Couldn’t resist sharing this pic from my favorite site in Scarborough ~ the bumble bees were going crazy in the rhodie blossoms, drunk on nectar and practically bumping into each other as they flew from one to the next.  Check out this guy’s antennae reflected in the leaf below…

PS…If you plant it, they will come (yes, I really did say that!) but forget about making one garden specific to butterflies or bees ~ thread things they like throughout the landscape, then sit back and watch the show.

Drawing the Line

Let’s face it: there’s no such thing as a ‘natural’ line on a developed property. No matter how hard we try to simulate nature, how careful we are to preserve the aesthetic, the moment we inhabit a place we interfere with the natural order. We have to; there’s no way to achieve habitation without occupying some portion of the site. However gently we arrange that occupation, however limited our footprint, the best we can have is nature lite.

That said, the lines we draw needn’t be the sad and silly curvilinear things that have become so popular in today’s landscaping; the trick is to follow, to emphasize, the lines that are already there. For example, on a property I manage in Scarborough, Maine, the owner and I decided to create a walkable path through the wet meadow. Looking at the tree line from a distance, it’s hard to see where the natural breaks are occurring within that line. Those breaks aren’t always immediately apparent, as you can see from the photo. Come for a walk with me, though, and you’ll begin to get an understanding of the patterns within. The more you walk, the more you’ll see. The more you see, the clearer the line for the new trail will become.

By allowing the trail to become apparent, almost of its own volition, we can finesse a pathway through the meadow rather than carve one. This has multiple benefits: it’s better for the property, in that it will disturb the habitat as little as possible, but it will also be easier and cost less.

This technique works across the board, and is especially useful in determining the size and shape of the ‘envelope’ when building a new house. More and more, people are deciding to clear only as much land as is absolutely necessary to allow for the structure and the equipment, but often they take the concept of envelope far too literally. The building envelope needs to be small, yes, but it doesn’t need to be square. Following the tree line in these cases is just as beneficial as using the tree line to establish our path through the meadow. It will give the site a more natural appearance and will save money in the long run; felling trees before construction begins is a lot cheaper than removing them individually after the house is in place. In addition, leaving a clean and natural tree line eliminates the rather sad and sorry stragglers which are merely remnants of the grouping that existed in front of that natural break. If there won’t be enough of that original stand left to give the remaining trees visual, if not literal, support, it’s usually best to let them go. Allowing the line to follow its own course, however, may give you enough plasticity to maneuver around other tree groups, saving both the trees and the aesthetic. The Roman philosopher Seneca said that all art is an imitation of nature; I couldn’t agree more.

To achieve an artful landscape, just watch what nature does and follow along.

Stewardship by Design

One problem facing those who consider stewardship issues is the loss of habitat caused by residential building practices.  Even among those who ‘build within the envelope’ there still is an overwhelming tendency to strip that envelope of native vegetation, and to replace it with a collection of whatever plant materials are currently popular.  On occasion, those materials are indigenous but they are more often hybrids which have been developed solely for hardiness or size.  A prime example of this is a shrub called Burning Bush.

The chief argument in favor of Burning Bush, a variety of euonymous, is that it turns scarlet in the fall and is therefore visually appealing within the landscape.  The native Highbush Blueberry, though, also turns scarlet in fall; in addition, it produces flowers in spring and berries in early summer.  With similar branching structures and similar displays, both shrubs serve the same design purpose, but with very different aesthetic outcomes.  Persistent use of the hybrid over the native results in a loss of the visual integrity of the habitat, of which we humans are members.

Supplanting natives with hybrids causes a loss of vegetation and a consequent adverse effect on wildlife, but I propose that such a loss compromises the human element, as well.  Though my diet does not depend on my ability to find blueberries, their presence in the local landscape is a visual and cultural touchstone.  From a design standpoint, using Highbush Blueberry instead of Burning Bush preserves the indigenous aesthetic of Maine.  That preservation has significant personal relevance and finding relevance in the landscape is the act that connects us with the properties we inhabit.  We are otherwise merely perched atop a piece of land that never becomes home.

I study an ancient Taoist art called geomancy, which concerns itself with appropriately siting a home within a property.  To site a house (or a garden or a path) requires of me the same thing that is required by stewardship, and that is to find the balance between  human and nature.  Geomancy can be complex because there are two schools of thought:  form and compass.  The compass school uses a precise, fairly arcane methodology while the form school, which I practice, takes all its design cues directly from the land.

