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A fresh philosophy of landscaping

Everyone who immigrates to the barrier islands arrives on the wings of a dream. The source of the dream for each may vary, but the dream itself is always the same: "I am going to live on a tropical island." Mine was born on childhood vacations in the mid 1940's -- living for a month each summer in sugary sands, salty water, and an old wooden cottage.

The rest of the dream was supplied by Hollywood at Saturday matinees, in living color on the silver screen. It came in various versions, but none differed greatly from this:

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A wounded Corsair fighter plane flies low over the blue Pacific, the engine sputtering and dragging a trail of smoke. The radio is shattered and the carrier is beyond the horizon. With a large island nearby on his port side, the pilot miraculously ditches the plane and escapes before it sinks to the bottom. He tears off his uniform and boots and swims to the shore.

His footprints seem to be the first ever made in the broad, sandy beach as he makes his way to a line of tall, leaning Coconut palms and into a verdant jungle of exotic plants with huge flowers and giant leaves full of holes or brightly colored patterns. He soon comes to a clearing, and finds a hut perched on pilings. It has a roof thatched of fronds and no windows or doors to separate the inside from the outside.

Near the hut there is a depression in the sand full of glowing coals. There, roasting a whole suckling pig on a wooden spit is a lovely girl in a sarong with a necklace of pink flowers and a large Cattleya orchid over one ear.

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When, after wandering the planet in search of an education and career, I made my way back to the islands of my childhood vacations to settle down, the dream was still with me. My wife and I, both lifelong artists, designers, and gardeners, eagerly attacked our at-that-time typical island yard of mown weeds and sandspurs to craft our own super-tropical paradise.

For one of our birthdays, we splurged on a copy of "Tropica" with its 7,000 color photographs of exotic plants from around the world. Nurseries and garden centers were abundant and eager to bring in as many of those plants as could grow here long enough to convince us that the suffering and demise predestined by nature for so many of them was our fault and not theirs.

With the help of Miracle-Gro, Blossom-Booster, liquid iron, and countless bags of 6-6-6, not to mention malathion, Dursban, Weed-n-Feed, and enormous volumes of cheap water, our success was legend. People down the street from us had to allot an extra 5 minutes for their walk to the beach, so they could stop and gawk at our glorious yard.

Then, one summer, an otherwise every-day event planted in my brain the seed of a different outlook on landscaping and life on these barrier islands:

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We walked to the beach for our regular late afternoon swim. The water was bright aquamarine with bands of darker green and purple beyond the shore. Huge cumulus clouds entertained those who looked up from the beach or down from a passing plane. A large storm cloud connected to the sea with dark rain bands and flashes of lightning crossed the horizon at a safe distance. It was one of those times when you could walk out of August's envelope of warm, humid air straight into the water without flinching, and neck-deep, you could still count your toes.

You don't swim in that water, you just lean back into it and loll; and lolling that afternoon, I gazed back at the beach that was spotlit by the late day sun. Capping the dune of sugar white sand was a dense bed of Sea oats laden with golden seed culms that yielded to each passing breeze. Dotting the scene were scattered mounds of wild flowers like the yellow Dune sunflower, pink Shore-purslane, and white Searocket. Railroad vines raced seaward across the sand carrying their passengers, random clusters of large purple blossoms. A line of Cabbage palms with fully fronded beards and interspersed with Seagrapes provided a glowing backdrop that threw all the houses and yards behind them into a deep shadow.

It was a perfect moment. It was without a single exception to diminish the experience. It was an actual and visible instance of the essence of this island that was the core of my long-standing devotion to it. This, I grasped, is the island that I have always loved -- the one featured in my memories when I was not here. This is this island's real "self". The rest of the island, with its yard-man landscapes is something and somewhere else entirely.

We finished our swim and headed back to the house along the sandy path through the Sea oats and across the shallow swale to the end of our street. The sunlight that crossed above that line of Cabbage palms could now be seen falling squarely onto our personal landscape -- our tropical paradise; but this time the sight of it was not as rewarding as it should have been. It was instead jolting.

"That's downright disgusting", I said to my wife, "our landscape is way too green -- too lush! It seems somehow alien." It was not a critique per se of the landscape. That was as perfect and wonderful as ever. It was instead, the juxtaposition of our creation next to that "essence of this island" I had just experienced. It was like I had departed the beach by plane and landed at my yard on some other continent. It was suddenly so clear that this landscape could never be experienced as an integral part of this island. It would never be more than a superficial decoration that we had artificially applied onto it simply for the sake of our own amusement.

