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Aesthetic Principles for Landscaping with Natives
to Redefine the Identity of a Community
~  ~    ~
Presented to the Florida Native Plant Society
Conference May 22, 2009 in West Palm Beach

Conference Theme:
Wake Up and Plant the Natives!
Assigned Context:

ASLA and ISA CEU credit qualified
(for Landscape Architects continuing education)

I recommend reading the ABSTRACT and the PREFACE first to get the general
context. Then, either before or after reading the speech, view the slide show.



As an integral component of environmentalism, the native plant movement has traditionally drawn its membership from those who want to repair the damages done to nature by earlier generations and to prevent any more of the same. Consequently, the rising popularity of all that we now label "green," is generating a groundswell of interest in going native as well. However, in spite of this and decades of advocacy, native plants persistently remain in the minority of all plants installed in Florida's private urban and suburban landscapes. It is time to reassess past methods and results to understand why this is so and to identify those whom the movement is not reaching but possibly could.

Laying the blame on developers is an all too easy explanation that ignores a basic fact of economics: free markets do not allow developers or anyone else to survive very long selling unwanted products. So at worst, developers may be justifiably accused of pandering. In the long run, however, Coconuts, Crape myrtles and Christmas palms are not so much the dream of the developers as they are the dream of the customers they are chasing. It is an entrenched public taste that is ultimately to blame for the lackadaisical demand for native plants

To awaken communities to our rich palette of native vegetation, there is a desirable benefit that only native plants can provide and exotics cannot -- the sense of place. The persuasive power of this idea is under used and under estimated and is the primary reason natives are not planted more regularly. Recent projects, however, are demonstrating its viability for enticing clients to go all native in order to get a landscape that is unique to the land on which they have chosen to live/build.


I have two separate presentations today that will run parallel to each other: my talk, about the idea the theory, and the slides, that show it in practice. Your job is to absorb them simultaneously and merge them as we go along. The slide show includes:

  • Plants - over the past 20 years, I planted or caused to be planted almost all of them.
  • Two places - the Anna Maria City Hall and Historical Park that were my laboratories.
  • Photoshop images - photos of the future to get a special job or win a public debate.
  • Plan drawings - What I show the client and what I use to set the plants in place.

From what you see, I want you to grasp the common thread: the look of an island one of a particular set of barrier islands naturalized by Nature, idealized by man. Note the merging plants and trees in a natural but ordered arrangement. Notice the absence of hard surfaces that contradict Nature and their replacement with the most common material found in this peninsula we live on: a mixture of fine shell and sand that screams Florida! to us in the dunes and open areas and whispers it through the natural leaf drop in our maritime forest.


To place me into your context, consider our common quest to be a war a war to turn back the exotics that have conquered so much of our peninsula and replace them with the peninsula's own vegetation. In that war, the Society may be thought of as the Central Command Headquarters. Your keynote speakers at this Conference and their academic and scientific community are then the Pentagon of PhD's. The battalion of growers and nurseries are the providers of the ordnance.

In this metaphor, I am the foot-soldier engaged in house-to-house combat, winning back a piece of this community today, and that one tomorrow. My field of operations is small: first just one village, then another on this island, and now a beachhead behind enemy lines on the northern tip of the next island down. And, while this venue may be small, the strategy I've developed is huge and applicable everywhere on earth.


Let me forewarn you though, that my strategy is somewhat at odds with the conventional tactics heretofore practiced by you in promoting the use of native plants at the community level. In my experience, the all but exclusive emphasis on preaching about reducing the use of water and pesticides and fertilizers, although valid, is not a strong enough weapon to win more than partial victories.

My strategy is a take-no-prisoners strategy and does not condone partial victories. I am not promoting more natives in the landscape; I am promoting all natives!

First, there are too many loopholes in the environmental arguments. There are too many plants from China, Australia, and Madagascar that can fulfill those criteria just as well. Second, those results are not visual. No matter how many plants people select for their environmental benefits, it pales by comparison to the multitude selected for their visual appearance alone. I have consistently found that the most powerful argument with the broadest possible appeal to a community is not environmental, but rather it is visual and aesthetic.

And when it comes to being converted by that argument from exotics to natives, I am my own best example.