Because I am encouraged by this practice to take into account the whole property and not merely the ground as I create a design plan, I am simultaneously working within the realm of stewardship.  As a steward of both the vegetative and the visual, my goal is to disturb as little of the site as possible during development, allowing the land to retain its essential nature.  A geomancer would call that essential nature ‘chi’, which is energy, and would consider that energy an essential element of the design.

What I find, when I conform my design to the energy of a site, is a balance that suits all aspects of habitation for all members of the habitat.  In addition, that measure of conformity — and who would ever have thought I’d relish that word? — allows me to create designs that are unique because they are site-specific.  It’s as far from cookie-cutter as you can get, and in a time when there are cookies as far as the eye can see, that’s an attraction in and of itself.

Good for the land, and more fun in the process… I told you stewardship was cool!

Green Value

You know your property has an appraised value. You also know it has an assessed value. Do you know it has a green value? Understory plants are worth more than you may realize, and your land likely holds a cache of material that can be saved for use in the finished landscape. There’s a window of opportunity between the closing and construction dates to identify the perennials, shrubs and trees that can be salvaged for transplant. This material is usually more mature than standard nursery stock, zone-hardy and native, which makes it a good environmental decision. It’s also free, which makes it a good business decision. Before you build, call for a green appraisal.


  • Plant salvage is practical and profitable
  • An appraisal prior to sale can add to the list value
  • Replanting native material helps maintain biodiversity
  • Reusing mature stock improves the finished landscape
  • Caching reusable material is easy


A Land Ethic for the Residential Landscape

In his work “Emotion, Movement & Psychological Space: A Sketching Out of the Emotions in terms of Temporality, Spatiality, Embodiment, Being-with, and Language” Brent Dean Robbins wrote “…emotion involves a movement within interpersonal, psychological, lived space in such a way that how others matter is disclosed.”  Reading this it became clear that, in order to effect change in terms of landscape design, we need to find ways to make the ‘other’ inclusive not only of person, but of place.  The most direct route would be to make the physical space live, in literal terms; not merely be lived in, but to come alive for the residential landscaper or homeowner.  There is no better example of this than the Yeats poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I have never been to Innisfree, but because Yeats had such a deep and abiding love of place, I can see it.  This is no generic spot; no hybridized, developed, self-conscious space; it is the heather that casts the noonday glow.  In the absence of the heather that created this stunning visual, the lake would doubtless still be beautiful, but it would not be Yeats’ lake; it would not be Innisfree.  Indeed, it would not be Scotland, just as Maine would not be Maine without mile after mile of white pine.

Here the summer noons are Atlantic blue, sharp as glass everywhere you look.  Everywhere but the estuaries, where the cat-o-nine-tails stand and the reed grass falls.  Farther down, into the dunes, there’s bayberry and beach rose, fabulously unglamorous, rugged as the day is long with a combined scent as heady as French perfume.  What is a tea rose to this?  What is a P. J. M. Rhodie?  What is a Colorado spruce to a old white pine?  Handsome, surely; grand, elegant, lacy, no.  The more we root out our place things, the less rooted we ourselves become.  When Aldo Leopold was developing his Land Ethic, he wrote:

“There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations. The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity. It is the third step in a sequence. The first two have already been taken. Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as the embryo of such an affirmation.”

It has been nearly seventy years since that ethic was written, and in that time society has affirmed conservation on the large scale but is still in the embryo stage with regard to conservation of the small.  It seems time for a land ethic of the ordinary, of the native plants and trees that surround all the residential lots in all the neighborhoods, of the things that weave the common visual.  Lest another seventy years pass before this aspect of land ethic takes hold, it’s important to understand how that hold comes about.  Leopold said:

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, of course, I mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense. Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it…”

To become truly effective this new ethic will need to build those vital relationships again; fortunately, the route to connectedness is still there, even if bit obscured by weeds.  This route has two rutted grooves along which others have followed, seemingly without realizing the parallel track.  The first track is the lived Earth; its followers include Leopold, Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson, all of whom shared an enviable and luxurious intimacy with the world around them.  It also includes the geomancers, mystics and spiritualists, who view the earth as a partner in the endeavors of life.