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I did not then immediately grasp what to do about this newfound conflict in my values. Nor did it occur to me that much could be done at all to resolve this problem that was not exclusive to our yard. After all, most of the island, save for the beaches, was already covered with a patchwork quilt of decorative yard-works. So, the event was at first just thought provoking.

Not too long thereafter, however, it proved to be quite timely. Prolonged droughts, rising populations, and lethargic bureaucracies collided in a grand crisis over the supply of water. Regulations reduced usage and it became increasingly difficult to hold onto lushness beyond the filtered light of high shade. Change then became an imperative, and in turn, an opportunity to test the thoughts provoked by that earlier event.

I drew lines on the lawn around the shadows of trees and clusters of shrubbery. They undulated naturally and defined spaces that connected into broad pathways around the house. Everything growing in those spaces was transplanted or discarded. The void was then covered with 4 inches of white sand with random drifts of half-inch washed shell along the edges. All hard edges and straight lines were deleted or mitigated. A little shell on either side of a sidewalk that could not be removed made it seem to disappear and allowed the adjacent groundcovers to grow natural edges that seldom required clipping.

The change was so small; the result was so radical. Reduction of the irrigation required was significant but overshadowed by the new and more island-like appearance that emerged. Looking out of our windows, we felt so much closer to the beach. I turned at that moment away from the imported subdivision lawns and landscapes that I then realized were smothering the island and defacing its true identity no matter how pretty they were. I set out instead to define that identity, to mimic it, and to perfect it -- to learn how to design a landscape that belongs entirely to this barrier island and is just as pretty as my tropical dreamscapes too.

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And then along came Mary Ross, on her bike, one day in the summer of 1989 as I was tinkering with my experimental yard. Mary was an elected commissioner who had been appointed to start and be liaison to the city's first beautification committee. She invited me to join and I accepted. Excited by the island-style landscape I was developing, I drew up a professional set of plans to propose a comprehensive design for the entire grounds of the City Hall, Island Players Theater, and the adjacent recreation area. With $1500 seed money from the City Commission, a dozen volunteers, and plants donated from countless yards around the island, the project began.

Like those in my yard, the donated plants were all exotic and chosen by the usual standards: "will it grow here?" and "is it pretty?", to which we added, does it need irrigation to thrive?" The water crisis persisted. The press relentlessly urged conservation of water and flaunted the newest word of the day: "xeriscape" a make-word utilizing "xeric" from the Greek xeros (dry), as opposed to "mesic" (moderately wet) and "hydric" (wet), to describe plants and landscapes that do not require much additional irrigation to thrive.

In one bibliography I found this title: "Xeric Landscaping With Florida Native Plants." It was a slender magazine-sized book by the Association of Florida Native Nurseries that contained only lists of plants and in a context I had never before encountered.

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The plants were categorized not by the locations where they do grow, but rather by where they should grow. Plants and trees were listed for a location because they were native there, and as the title implied, would thus not require much more water than nature normally provided to succeed there. Few on the lists were known to me. But the idea behind them was sufficient to motivate me to find them and introduce them into our project.

It was sort of like handing an artist a palette of new paints. It was like leaving a kid alone in a candy store. I became determined to have at least one of each species on the lists specific to this island growing on the grounds just to see what it would do and look like. Every year for over a decade, more natives were added, more names from the lists were checked off as present and growing.

Endless consideration, discussion, and debate ensued around the questions "what are natives anyway?" and "why should we plant them instead of exotics?" It became standard fare at my own breakfast table several times a week as we perused our still-exotic garden and contrasted it to the increasingly radical discipline I came to follow in the selection of plants for the City Hall grounds. Ever so gradually, our understanding grew along with the plants.

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Natives, as the standard short definition goes, are the plants that were here before Columbus arrived. "So?" is the usual and not inappropriate followup question. There is a logic, however. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, plant species were seldom transplanted great distances away from their origin. The immigrants who first populated this continent were hunters and gatherers, but not farmers. Later pre-Columbian civilizations did not move around a lot. So the plants that came here by winds, waters, or in the bellies of living creatures over thousands of years, had settled by the arrival of Columbus into separate and distinct balanced systems specifically attuned to the local soil, climate, and wildlife. Plants that did not thrive there on their own soon disappeared, or were present only in the smallest numbers.

But the voyages of the explorers were occurrences in the European Renaissance of learning and wealth. Discoveries of all kinds were pursued with equal vigor for their economic, scientific, and entertainment value. The garden or greenhouse of exotic plants was a sign of wealth desired, and eventually achieved, by all. It became an entrenched tradition now taken for granted -- the tradition I followed to create that first beautiful alien landscape next to the natural beauty of the shore.