In the summer of 1989 I joined a volunteer project to beautify the Anna Maria City Hall grounds that you see in the slide show. At that time I had just fled that world of corporate politics that so often cripples the auto industry. Fresh from the fast life, I was still enthralled by English gardens, Versailles, Tuscany, and still a prisoner of Saturday matinee nostalgia for Hollywood's "Tropical Dream".

My bible was "Tropica", that hefty volume of 5,500 photos of every exotic plant and flower on earth, and my intent was to plant as many as possible on Anna Maria. When I first brought by wife-to-be to the island on a vacation from Germany, my brother took us around the island in his boat while I explained to her what a significant role the Australian Pines played in the beauty of the island. And back on land I showed her the magnificent bark of the Melaleucas.

But something happened while we were gathering donations of exotics to plant around the City Hall. The first water shortage struck and pushed the word Xeriscape to the front pages of the press. In a bibliography of one article, I found a slim letter sized paperback book published by the Association of Florida Native Nurseries, "Xeric Landscaping With Florida Native Plants". It had only a few pictures and just general comments about the concept and the plants, but the map reprinted there that divided Florida into 19 indigenous plant associations and the separate plant lists (about 38 in all) for each of those in each of the north, central and south parts of the state was profound indeed.

Florida Plant Associations Map


It was in fact so profound, that it took me many years to compile my present understanding of the implications. Back then, those lists of plants I only knew a few of were just more exotics an addendum to Tropica! As one prone to the stamp-collector compulsion, however, I began to accumulate them and plant them around the City Hall with the Xeric exotics, checking each off the list as I installed them. As the collection grew, they began to be more interesting than those tired old exotics, and so did the inevitable discussions about the whats and whys of planting natives instead of exotics.


That suited me well. With multiple university degrees in industrial design, transportation design, and humanities, and at that time 25 years both as a designer of autos and residences as well as an intense student of philosophy (cloned from Howard Roark), I was compulsive about defining the nature of things and debating them long into the night at every opportunity. On my 13th birthday, my mother gave me a copy of the autobiography of Raymond Loewy, the first industrial designer. It was titled "Never Leave Well Enough Alone". And thereafter, I never did.

So let me explain the significant implications of these lists:

The plant associations represent a generalized delineation of zones in which horticultural conditions are and have been such that the listed plants have become dominant. They have been found to occur naturally there and vouchered as such by botanists who deposited dried and pressed samples of them in an herbarium to facilitate identification and research. The outer perimeter surrounding these wherever they occur constitute a plant's native range.


To fully grasp the significance, you need only overlay all of the native ranges of the plants from the list of the delineated association where you live. The area within which all ranges will overlap will define the only place on earth where those plants can be said to occur naturally. And when you see the set of them growing together, you are seeing, in the context of vegetation, the natural, visual identity of that place.


Consequently, any place landscaped with the plants from its own list, and only those plants, looks like the place where it is. There, we say, one will experience a sense of place.

In landscaping then, a genuine sense of place is necessarily the result of creating a visible identity that is genuine, and that will necessarily be the result of planting plants that are native to the spot in which they are planted.

Though my new bible is still titled "Xeric Landscaping With Florida Native Plants", I think of it now as "Sense Of Place Landscaping with Plants Native to the Site". "Xeric" was used back then to address the immediate water crisis when the book was published, but it is not a characteristic that distinguishes native plants from exotics. Nor is the term "Florida Friendly" or "Florida Native" that distinguish only the plants that happen to grow in a particular government's jurisdiction. When used as a guide for selecting plants, the ambiguity of those terms can actually result in disruption of a local ecosystem. Sense of place landscaping obviates the need for such terms. All plants that are native to the spot they are planted in are Florida friendly and Florida natives if that place is in Florida. Likewise, all plants that are native to the spot they are planted in provide 100% of the benefits to the environment of which they are capable without even mentioning that fact.

Sense of place is a powerful idea. Everyone I have explained it to is intrigued by it and attracted to it. But the recreation of natural identity is only half of the art of landscape design. As you can well imagine, that benefit alone will not be enough to get someone to cut down a 20'x40' Royal poinciana in the third week of May to replace it with a 30 gallon Live oak or Gumbo-limbo. If you try that on someone, I can tell you exactly what they will say ... "but it's so BEAUTIFUL!" To which you can say, "Sorry ma'am, but beautiful alone isn't good enough anymore".