The second track is walked by artists and designers who see in terms of size and shape, of line and form, of positive and negative space.  Like bankers to gold they cleave to the golden mean and will sacrifice everything for the pure execution of vision.  This can for some, like le Corbusier, put them at odds with the specific environment in which they are designing.  For others, like Rose and Eckbo, it can simply be that they are talking to audiences solely of peers, because the language of design does not easily translate to common speech.  Their intent, however, is the same as those who approach site design from the bottom up, the ground to the page, rather than the artistic way of top down, the design to the ground.

Because these tracks are running in tandem, and because they are heading toward the same place — that being an engaging and visually balanced environment — there must be a way of connecting the two, and of allowing back and forth of people and ideas.  Stephen Skinner, in his book The Living Earth Manual of Feng-Shui, did a remarkable job of both simplifying and modernizing the art of geomancy, and of separating the practical from the ritual and the spiritual.  In stressing its application as a design tool, Skinner writes:

“Although China is a predominantly agricultural country, the Chinese art of living within the rhythms of the land and the seasons is just asapplicable to life in the Western world.  Although the system of feng-shui is intrinsically linked to the traditional Chinese Taoist philosophy, the practical tenets are universal.”

Geomancy arose from Taoism, but it is not, in itself, a philosophy.  Rather, it is a method of achieving balance between the three elements of any occupied landscape:  earth, heaven, and human.  For the Taoist, as for mystics and seekers in general, this balance is essential and the maintenance of an intimate connection with the land lies at the heart of both thought and deed.  The desire for that connection, however, is common to humans of any philosophical bent; since geomantic principle is applied to the land and not to the person, it can aid in the realization of that desire by creating a physical environment in which bonding becomes possible.

Uncoupling the practice from the philosophy will allow it to disperse, and to float into other terrains where it might be used by those not of like mind.  People who haven’t a ‘new age’ bone in their bodies may well be attracted to a method of design that is, unencumbered, both practical and logical.  Since that is by far the broader audience, it becomes doubly important to achieve the degree of separation that will facilitate the crossover.  You don’t need to be a chef in order to cook a great meal; you just need to have a good appetite and a little experience with the tools.

Designing from the top down presents its own problems, best illustrated by the Indian city of Chandigarh, as designed by le Corbusier.  The architectural style was conceived and put into place with little prior regard for the place itself.  The buildings were constructed with a latticework of bricks in what looked, on paper, like a fine method of screening out the sun.  Had le Corbusier utilized the knowledge of place, he would have seen that an older, better, method existed:  the locals used deep verandas to shield the house from rain and sun.  While le Corbusier’s sunbreakers trapped in the heat and dust, the verandas allowed the natural forces to move freely; the buildings, and their occupants, were shielded but not confined.  Call it geomancy, call it feng shui, call it what the Hindus call it, Vaastu Shastra, it means the same thing.  It is the art of living harmoniously within the land, of artfully inhabiting place.

The architects of the ancient world created their harmony mathematically using what came to be known as the golden section, or the Fibonacci sequence.  This is based on a proportion readily seen in the natural world, and it is used by all manner of professions except builders of residential landscapes.  It is one of the tools you can pick up on the artist/designer road; it helps create spaces that look ‘right’ to the human eye in the same way that the tool of geomancy helps create spaces the feel ‘right’ to the human spirit.  Since we are as a species expressive, and since one of our key forms of expression revolves around the spaces we inhabit, it makes sense to utilize both tools.

That utilizing both tools tends to promote better design, in terms of both the environment at large and the immediate habitat, is the bonus.  It is the difference between being settled into the land and perched atop it.  Settled in, we are relaxed; perched atop, we are at best uncomfortable, if not wary.  The goal is to inhabit the land, and to allow the land to inhabit us.

In this way, the very human desire to leave one’s mark does not come at the expense of the habitat at large, and the integrity of that habitat does not become the sole dictator of design.  When we inhabit we do both, and we do them simultaneously; this is the pathway that exists between the two old routes.  It is the middle way, the broad swath of meadow bounded left and right, through which we wander home.

Having said all that, what could there be in this new method of approaching the land that would appeal to those with less esoteric, more practical inclinations?  Money.  Native materials tend to do better in land they were bred to inhabit than hybrids, which are often raised in climates less arduous than our beloved Northeast.  I won’t say that the out-of-towners are weaklings, but native stock has a proven track record.