"So what?", you may now ask. "Why would a beautiful native landscape be any better than a beautiful exotic one?" It's a good question, and there is a good answer. To fully understand it, you need to run past your mind all that you remember about how you felt visiting state or national parks actually or in photos or films. In our every day life, we are surrounded by nature, and much of it is still made up of native vegetation, some of which is beautiful and the rest quite forgettable. The park areas, however, were selected to be preserved because they are not everyday nature. They represent in their own region the best of nature. They are ideal instances of a particular kind of landscape.

To be in one of those parks is an all encompassing experience. All the trees and plants and rocks and streams are taken in as one thing with one identity -- the park. When you leave, that identity is so clear, that 30 years later, you will still recognize film locations that are in the same state as that park you experienced long ago. Furthermore, no two parks have the same identity.

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That identity is usually called its sense of place, something that means one can visually recognize that all the natural components of a particular environ are existing in front and around you harmoniously and consistent with their fundamental nature and identity.

While I embraced the idea of a sense of place as an aesthetic goal, it did not seem at that time to imply any necessity to abandon all exotic plants. So the exotics that were not harmful or overly aggressive I called "suitable non-natives", a rationalization borrowed from the native nurseries that sold harmless exotics for the sake of their very survival in those lean years when natives were barely known to exist. I also kept plants that were native to distant parts of Florida, labeling them "mainland natives."

As the years passed, however, more and more island natives were added, and the first ones that had been planted matured. As they did, a change came over the landscape. It steadily grew to be less a park of interesting plants and more of a place with a unique identity all its own. I was inadvertently creating an instance of the real Anna Maria Island. Suddenly, those "suitable non-natives" were not, and I came to see my insistence on keeping them there at the expense of the place and its natural identity as a kind of greed to be regretted. All at once, I ceased gardening and aspired to become a steward of the land and to extract the unique landscape philosophy that I sensed was implicit within this experience.

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The inherent link between plants and the places where they thrive due to the varying confluences of weather, soil, moisture, wildlife, and location is abundantly clear to all. Not sufficiently understood, however, is the contribution to the identity of those places by some of those plants, as opposed to others.

Vegetation is one of the primary components of environs by which we identify each as distinct from all others. It follows then that a natural environ would be one composed of components that occurred there naturally, independent of human choices to the contrary. For a plant, the locations of that kind of natural occurrence are specified by its native range that encompasses all locations where it presently thrives after having originated there or having naturally migrated there from wherever it did originate.

A native range of any given plant could be limited to a very small area or vast enough to spread across countries or even continents. While no two ranges will ever be identical, a number of native ranges will inevitably overlap each other in every location on a map of the earth.

Viewing vegetation from the perspective of and in the context of native range overlap has a profound significance to a fact-based philosophy of landscaping. The fact that it represents is that for any given location, the plants whose native ranges overlap there comprise the only collection of plants that could ever have been found thriving there together naturally (excepting the few individual plants that might have arrived or disappeared over time).

That being true, the sight of that collection of plants growing together in that location is the natural visual identity of that location. Furthermore, this opts regardless of how narrowly or broadly a location is delimited. There will be one list of plants whose ranges overlap in the spot on which you are standing, and another list within a one mile radius around you or another for the whole surrounding region.

The all-important caveat is that each individual plant will only fulfill its role in the natural identity of a large area in those single spots within it that are included within its own native range, i.e. when native to the spot in which it is growing. As a result, the natural visual identity of a Gulf front property on this island could conceivably consist of a different list of plants for each of the following portions of it: beach, foredunes, back-dunes, dunefield, and maritime forest, plus, if there is a pond or canal at the rear, one each for the grasses in the water and the plants along its margins.

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This is the knowledge that I and others did not have when we arrived and set out to "beautify" our personal environs. It was the dearth of this knowledge that enabled us to obliterate the natural face of the Florida peninsula, particularly around the coastal regions, building Tuscan houses with Tahitian landscapes. No one grasped the price exacted -- the loss of that immeasurable value of living as an integral component of a unique place on earth, trading it for life in a ghetto broken up into carnival-sideshow gardens, each striving to be something and somewhere else other than the land on which they actually existed. And thus,

I came to understand that in the hierarchy of landscaping values, pretty is and always will be at the top; but for the best of all possible worlds, identity must be above it in first place.

I learned that when identity comes first, the good of the environment doesn't need to be on the list at all. If every plant is native to the spot it is planted in there is nothing more vegetation can do for the environment.

