By: Brad Priest, Designer at DG2 Design Landscape Architecture
The idea of sustainability and “green” living has become commonplace over the past several years – so much so that it might even be considered trendy to a certain extent. Of course, this concept is really nothing new. It wasn’t so long ago that living sustainably wasn’t called “green”, it was just called “living” (and is still just “living” in less developed areas of the world). With a lack of modern technologies, people had to adapt their lifestyles to their immediate surroundings. Not only did climate have a major impact on daily and seasonal life, but access to fresh water, food sources or farmable land, and raw materials also heavily influenced the way people lived; they were driven by need rather than what was trendy.
Millions of years before human beings began to learn how to sustain themselves on earth, plants had perfected the concept as a basic requisite for survival. Lacking the ability to travel to the nearest watering hole or into the shade on a hot day, trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs of all kinds evolved over centuries to live as efficiently as their particular location, or their “native” range, required. While this evolutionary process developed many unique survival skills in various plant species, one essential characteristic shared by all was tolerance – more specifically the ability to survive and even thrive in the extremes of their native environments.
Interestingly, while today we humans attempt to rediscover the ways of life so perfectly demonstrated in native plants, we have the opportunity to actually use these plants to help achieve that goal. The use of native plants in our developed and designed landscapes can have major impacts on the sustainability and value of these sites as well as those beyond.
As native plants are adapted to endure climactic extremes (e.g. drought, flooding, etc.), they require less care and maintenance than foreign species. Often possessing extensive root systems, natives can reach deep into the soil to find the water and nutrients they need. In fact, once established, most native plants need no supplemental water or fertilization at all in order to thrive in the landscape. Further, their deep root structures provide critical stabilization to the soil, helping prevent excessive erosion which can degrade streams, rivers and larger bodies of water. Lastly, and equally important, native plants provide valuable habitat and food sources to native fauna. Local animals and insects that evolved alongside their local plant species have a reliance on these native plants for resources they cannot find elsewhere. Therefore, native plantings promote bio-diversity, which is a key component to the health of any ecosystem and a valuable part of the human experience with the environment.
As Landscape Architects we strive to instill a deeper level of meaning or value in any design beyond that which is immediately apparent to the viewer. From creating beautiful raingardens that filter runoff to laying out a hardscape area such that an old oak tree can be preserved, it is our responsibility to create spaces that are beneficial to both man and nature whenever possible. Native plants are essential tools to the job that provide us with aesthetic beauty and ecological richness, as well as important lessons on what it really means to live “green”.