In addition, for those who are building on undeveloped land, there are measures that may be taken to preserve the material that the land already contains for reuse in the post-construction landscape.  If you own the land, you own the plants on the land, and it makes financial sense to reuse the ones you have rather than buy new.  The first step is to salvage what you can, to remove from the construction zone whatever might reasonably be transplanted, and to create a holding bed elsewhere on the property to keep those plants alive while they and you wait for the re-landscape phase to begin.

The second step is to pay close attention to that construction zone, to make certain that the ground around tree roots isn’t compacted by heavy equipment, as this will ultimately kill the tree.  Since mature trees add value to the property in both monetary and in personal ways, a little foresight can add a lot to the bottom line.

And what of those who simply fall in love with some gorgeous plant that they absolutely must have?  Use it.  Find out first if it’s invasive by calling your local Cooperative Extension Office, but otherwise plant it and enjoy it.  This isn’t an either/or situation; it’s merely a question of balance.  Retain enough of the native material that the habitat remains stable, and all members of the habitat will benefit.

What constitutes enough?  Let’s start with a fifty-fifty split, indigenous to hybrid.  Since there are also modern versions of native materials, the range of choice is expanded still and gives us the opportunity to be fully expressive in design while retaining the natural expression of the places we inhabit.

Whether you will or not
You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
When they are gone, not the same place it was.
Mark what you leave. ~ Edward Arlington Robinson

Whether or not we wish it, we are the collective managers of these pieces of land, these little bits of Earth.  We are responsible for the way we use it, and for the way we leave it.  To that end here’s a new land ethic, one for the design and use of the common residential plot.

I BELIEVE that the native vegetation of any given area comprises more than just habitat for fauna; it creates a common visual narrative.

I BELIEVE that the common visual has value beyond price; it is what makes an area unique, and is one of the foundation stones for the concept of place.

I BELIEVE that the common visual deserves the same level of stewardship currently applied only to large tracts of land, and land conserved to the public trust.

I BELIEVE that the modern landscape practice of supplanting native vegetation with foreign varieties damages the visual habitat, in that the removal of flora associated with place identity neuters the landscape.

I BELIEVE that the spirit of place resides in the land: in the stone that forms it, in the soil that covers it, in the plants that grow from it.

I BELIEVE that when any one of those elements becomes depleted, the spirit is depleted in equal measure.

I BELIEVE that just as there are conservators of land and conservators of soil, conservators of art and music and architecture, there should be conservators of place.

I BELIEVE that we need to change the manner in which residential landscapes are designed and managed in order to conserve the common visual; and that in order to effect this change, we need a new paradigm.

I BELIEVE that the new paradigm is best achieved by weaving together ancient skills and modern practices, by combining art with science and mathematics.

I BELIEVE that this will result in harmony between the expression of design and the stewardship of land, and will restore balance to the habitat.

Simmer, Simmer

I stood on my soapbox a few weeks ago for the post on old-growth lilacs; I’ve climbed onto the parapet for this one, because it is an example of savage carelessness and I feel the need to be standing taller as I shout. There’s a beautiful site in Scarborough, Maine, that I’ve spent the last ten years tending, an 8-acre gem with a southwest view across a wet meadow.  The owner and I have made ever-so-subtle changes, some to return the property to its original ethos after many fairly bad landscape decisions by the previous owner, and some to open parts of the meadow for quiet exploration

Careful, delicate changes with a post-ownership view, a commitment to pass the property along in better shape than we found it.  Imagine my horror when I saw that the town, in an effort to repair a small dam at the pond along the parcel’s edge, had stripped and ripped and trampled huge swaths of vegetation.  They loaded the banks either side of the dam with tons on the stone pictured below, and what looks like another ton of stone dust which tends, when wet, to act like concrete.