I realized that every landscape on earth has its own sense of place; but only a landscape native

I additionally grasped that this newfound principle did not take one side or the other in the ostensibly eternal battle between naturalism and formalism. It demanded rather the rejection of both as a false dichotomy that implicitly cast man and nature in the role of antagonists. Without natural identity as a governing standard, naturalists would be justified in their rejection of every interaction of man with nature, demanding it not be touched, while the formalists would be justified in their de- and reconstruction of nature per any and every perceived need or whim. Standing in diametric opposition to the natural versus formal dichotomy is that wonderful maxim proclaimed by the philosopher Francis Bacon in 1620:

"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."

Since human beings are themselves components of nature, it is a self-contradiction to assert man and nature to be opposing enemies. The task in landscaping is therefore not to decide how much one should or may prevail over the other, but rather how to integrate man into his environs without violating the natural prerequisites of each.

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To this end, it is not sufficient to merely assure that a landscape consists only of vegetation that supports the natural visual identity of the site. The logical consistency of plants and their places is but one of a number of those natural prerequisites. There are also the human prerequisites of aesthetic and physical functions.

Everyone knows a landscape must be pretty, but few think of it as a function and even fewer understand the mechanics of beauty. But aesthetics is, after all, one of the five major branches of philosophy that define the most fundamental requirements for us to survive and thrive in accordance with our nature. It deals primarily in the means by which we confirm our overall sense of the universe and our relationship to it. That sense is a sum of our values assembled in our head and only rarely if ever experienced in a concrete physical form. Through art and aesthetics we can create actual images and actions that represent what we can and should be, confirming that our own lives and values are worth pursuing.

Natural beauty is not art, but it is governed by the same principles and shares some of the same mechanics. If you cross this country by car, you will have countless opportunities to pull off the road at an "overlook" strategically placed to access a vista of exceptional beauty. What distinguishes that view from the endless miles of views, most with 100% native vegetation and bona fide exemplars of natural visual identity, that are either too bland or too chaotic to elicit much of an emotional response? And what distinguishes a beautiful sunset from an unexceptional one?

Nature has no intrinsic value and no intrinsic flaws. It can neither err nor contradict itself. It just is what it is. The exceptional value (beauty) we see in a natural vista is actually a response to something exceptional within ourselves. Specifically it is a heightened experience of our own efficacy -- our capacity to grasp the nature of the universe, understand it, and deal with it. Here, the mechanics are identical to those wielded by an artist who concretizes his notions of ideal persons, places, and events so that he and others can experience those abstractions as if they were real.

In that endeavor, a skilled artist in any medium will reduce every element to its necessary essentials, strategically maneuvering them into the form in which the experience intended for the viewer or reader will be maximized, and the beauty of it will be measured by the extent of that achievement.

Natural beauty results when a coincidental occurrence of natural elements is so arranged as to enable a human mind viewing it to maximize its experience and grasp of the essential nature of all the elements, both individually and as a whole. This is not a quantitative value. A foggy sunset that heightens one's experience of something only the essentials of which are apparent through the haze can be as powerful as a 360 degree symphonic panorama of color and shapes. A desert with only dunes and a few shrubs can equal the beauty of Mont Blanc.

Therefore, the goal of identity landscaping is to create one of those ideal instances of nature with vistas composed of plants native to the spot they are planted in and that could have been found growing on the site if no one had ever come there, and if and when they did, they just dropped their houses and gardens into the clearings, i.e. to create an authentic sense of place.

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ADDENDUM I: Incorporating exotics and food plants

While it is true that one exotic inserted into a natural landscape for the sake of its own uniqueness will be a contradiction that will undermine any attempt to recreate the natural visual identity of a place, identity landscaping does not exclude all exotics entirely. There will always be desirable ornamental flowers and beneficial food plants that are exotic to any given location. They can be grown without compromising the landscape by locating and arranging them to be visually distinct from the plantings that constitute one's landscape. It need only be composed in such a manner that a passerby will intuitively grasp that the native vegetation is the landscape of the site while the exotics are elements of a garden because they are growing in pots or raised beds or gathered close to the building as if they are exterior house plants.

Hence the governing rule: Garden with exotics - Landscape with natives.

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ADDENDUM II: The "natives are messy" myth

This idea is absurd on the face of it. Every plant on earth is a native -- somewhere. What could being native have to do with how they are maintained. Every plant native or not can be clipped into any degree of tidiness possible. The owner of one of my 100% native landscapes tells the maintenance crew, "when you think you have clipped enough, clip some more!" The shrubs are all sheared into pickles and lollipops. The messy reputation of natives follows the fact that the original movement to natives was started by and is sustained by the same all-natural culture that persuaded us to eat more natural foods. They like their landscapes to look like fields and forests. If you want your landscape to look like its in West Palm Beach, you can achieve that just as easily with natives as with exotics. The difference is strictly one of their arrangement and the manner in which they are maintenance.



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