the landscapes of our homes, businesses, and municipal spaces with a perspective based in biophilia, we can see that landscapes are functional systems.

Rick offers the analogy of a traditional zoo.  Until recently, zoos were a collection of exotic creatures living essentially together, but never really interacting. When we plant trees and shrubs merely for their aesthetic value, it is easy to neglect to understand how they will interact together.

#1 Landscapes are Working Systems

A landscape that is designed as a dynamic system considers not only the broad climate of site, but also the effects of the system on wildlife habitat, soil condition, water and air quality, and human health (mental and physical). Using a biophilia methodology requires that we consider how the plants selected will interact with each other, how they will be affected by the space itself, and what they will contribute to this created environment. Plants, soil bacteria, and fungi work together to create shade, conserve water, access nutrients, to ward off disease, pests, and even survive natural disturbances like droughts and floods.

You can read more about the relationships between plants in a previous post explaining “resource islands.” 

#2 Plant Richness and Plant Density Create a Self-sustaining System

Landscaping elements can be divided into functional groups (trees, mosses, grasses, shrubs, fungi, etc), each occupying a specific environmental niche. Each group is made up of a huge variety of species. When you increase the number of functional groups as well as the number of species within groups, you do something amazing for your landscape or created environment.

Plant group and species diversity with plant density increase nutrient cycling at a microbial level. This means the landscape system is able to feed itself without the use of added fertilizers.  Biodiversity increases ability of the landscape to survive pests invasions. Because most insects and diseases are plant specific, an infestation will only affect one or two species within a diverse plant palette. A rich plant pallet will attract a greater variety of birds, mammals, and insects. This, in turn, helps spread native plants that will contribute to and thrive within the landscape system.

While this richness may seem novel, it also creates a landscape that can take care of itself. A thoughtfully created environment becomes one that changes and adapts to disturbances and contributes to all beings’ welfare (including humans) rather than being a tax upon others.

#3 Landscapes Require Plants that are Appropriate to Each Location

You may look around your hometown and note that many of the plants you see are the same – surmising that these plants do well in this climate and therefore are the best choice for your landscape. That may lead down the wrong path. Often, landscape designers and installation companies work with the same small plant palette. In fact, across the country, a similar, narrow plant palette is used regardless of the landscape location.

You may also look around the wild or undisturbed areas near you and see very similar plants. A wild space near Madras, Oregon may look a lot like a wild space near Brothers, Oregon – a sage field with juniper.  What you don’t see are the differences in the understory. For example, the understory of both of these locations include buckwheats, but they are actually different sub species specific to the slightly different rainfall and soil types of the areas.

Choosing the right plant for the environmental conditions in that site is crucial to creating a healthy functioning landscape system. Choosing the right species and sub species reduces the resources needed to get them to work as a system and increases the success rate of the landscape.  Even a carefully created landscape will need some support (water, mulch, etc) when it’s first installed. After about 3 years, the system will have created small micro climates, established networks between the fungal communities in the soil and the plants, and will be able to take care of itself.

Understand Where You Live

Whether you are considering a new landscape or are just interested in learning more, you can conduct your own research project that will give you a richer understanding of where you live.

Identify your eco region and identify the plant associations within your specific eco region.

First, find your eco region (level 4*) by using this map. This is very different than the USDA growing regions that you may be familiar with.

ftp.epa.gov/wed/ecoregions/or/or_front.pdf 
*level 4 indicates the level of specificity

Next, you’ll need to identify native plant associations. You can start by looking for a reference community – an undisturbed space within your eco region that shares similar features (rocks, shade, exposure to sun, etc). You can use online resources like native plant societies in your region, survey maps from the 1800’s, and GLO maps.

You’ll soon realize that this is not an easy or quick project, but it will be one that is quite informative.  Let us know what you discover or reach out with questions.

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