They did this because they considered that portion of the property to be worthless.  It’s not designed, it’s not built, it’s not landscaped; but for the quiet little trail threading the house to the water’s edge, it’s untouched. Hence its beauty; a mere ten minutes from downtown Portland, but worlds away.  It’s not untouched anymore.  There’s this…
and this…
and this…

And more, but you get the idea.  So how do we get past the simmer stage?  We stew, by beginning to repair the damage.  Although parts of the site will recover on their own over the course of the year, the areas pictured clearly need a boost.  Since not all of the original material would be available from a nursery, it’s a matter of finding perennials that are native to the area, found on other parts of the site, or have qualities which appear to blend with existing materials.  In this case, the plants and shrubs also need to be fond of, or at least tolerant of, the water that comprises the ‘wet’ part of  ‘wet meadow’.  For this property, it means the following plants, and the replacement of the top course of stone with a mix that will blend into the setting, not scare the fish or glow in the dark.

shrubs:  northern bayberry, american elder, black chokeberry, common witchhazel

perennials:  joe-pye weed, brown knapweed, spikenard

seed:  switchgrass, queen anne’s lace, brown knapweed, blue vervain, culvers root, rudbeckia submentosa

Unfortunately, some of the seed can’t be sown until Fall because it needs over-wintering in order to sprout, so restoration will take both time and patience.  About three years of both, as a matter of fact, so we’re hunkered down for the long haul.  I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

The other site that’s causing a slow boil isn’t a case of savage carelessness, it’s one of careless savagery.  Before their new neighbors built a house on the property adjacent to the one that now needs redesign, my client’s rear yard was backed by a gorgeous grove of old-growth pine.  In a move that is becoming all too common, the neighbors didn’t just clear a bit of space for a lawn, they clear-cut the property edge to edge.  Here’s the result, white vinyl fence and all:

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:  if you want to live in a sunny, open space, don’t build a house in the woods!  This denuding has done more than strip both view and privacy for my homeowners, it has altered the environment for the plants and shrubs on our side of the fence, which are now dangerously exposed.

It will require both stewardship and geomancy to make the redesign of this property successful, but I’ve already purchased the first of what I imagine will be many new trees:  five Pagoda dogwoods.  This is a native understory tree that is also underused, although I’m not sure why. With lateral branching — great for filling visual gaps — and fabulous Fall color, it’s a natural for this site.  It also sets berries, which provide a great food source for the birds, so it’s a two-for-one shot.

No matter what I plant, though, I’ll never be able to recreate the environment as it was, as it should have remained.  I look over that fence to see plastic toys galore, and am reminded of my childhood explorations of my little woods.  My chief concern is the restoration of this property, of course, but I can’t help feeling just a bit sorry for those kids, and for all the wondrous explorations they will miss.

Doors, Mantles, Hardware… and Lilac?

I’m going to get on my soapbox for a minute, but it’s a soapbox with origins in my grandmother’s back yard, so hear me out.  She lived in a row-house in Roslindale, Massachusetts, and though I don’t remember much about the house, I have vivid memories of the wall of lilac out back.  I remember tucking in under the branches, and the cool ground beneath; I remember that they seemed to go up forever.  I remember the scent, and the color more blue than amethyst, like the blue tinge to her grey hair.

If I went back there now, I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be able to find a trace of them, or of others in that neighborhood, or of others in neighborhoods all across New England.  I have no doubt of that because, much as we laud turn-of-the-century wooden doors, and salvaged mantles and vintage hardware, we have no problem tossing old-growth plant materials straight into the dumpster.

There are times that’s necessary, and times it’s even desirable — you can bin most of the yew, and the half-dead prostrate juniper along with it — but there is worth in many old-growth plants, a worth that we seem to overlook.  If we value the door for its aged beauty, for an aesthetic that we know cannot be matched by anything newly-made, how is it that we miss the beauty of the living old wood right outside that door?

Lilac in particular, because of its shallow root mass, can be transplanted with relative ease and remarkable tolerance.  Even if I lose the bulk of the old growth, I still have a viable root ball that can continue producing for years; why would I want a tiny two-year-old plant from a nursery in its place?  If moving it isn’t necessary, invest a bit of energy and a bit of time on what’s known as ‘rejuvenation’ pruning, which is the removal of one-third of the oldest growth from the base. Do this every year for three years, and I guarantee you’ll be astonished by the results.  This style of pruning, by the way, works extremely well on all manner of old shrubs; Ortho puts out a great book on pruning, as does the American Horticultural Society.

Spend a little money on the book, save a lot of money on replacement plants… not a bad deal.  Just ask your grandmother.

Stew Blue: Stewardship Tastes Good!