That is because aesthetic beauty is just the other half of landscape design, and neither it nor natural identity separate from each other can be a complete standard of good landscape design. The sense of place of a hyper-stylized exotic landscape is often extraordinarily beautiful, but it is always and ever a fib a contradiction of its own location. The sense of place of most untouched nature inherently has an identity consistent with its location, but it is more often boring or impenetrably chaotic than it is aesthetically pleasing.


The ultimate standard must be the achievement of a landscape in which aesthetic beauty and a sense of place identity consistent with the location are integral and inseparable aspects exactly as it is when Nature endows us with the vistas that we universally regard as the most beautiful experiences of all. I like to provoke serious consideration of the nature of natural beauty by issuing a pair of challenges: Take a camera on a trip through a National Park, and when you return, how many things did you photograph? Why those and not the rest? Take a camera to the beach every day for a year. How many sunrises or sunsets will you photograph? Why those and not the rest? In other words, what is the standard that makes some instances of Nature more exhilerating than the rest?


As much as I am eager to hear your answers, the clock is ticking, so I will just give you mine. The common denominator among beautiful natural vistas is that the essential identities of the components and the whole are concretized in an idealized form. Concretized here means that our abstractly held knowledge of the essential nature of them is made to be perceivable immediately and directly in physical form.

To understand why that can generate the intense emotional experiences that occur in the presence of Nature's greatest vistas from macro- to micro-, you must take into account the nature of human beings and the specific means by which we survive and thrive. Unlike other animals, we must choose to use our conceptual minds to organize and understand the information of our perceptions, then apply it consistently to our actions. The process of deriving the knowledge of existents their identity is long, complex, and often tedious.

The emotional high of beauty peaks in proportion to the depth and breadth of the nature of things that we can experience directly as an actual, physical instance of the knowledge of Nature we have achieved. The positive emotions generated by the beauty of Nature result from the heightened experience of the efficacy of our mind in the service of our life. In that way, every experience of beauty in Nature makes a tiny contribution to our self-esteem.


The reason we often seek emotional refuge in experiences of Nature, is that the natural is immune from contradiction it is neither right nor wrong. It simply is. We are volitional creatures and therefore fallible. We can err when recreating nature, but Nature itself is inherently valid, as it were. So, when it becomes coincidentally arranged in a way that enables us to experience in our direct perception of it a pre-conceptualization of the essential identity of each of the components as well as the whole, it is universally a value. There is seldom disagreement among us over what is beautiful in Nature.

These pre-conceptualized and idealized instances occur in Nature coincidentally the same way that they would be deliberately recreated by a skilled landscape painter. Every accomplished artist capable of painting a breathtaking landscape has a toolbox full of techniques that enable him to guide your mind through his painting to maximize the quantity and quality of your experience:

  • First reading, second reading, third reading ... the stages of grasping the content are scaled by your proximity to the picture. Each succeeding level of detail is grasped while the previous one is retained, and each level is a completely cohesive and self-contained image. This technique enables the painter to greatly increase the amount of information the viewer can easily and comfortably absorb.
  • The eye goes first to the point of strongest light/dark contrast, then to the next strongest, etc. This enables the painter to establish the order in which certain elements are grasped.
  • Throw a simple shadow on a complex surface a complex shadow on a simple surface. This enables the artist to introduce and unambiguously define for you the shape of an unseen peripheral object casting a shadow into the picture, as well as to more thoroughly define with that shadow the form of the surface it falls upon.

With these techniques, the painter will reformat Nature to conform to man's means of grasping, understanding, and contemplating it without violating any of Nature's rules.


Now, we can descend from the philosophical stratosphere and anchor our understanding of the beauty of Nature with my favorite models, the National Parks, or say the natural parks, to include the smaller regional parks. These are filled with an abundance of found ideal instances of Nature on which there is universal agreement as to their beauty.

I like to explain my own dream landscape for the island I live on as a goal of making the equivalent of a National Park out of the island into the clearings of which we dropped our houses, offices, and strip-malls with giant helicopters. With those lists in hand and our new understanding of sense of place and the aesthetics of natural beauty, but for the currently contrary preferences of too many owners, it could be easily achieved:

  • Strictly adhere to the list of plant associations in the local plant associations.
  • Obey the rules of Nature on how those plants grow and merge and multiply.
  • Obey the rules of aesthetics to idealize their forms and composition.