The current landscaping within the area pictured below does nothing to highlight the beautiful birch at the center, nothing to enhance the landscape as a whole, and nothing to improve habitat for the local wildlife.  There’s one solution to all three problems — one simple act of stewardship in the form of half-highs, a cross between high-bush and low-bush blueberry, to replace the assorted perennials and weed-infested grass.  There’s nothing wrong with the perennials in and of themselves, so in accordance with my favorite mantra ~ reduce, reuse, recycle and replant ~ they’ll be transplanted to other areas of the property.  The grass covering the back half of the space will be dug and ditched, the soil amended and the blues installed all around.

NB: Not only will the birch and blueberry look great together (the fall coloration will be smashing) but they share a common desire for a low pH, so they’ll do well in the same soil.  If that hadn’t been the case, I’d have recommended a different native, but I’d still have covered the area in one material — it’s the best move from a design standpoint, allowing the eye to rest a moment and take in what is being seen.

go here to download info on using natives in the landscape:


The Roof of Hope

I’ve decided: the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for.  And the most you can do is live inside that hope.  Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.  ~ Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

I have decided to hope for a landscape that nourishes more than the bodies of the creatures that feed off it.  I have decided to hope for a landscape that nourishes the eye, and the mind, and the spirit.  I have decided to live under the roof of the landscape I want, and to live under that roof I need to plant things that arise from deeper ground than mere soil.

White pine goes deep; there are cliffs blown bare of any speck of soil, where the pine seems to rise straight from the stone.  Bayberry and beach rose go deep; the scents mix with salt when the wind turns, and I stop where I stand just to breathe and remember my feet in the cool sand of evening.  That is Maine and I have decided to hope for a landscape that keeps that Maine alive, so I lend stewardship to hope and plant for my child’s child.


In The Places We Live and Work

Even the environmentalists, committed to the rescue of wild places, have failed to address the problem of human ecology in the places we live and work. ~ James Howard Kunstler

One of the best and worst features of the landscape where we live and work is the shared visual — the parcel next door may not be your legal property, but it is your visual property.  If the visual is water or mountain or meadow, the borrowed landscape can be a stunning advantage; it is, more often, merely stunning in the same mind-numbing way as repeated blows to the head.

The first task in landscape design is to assess the terrain, but that task has two components, one physical and one visual.  The physical is an assessment of the ground itself, how it is shaped, how it moves, what it contains. Unfortunately, this is where most people stop; when they have the technical information they need to install a path or plant a few shrubs, that’s that.  With no thought to the visual beyond the little piece of territory they’re altering, they complete the installation and go straight to the next job on the list.

The missing component is the assessment of the visual terrain, which is broader, usually livelier and always, always more fun to play with.  That’s partly a matter of simple math — the visual space is larger, which means there’s more to inspire the imagination — and partly because in that larger space you find elements of the natural environment.  For me, here in southern Maine, that means stone beaches and beach roses, granite outcroppings and liquid fields.

These are the things that make Maine, Maine, and these are the things that we are losing at an alarming rate.  When we design only for our little patch of ground, we cut ourselves off not only from our neighbors, but from habitat as a whole.  We’re in the habitat, too, we humans, and we need the visual equivalent of pollen and nectar to be sustained.

There’s a move afoot to create habitat corridors for a variety of endangered or threatened wildlife, and there was interesting reference to vegetation corridors in a blurb describing a set of publications from the cooperative extension office of the University of Maine.  I share the reference with you because of one particular word:

“By landscaping with native plants, we can create vegetation corridors that link fragmented wild areas, providing food and shelter for the native wildlife.”

The word ‘fragmented’ is worth noting, because a similar fragmentation exists in the corridors of the visual landscape.  It has been caused by the same thing that caused the fragmentation of wild areas — the supplanting of native material with hybrid — and it has the same cure.  We don’t seem to be paying attention to the visual loss, yet it is equally as dramatic and, I would argue, equally as valuable to replace.

Fortunately, I needn’t argue that from an either/or stance, because in the salvage of one lies the salvage of both.  Practical altruism, that; good works with a healthy dose of self-preservation.

The Stewardship of Small Things

I went to back to Strawberry Island recently; what I was looking for I can’t exactly say, but I can say that I didn’t find it.  The island of my childhood is all but gone.  What remains is a spit of land built up by such tonnage of stone as to be unrecognizable to its former self.  I don’t know if I’d be happier if it had been allowed to erode completely away, but seeing it buried under the weight of so much intervention made my heart ache.