Thus, landscapes with plants native to the spot in which they are planted can be as beautiful as our best National Parks. Landscapes with exotic plants can also be of great beauty; but it will only be the beauty of an amusement park. That is the ultimate price one must pay for the beauty of an exotic landscape: you don't live anywhere. You live in an outpost of EPCOT, visually divorced from your own location on earth.


This is not to deny the validity of the pleasure we derive from owning, understanding, growing, using, and contemplating the incredible array of exotic flora of the earth. The plants that delight us, feed us, and cure us are an integral part of thriving as a human being. Sense of place is a principle applicable solely to the visual appearance of the lands and vegetation that surround us and the functional/spiritual accessories to our lives.

Achieving a sense of place requires only that the non-native vegetation for whatever purpose it is used be an element visually distinct from the landscape that no rational person would assume on seeing it that the exotics were an integral part of the landscape. A nice model would be the great manor homes we see on those PBS historical dramas. The plants for food, flowers, and fun are gathered into a formal garden behind the home, while the grounds that extend from it in all directions appear to be ideal and untouched Nature, even though they were, in every detail, designed and created. In this way one can have the best of both worlds even down to the smallest property a collection of exotica, a garden for food and medicinal plants, and a native landscape. My handy maxim that captures the discipline this principle mandates is:


Garden with exotics; landscape with natives.

The highest priority and most immediately available benefit in implementing this principle is in restructuring the business model of all retail native nurseries that still believe they cannot survive financially at this time without also selling harmless non-native plants. The fallacy in that idea is that mixing natives into exotic landscapes implicitly condones the exotics and precludes any possibility of experiencing a true sense of place. I have consistently found that just one or two exotic trees or major shrubs is sufficient to significantly degrade the experience. There may be exotics that are harmless to the environment, but there is no such thing as an exotic that is not harmful to a sense of place. It is a contradiction that cannot be evaded.

The overwhelmingly obvious solution is to rearrange the sales area to look like a home or office, with the native vegetation completely surrounding the property and the exotics clustered around the office arranged in groupings that make the idea evident. Also urge at every opportunity the growing of exotics in pots. Both in my own case and others, I have found that as a pure sense of place landscape matures, one's passion for exotic flora wanes and eventually can all but disappear.


Sense of place is a phrase about which much is written, mostly in academe, but with wildly diverse meanings ascribed. It is used more as an after-the-fact description than a principle to direct deliberate actions. The Society's own web site doesn't even mention it. Our native growers and wholesale nurseries are ill equipped to facilitate it. Many desirable plants on the lists that are needed to create a richer sense of place are not grown by anyone at all. The combination of small markets and the horticultural preference to start plants small in a new location so they can build their systems in situ puts native landscapers at a great disadvantage in the competition for the high-end landscapes that ring the coastlines of Florida. Too much time and money are wasted coordinating the trucking of needed material from distant growers.

The plants from the list and the larger sizes that are missing are caught in a catch-22 of insufficient supply because of insufficient demand that is a direct result of insufficient supply, ... For me to create a demand in the public, I must first be able to plant some so they can see them, but no one grows them, because the demand I could create with them does not already exist!


To break this debilitating cycle, I have proposed to participants in the Manatee-Sarasota area to join an attempt to develop a prototypical program to coordinate growers, brokers, wholesalers, retailers, landscape architects, installers and truckers in an effort to:

  • Focus supply on plants native in the local region's plant associations.
  • Augment that supply gradually with the plants not now grown.
  • Generate markets for new plants in advance as quantities become available
  • Enable the creation of a third-party system to track and publish up to date inventories
  • Enable the creation of a third-party system to coordinate piggy-back shipping of plants

As I said at the beginning. This strategy is huge! But I am totally convinced of its viability. I invite all who agree with any part of it to participate and engage others in furthering it. And to you in this room, my friends, in keeping with the theme of this Conference, I say:

Wake Up and Create Your Own Sense of Place! Be Thereby Your Own Best Example!

Thank you.

Xeric Landscaping with Florida Native Plants is available at the while the map and plant lists from it are available as an interactive Google map (zoom to your property and click) on my new website .

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