At the end of that same road there’s an enormous sand dune — the ‘great hill’ of Great Hill Road — that people foolishly built on.  A couple of the houses over the years developed a rather precarious perch and were hauled back to safer ground, but it’s a sand dune and it’s doing what sand dunes do despite the god-awful concrete wall that has been laid in at the base.  I can’t say how different my opinion would be had I inherited one of those foolish houses, but I can say that those images, the island and the dune, formed my understanding of the world and its beautiful, achingly ephemeral nature.

Only the wind is permanent; we occupy a tiny bit of space, each of us, and the earth is constantly shifting under our feet.  Oddly enough, that perception leaves me in good stead when it comes to landscape design because my job, first and foremost, is stewardship.  I get hired to resolve problems of habitation; my clients are only half of the equation, and the second half at that.  The first is the land, and what it is inclined to do, and what it needs from me in order to accommodate its human element.

That’s a far cry from the last century of design, which was almost entirely impositional.  There were notable exceptions, but by and large the rights of ownership reigned.  If you wanted your property to have a certain look you could, and to some schools of thought should, do it.  Property considerations were confined to matters of zoning and code, to angle and curve, and ideas of stewardship applied only to large tracts of land.

I’m here to argue for stewardship of the small, the ordinary plot of land on which sits the ordinary house.  Bound together, I believe that these ordinary plots are as valuable as large tracts to the ethos of place and to the common good.

Native Plants for Maine


Balsam fir • Red maple (Swamp maple) • Sugar maple • Rock maple • Mountain maple • Yellow birch • Paper birch • Gray birch • American hornbeam • Blue-beech • Pagoda dogwood • Cockspur thorn • White ash • Green ash • Larch • Hackmatack • Tamarack • Black gum • American hophornbeam • White spruce • Cat spruce • Black spruce • Jack pine • Red pine • Norway pine • White pine • Bigtooth aspen • Quaking aspen • Trembling aspen • Pin cherry (fire cherry, bird cherry) • Black cherry • White oak • Northern red oak • Black willow • American mountainash • Northern white cedar • Arborvitae • Basswood • American linden • Eastern hemlock


Downy serviceberry • Eastern serviceberry • Smooth serviceberry • Allegheny serviceberry • Bog rosemary • Buttonbush • Sweetfern • Gray dogwood • Red osier dogwood • American hazelnut • Bush-honeysuckle • Leatherwood • Common witchhazel • Winterberry • Black-alder • Common juniper • Sheep laurel • Lambkill • Sweetgale • Northern bayberry • Bush cinquefoil • Black chokeberry • Beach plum • Chokecherry • Rhodora • Labrador tea • Staghorn sumac • Meadow rose • Pasture rose • Virginia rose • Pussy willow • American elder • Scarlet elder • Canadian yew • Highbush blueberry • Mapleleaf viburnum • Hobblebush • Arrowwood viburnum • Nannyberry • Witherod • Wild-raisin • Highbush cranberry 

VINES AND GROUND COVERS                         

Running serviceberry • Bearberry • American bittersweet • Virgin’s bower • Bunchberry • Checkerberry • Wintergreen • Creeping juniper • Partridgeberry • Woodbine • Virginia creeper • Lowbush blueberry • Cranberry • Fox grape   


White baneberry • Red baneberry • Columbine • Spikenard • Silverweed • Jack-in-the-pulpit • Milkweed • Marsh marigold • Harebell • Blue cohosh • White turtlehead • Bluebead-lily • Trout-lily • Dog’s-tooth-violet • Joe-pye weed • Boneset • Blue flag • Indian cucumber-root • Obedient plant • Solomon’s seal • Bloodroot • New England aster • New York aster • Foam flower • Wild-oats • Violet • Viola species   


Maidenhair fern • Lady fern • Hay-scented fern • Spinulose wood fern • Marginal wood fern • Ostrich fern • Sensitive fern • Cinnamon fern • Interrupted fern • Royal fern • Long beech fern • Christmas fern   

See One, Stew One

One is all it takes — just one change in your landscape habits will make a difference. Change over one section of your lawn from high-maintenance grass to a low-maintenance ground cover like bearberry, bunchberry or woodbine.  My favorite is low-bush blueberry, which feeds the bees as well as the birds.  That simple change reduces the need for water, eliminates the need for chemicals and fertilizers, and takes care of the little critters that make or break our collective habitat.  All that and no mowing — pretty good deal for one change.

For more ways to flex your stewardship muscles, go here: