Category: Natural Landscapes

March 24th, 2020 by Mark Laurence

This is the third in a four-part series. In previous articles (links at bottom) I talked about the spontaneous regeneration on brownfield sites in the UAE and the utilisation of seeded landscapes to create semi-natural ecosystems without irrigation. Another factor of these landscapes would be to make them productive in a way that would enrich the soils of not just that landscape but, by the production of useful products, returning fertility to the soil for both the site concerned and also urban landscapes and gardens elsewhere.

Sesbania sesban, a nitrogen-fixing shrub or small tree

Coppice woodland is not a term that you normally associate with the Middle East, yet there are many trees, both native and introduced, that would work in this manner. So what would be the point? Well, we have become used to landscapes being either for agriculture, or for ornament, yet this simplification overlooks the fact that we can have landscapes that are multi-functional and that they can also be productive in other ways.

To understand this concept, we should look to agroforestry, or forest gardens, where multi-functionalism is the order of the day. We think of these systems as being in tropical or temperate regions, yet there are many plants that can be organised and used in this fashion in arid lands. I want to focus this article on one aspect only, the production of biomass. Biomass has multiple functions: the production of poles for building and firewood, compost, and when shredded, mulch. We can produce biochar, which is seen as an increasingly important part of long-term soil enrichment and carbon sequestration. There are also food and fodder crops which would be a valuable product, dependent upon species. And of course, verdant biomass supports verdant wildlife.

Eucalyptus street tree, Abu Dhabi. Note the epicormic growth from the base

Many of these plants are also nitrogen-fixers and these are especially valuable for building fertility and assisting the development of other species. Whilst some may have allelopathic properties, which inhibit the germination of other seedlings within the root zone, my general observation is that this is not particularly effective, nor a problem.

So a list of trees that would grow in the Middle East unirrigated, can be coppiced and are nitrogen fixers, would include:

  • Acacia saligna
  • Acacia (Senegalia) senegal
  • Acacia tortilis
  • Albizia lebbeck
  • Leucaena leucocephala
  • Pithocellobium dulce
  • Prosopis cineraria (possibly)
  • Prosopis juliflora
  • Sesbania sesban
Strong epicormic growth is ideal for coppice. Prosopis juliflora

Other species, coppicable but non-nitrogen fixing, would include:

  • Azadirachta indica (assumed from observed regrowth)
  • Conocarpus lancifolius (assumed from observed regrowth)
  • Eucalyptus sp.
  • Ficus sp.
  • Moringa oleifera
  • Tamarix sp.
  • Ziziphus spina-christi
Ziziphus spina-christi, showing classic epicormic growth

There will be many other species that could fit these lists, but it’s a start. Many ornamental trees, such as Millingtonia and even Delonix show tendencies to throw up epicormic growth from wounds and therefore, in theory might coppice, but I am concentrating on trees which can do this without irrigation.

It’s important to say right here that this shouldn’t ever be designed as a monoculture; there is sound ecological reasons to to maximise the diversity of a planting. Naturally, you wouldn’t use everything, for conditions will suit some better than others for any given site. Nor would you coppice everything all at the same time. Staggering the harvest evens out the work-flow but more importantly, creates communities of plants at different stages of growth. The “edge zones” are always where the greatest biodiversity occurs, for you get the overlap of differing ecologies. Whilst each species will have it’s own regrowth rate and optimum cutting cycle, this can also be varied, according to the use of the product.

Of course, there is a problem, for many of these species are incredibly thorny, which is a real issue for those carrying out the coppice-work. Young vigorous growth also tends to have the most vicious thorns! On a larger scale, it may be possible to use forestry-style Forwarder tractor-trailer units to collect the brush and load it directly into the chipping machine hopper, without human intervention. Someone’s still got to cut it and do initial handling though.

Ziziphus stump, showing strong epicormic regrowth

So how do we express this idea, of coppiced woodlands, arid-land style? it would depend on context but there are several approaches we could take. On a large scale, machine operated (as mentioned above), we would have to do traditional layouts with alleys or rows, firebreaks etc. Mixed planting though, would be preferable although strips of one species are possible. If kept narrow, with different species to either side, the effect ecologically would be similar to mixed planting.

In smaller areas, or where human interaction is intended, then these could take the form of the mixed, seeded landscapes that I discussed in my previous article. In other words, we can combine the function with the elements of aesthetics and ecological diversity. Not to mention desert reclamation. Remember, all this is proposed as unirrigated land. The verges along main roads are a prime candidate, instead of over-manicured lawns and hedges that you see at many junctions.

My next article will discuss design, the knowledge and training needed for the creation of such landscapes. I believe we could transform the landscapes of the Middle East, without the intensive irrigation that is required by conventional approach.


First and second articles in this series:

Posted in Abu Dhabi, Adaptive Planting, Agroforestry, Brownfield regeneration, Climate Change, Coppice, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Natural Landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Sustainability, Trees, Treescapes, Uncategorized, woodland Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

March 13th, 2020 by Mark Laurence

In part one of this four-part series, I discussed the colonization of brownfield sites in the UAE’s cities with a range of trees and shrubs – almost all of them “exotic invasive” species.  I argued that these could be forming the basis of new, adapted ecologies.  To revise those arguments, please the link at the end of this article.  The next question is, once we accept this premise, how do we create these new ecologies as a conscious expression of our own adaptation to climate change?

A self-seeded landscape, Abu Dhabi

First, let’s understand that we need these landscapes to be unirrigated.  Why? Well, in the Middle East especially, water is a precious resource and expensive; the UAE is particularly bad, with a per capita use of 550 litres/day.  So with landscaping, let’s keep the irrigation for the urban centres, parks and gardens.  If we just focused, for example, on all the miles of roads and interchanges between Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain that are irrigated, and imagine these replaced with unirrigated greenery, the water saving from this alone would be massive.  Yet that is an immense challenge, for as soon as you plant something in a desert, you must water it.

If we want a vibrant plant ecology, then we also need a vibrant soil ecology, something that conventional landscaping ignores completely

I think this is the key, that planting in such a climate rarely establishes without help, whereas seeds can.  What we need therefore, is a methodology of establishing and maintaining, seeded landscapes.

Flowers of Prosopis juliflora attracts bees and insects

It is true that in a scenario where we are consciously creating an unirrigated landscape, we would want to greatly increase the odds of establishment.  In this respect, much detailed assessment would need to be given to soil amelioration.  If we want a vibrant plant ecology, then we also need a vibrant soil ecology; this is crucial and something that conventional landscaping ignores completely.

Can we create a healthy soil, rich with microbial activity and naturally water retentive in such an arid climate?  I think we can, but we must first change our thinking from one of assisting landscapes with external inputs (irrigation) to that of creating self-sufficient ones, with cyclical, living, self-sustaining ecologies. Soil becomes the vital kingpin in all this, not just an anchorage medium for plants. 

Native soils need to be worked with, not replaced.  They can be moderated, made more moisture retaining, but basics like salinity and pH will always dictate plant choice.  First and most important, is to increase the soil’s water retention capacity. There are a number of ways to do this, involving additives which may incorporate clays, granules or other water-holding mediums and we know that when used in irrigated landscapes, they can reduce water demand by up to 50%. Given that an unirrigated landscape might have periods of time when it is extremely dry, we need a medium that doesn’t become hydrophobic if it does dry out and that will react swiftly to absorb water when it does arrive.

Sesbania sesban, a nitrogen-fixing shrub

We can also inoculate the soil with mycorrhizal fungi cultured from local, healthy environments to enhance soil micro-ecology; there is little point in importing this from another part of the world, as the relevant strains of microbes are likely absent.  Microbes and bacteria are the essence of good soil. Many of the plants used will be nitrogen-fixers, and so live in a symbiosis with certain bacteria. They also make nitrogen available to other species, as cycles of life and decay build up.

Organic matter is also essential, but perhaps the most problematic element as it is in short supply. One aspect of the practical usage of such landscapes, and a part of the long-term management, can be the coppicing of trees and shrubs for biomass to make compost. Organic matter tends to oxidise if conditions are not conducive, so we need to get things right, but I’m sure that even desert soils can sequester carbon, given the right conditions.

We would need to mix these various elements into the soil to the appropriate depth, perhaps a metre, probably by air injection, and possibly to different depths for the different mediums. Soil preparation becomes the most major, one-time investment in the land but will pay back endlessly over the lifetime of the landscape.

Black Carpenter bees on Leucaena leucocephala

Once the preparation is done we have to seed the land, when conditions are optimal (not when contract deadlines require); this would have to be timed after rain, if possible.  Otherwise, I would give the land a soaking, with our soil amendments helping to retain the moisture, then apply seed, in a variety of ways, possibly by hydra-seeding.  Finally, a locally-sourced stone mulch should be placed over all, to again help retain moisture, but not too thick to inhibit germination.  This would be the entirety of the preparation and installation work. 

Next is the nurturing stage, followed by on-going management and maintenance; this will be very different from a conventional landscape, but no less intensive, at least for the first few years. It may be beneficial to give additional watering to aid plants as they germinate and establish, but this must be done with care, or seedlings could be washed away. We would need to give enough to ensure success, but no more.

Once established, these plants would grow at whatever speed the conditions allowed and a new landscape would emerge over time. Thinning out and reseeding of failed areas would be the main work, acts of stewardship rather than maintenance. Prunings shredded and spread as mulch, soils fit to support life, insects, animals and birds would soon make this place their home. The result would be a slow and genuine landscape uplift into the realms of a new and adapted ecology.


How we design such landscapes, choose which plants to use, obtain the seed and know how to maintain them, is the subject of the next article.

The first article of this four part series is:

Posted in Abu Dhabi, Adaptive Planting, Brownfield regeneration, Climate Change, Dry Garden, Dubai, UAE, Landscape Futurism, landscapes, Middle-East, Natural Landscapes, Planting Design, Regenerative Planting, Sustainability, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Natural regeneration on a brownfield site Dubai
March 8th, 2020 by Mark Laurence

This is the first of a four-part article, links to the others are at the end.

These articles are all a part of the same thought progress, which has been brewing for some time and started with an article I wrote two years ago, in March 2018.  I think this is an important subject, and hope that you’ll agree and read them…

Whenever I am in the UAE, I find time to visit various parks and gardens; on my latest trip to Dubai (February 2020), I went to see Al Ittihad park, a well-kept secret in the spine of the Palm Jumeirah, underneath the monorail, which was designed using native and naturalized plants of the UAE.  It also, the blurb said, promised everything was labeled, so ideal for a crash course in local flora.  The park was interesting but unfortunately all the labels had gone, and it was being maintained in the manner of all landscapes; incorrectly, especially so for native planting.

Of equal or greater value, however, are simple walks around the back-streets and suburbs of a city and I find empty brownfield sites, awaiting development, often offer the best insights as to what will actually grow in an arid region, if things are left to their own devices.  It’s more than you’d think, and it’s not all native.  I’ve written about this before, in this article and I’m building here on my earlier observations.

Video of brownfiled site in Dubai showing natural regeneration

The world is gripped in fear of biological invasion, currently of Coronovirus but I’m talking here of the floral kind.  Globally, there is a growing passion for conservation, restoration of what was, of what we think of as native and right.  We seem to think that in taking this approach, we are setting right the wrongs we have done; nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, Nature doesn’t share that passion and is busy dispersing its flora and fauna around the place, wherever and however it can.  That it uses humans as vectors for that dispersal, is obvious, if you just look upon it from a wider perspective.  Perhaps Nature knows something that we humans are trying hard to ignore; that the climate is changing, the rules of life are shifting, that ecologies need to adapt to the new conditions. 

Leucaena leucocephala

I think we humans are both arrogant and ignorant when we say, “that plant doesn’t belong here, we must get rid of it”.  Plants that arrive and succeed are the pioneers of a new, adapting ecology; yes, they are aggressive, yes, they grow without restraint and colonize -usually – disturbed ground, yes, some make monocultures.  Like all pioneer species they are fast, competitive and relatively short-lived.  But they establish life and the conditions for the next species of successional plants to come along.  All parts of the world are, or soon will be, under such huge environmental stress that we must actively embrace change and nurture these new ecologies. We cannot live in a world without complex ecology, nor can we hold back the change, so we have to go with it.

Prosopis juliflora

To come back to my brownfield sites, on my previous article, linked above, I encountered the following trees growing on a brownfield site in Abu Dhabi:

  • Prosopis juliflora
  • Ficus benghalensis
  • Eucalyptus camaldulensis
  • Conocarpus lancifolius
  • Washingtonia robusta

From recent observations in Dubai I can add the following trees:

  • Azadirachta indica
  • Leucaena leucocephala
  • Plus the Prosopis and Ficus from the above list.
Azadirachta indica

From the looks of it, this site was more recently cleared than the Abu Dhabi one, and trees appeared to be no more than 2-3 years old.

There were also a range of groundcovers and grasses growing; I haven’t been able to ID them all, but some I saw included:

  • Aizoon canariense
  • Heliotropium bacciferum
  • Salsola collina
  • Tribulus terrestris
  • Chloris virgata
  • Panicum turgidum
Tribulus terrestris

Such plants are equally important in building new ecologies, and a big part of the whole.  There are of course, a huge range of native or adaptive plants not represented here, which would nonetheless grow, given the chance.

These observations might be interesting, but how useful are they? If we think of conventional, irrigated landscapes, perhaps not very useful at all; we know and use many of the trees already.  Where this becomes interesting, is in that they self-seed and establish without any human intervention.  If we could master the art of this, then such landscapes we would nurture and manage, with occasional thinning, removals, perhaps some sucessional seeding or planting. Imagine this on a large scale, in peri-urban locations, alongside roads, at intersections, instead of the over-watered ornamentation we see now throughout the UAE.  We then save the ornate for the urban parks, streets and gardens.

Aizoon canariense

Could this be the basis for a new approach to creating landscapes and if so, how would we do it?

This is the subject of the next article:

Posted in Abu Dhabi, Adaptive Planting, Brownfield regeneration, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Natural Landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Sustainability, Trees, Treescapes Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mark Laurence's gravel garden
February 2nd, 2020 by Mark Laurence

Gravel gardens have been around a long time yet with a few well-known exceptions (Denmans, Beth Chatto and more recently, Olivier Filippi), never really make it into the mainstream of garden design. I suspect that for some designers, there is insufficient structure to satisfy, yet that is actually one of the main benefits. This makes them low-impact, from a carbon perspective, and naturally adaptive, with the kind of planting they use.

I have been designing such gardens for the past twenty plus years, and a part of my own garden is gravel, on the area of an old driveway; it’s the part I enjoy the most. Unlike perennial borders, there is structure all year round and I often wander around in the depths of winter, enjoying the shapes and forms, or the scent of rosemary (sorry to say, now officially Salvia). It’s like you’ve brought a little bit of the Mediterranean into the garden. Plants self-seed around and it’s always a bit different every year. It’s a style also eminently suitable for the arid regions of the Middle-East, whether xeriscaped, or not.

Not everywhere is suitable for a gravel garden and the obvious criteria of sun exposure and poor(ish), free-draining soil are a must. Whilst drainage and soil structure can be altered, aspect cannot. The other factor, frost/cold exposure is actually not such a barrier, although it will limit the plant choice a bit.

A part of the design of the gravel garden described below

Some years ago I was tasked with turning an old farmyard on the South coast of England into such a garden. The compacted rubble was on average 50cm deep, so we loosened and/or removed about 400 tons and replaced a similar amount of topsoil into slightly contoured mounds. As it was a farm, the soil was already available stacked on site and there was somewhere to remove the rubble to. We then rotovated 50cm of gravel into the mounded soil to improve drainage and planted with a range of “Mediterranean” plants. Most were from this region, with some Australian/New Zealand species, most notably Phormium (which I probably wouldn’t use today). We also built a stream and water feature, using 30 tons of boulders (glacial, so not strictly true to theme).

Adding 400 tons of soil
Rotovating in a thick layer of gravel

If I were doing this today, I’d leave even more of the rubble in place and blind the soil in over it. Over time I have come to realise that such conditions are an advantage, and expected by many Mediterranean plants.

Placing boulders and a stream+pond

We used a drip irrigation system for the first year of establishment, which was then switched off in the second year. A 50mm deep dressing of 20mm diameter marine shingle covered everything, including the paths, which were left from the original, compacted sub-base.

Planting
After One year
After Two years
After Four years

I tracked this garden for a few years until the property changed hands and learnt some valuable lessons (as you always do), such as don’t put too many larger growing shrubs in, as the openness of the spatial structure becomes compromised. Whilst they are good at establishing initial structure, be prepared to remove some of them as the garden matures. Some, like the Cotinus and Tamarix, were meant to be coppiced every few years, but didn’t have this done. Some perennials work better than others and low mounding shrubs are what make the predominant visual structure of the site.

This last two pictures, plus the header, are a part of my own gravel garden, created over an old driveway, where I constantly experiment with new plants and slowly expand it all.

My gravel garden. Mounded foliage dominates the structural form

Gravel gardening has much to offer and is an appropriate approach for our time, being of low carbon footprint and using plants that are adaptive and generally tough. Have a go, or get me to help…!

Posted in Adaptive Planting, Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Dry Garden, Environment, Garden Design, Landscape Futurism, landscapes, Middle-East, My Garden, Natural Landscapes, Planting Design, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

January 28th, 2020 by Mark Laurence

If you work in the realm of landscapes, you cannot ignore the huge rise in the use of artificial plants, “green” walls and especially, grass. It’s a booming business and many companies are doing very well from it. But we should also be hearing warning bells ringing about how damaging these things are, both to the environment and to our individual well-being.

I’m concerned about this damage, mostly to our inner beings.  I wonder if we have become unable to comprehend that such things show our disconnection from the real.  I’ve worked with plants all my life and always my prime motive has been our connection to nature.  Now I design, write, think, talk; always my concern is for the environment and the well-being of the human spirit. This artificiality in landscape betrays both these things.

It is not enough to say this, so I must justify it, even though the obligation should really be the other way around; people who purvey such things should have to prove that they don’t cause ill-effects. But such is the state of human consciousness that commercial profit always comes before anything else.

This is not an article about the merits of grass as such, nor what we might use as natural substitutes; that topic has been written about many times. This is about what we do to ourselves when we surround ourselves with fakery – and I don’t mean in politics, although there are parallels, doubtless.

We constantly sell ourselves short on what it is we actually need, as individuals. This is me, an environmental designer, saying us humans should be selfish, and demand more. But not more in material terms, in things. More in Soul, in environmental harmony, in biophilic contact. More respect for the awesomeness of Nature. How can we substitute the reality of Nature with plastic, and tell ourselves it’s okay? This is self-deception on a massive scale, and we need to be aware of it, and reject it.

Before going further on the psychological front, let’s talk about the environment. Artificial plants are mostly made from plastic (although high end plants may be silk). Plastic is a one-way route to pollution and there is no difference between the plastic in a green or artificial grass and the plastic that’s floating around in our oceans. It’s the same stuff and will end up in landfill, being burnt or in the sea as microplastics, amongst its peers.

Grass comes in many forms, from tidy, to uncouth; the less couth, the better.

Artificial grass also is responsible for killing off the soil and its ecosystem in areas that once were living. Even (real) lawns are of environmental benefit, although other forms of landscape are preferable and yield higher benefits. Yet a lawn is alive, absorbs rainwater, has a life within of earthworms, larvae and micro-organisms, and stores a surprising amount of carbon. Artificial lawns do the inverse of all that and are not even as low maintenance as people think, requiring regular brushing and hosing. You must replace it every few years, too, with rubber crumb underlay being especially problematic to dispose of.

We buy into these products because we think we are being sold an easy life; in fact, we are being sold a deception, that Nature can be imitated, bettered. That you don’t have to get involved with it in any way, that the real thing offers nothing better, that biophilia (your innate need and love of Nature) can be mimicked. But your inner being is not deceived, just your outer one.

On the whole, we don’t realise just how disconnected we have become, in our modern societies. Each generation has less contact with natural systems and ecologies than the last, and each generation perceives its own experience of reality as normal, how things are.  If we could go back 100 years, I think we’d all be astounded at the verdancy and variety of life, of just how rich and varied Nature was.  Perhaps then we would wake up to the fact that we have forgotten our roots and lost our way. Now, we surround ourselves with the artificial and think that it is okay.

Landscape design doesn’t help in this respect, especially in the public realm.  Commercial space becomes dominated by hard materials; plants, where they exist, are regimented and ordered.  Water features are devoid of plants because they are messy, need skilled maintenance and the chemicals in the water wouldn’t support their growth anyway.  How sad, what an opportunity missed, what absence of life in our urban landscape.

In all our striving, we should remember above all where we came from.  A disconnected life allows not only the artificial to be okay, it switches off our concern from the environmental and climate crisis, as if we live in a bubble of man-made life, separate from the planet.

So for the sake of you own being, ditch the artificial.  Embrace the messiness and verdancy of Nature, get your hands dirty – the bacteria are good for your health and your happiness.  Let your children experience this, teach them about that wild and somewhat frightening side of Nature, for it needs our respect, and our love.  And if we love Nature, we might just find we can finally love ourselves.

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, design principles, Environment, landscapes, Natural Landscapes, Uncategorized, Urban Landscapes Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Grassess in Abu Dhabi
November 29th, 2019 by Mark Laurence

The other side of work I undertake in the Middle-East region (other than tree consultancy) is planting design, for creating new landscapes always brings me a special joy.  When they are in public spaces, I love the chance it gives to interact (albeit remotely) with many people in place, over time and hopefully, enhance their enjoyment of that place.  In the public realm, what that place is, is being questioned and challenged in the light of urbanisation and climate change.  Ecology and environment are driving design as never before.

I am about to start working on a collaborative project in Saudi Arabia.  It will involve the specification of many trees, shrubs and groundcovers and  I get to find out just how many locally-sourced big specimens I can find that are of acceptable quality.  Much of this will come down to the application of formative pruning in the nursery and I’ll be on the lookout for the best available in the region.  I suspect I’ll be sourcing a lot from neigbouring UAE, simply because of familiarity of sources.  Quality remains a challenge, though.


Excess Irrigation in a Dubai housing area

My most pressing concern I have is how to improve on irrigation  techniques, which are traditionally massed  surface drip lines onto marginally improved sand.  This is inefficient and wasteful and I shall be looking at the use of moisture retention mediums and sub-surface irrigation.  I believe most watering of landscapes in arid climates could be cut by half, just by more efficient application and retention, in the right place.  The picture above shows  typical wastage in a Dubai suburban landscape.

Whilst urban planting requires urban plants, I will also be looking at the use of more climate-adaptive species, which I think is important in an era of climate crisis; the Middle-East is going to struggle to cope with every degree of temperature increase.  The use of more desert-adapted planting is not new, and not applicable everywhere but I believe there is much scope for experimentation and new thinking.

The power and the beauty

For me, planting design is about building communities, layering types of plants together in harmonious associations that fit.  I don’t mind grouping plants together that come from different geographical regions, but they have to come from a similar ecological niche.  Such design is so much more than just nice foliage contrasts and I believe the results can be subtle, but profound.

Landscape must, of course, fit our purpose but I believe we tend to pursue this end to the exclusion of everything else.  Nature is the basis of landscape, and so too is ecology, ecosystem and planet.  We should not divorce our landscapes from this reality; rather, they should always seek to remind us of these connections.  So yes, in town centres and urban streets, we have our eco-bling landscapes; vibrant places, exotic, heady, purfumed, exciting.  Nature at it’s most unbelievably flamboyant (cue pic: delonix, the flamboyant tree).  Elsewhere, we need more grounded landscapes, more real, more connected to place.


Delonix regia, the flamboyant tree

I love this tree, it is everything I have described above, pure eco-bling.  Yet it is not appropriate everywhere and because it has become a part of the standard landscape palette, I belive it is overused, and used in places where other species would be more appropriate.   I think there are many trees and shrubs that could be used in the region that haven’t been tried yet, from East Africa, for example.  The climate there may be more equatorial and more varied but it is not so remote or different as that of some exotics imported from sub-tropical climates (the Delonix mentioned above is from Madagascar, again not too dissimilar).

I think planting design in the Middle-East faces a whole new range of challenges and opportunities.  The changing climate will force new thinking, to match the new development and the new understanding that is emerging of our intimate relationship with nature.  I’m hoping to contribute towards that new expression and understanding.

Posted in Adaptive Planting, Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Dry Garden, Dubai, UAE, Environment, Garden Design, Middle-East, Natural Landscapes, Planting Design, Regenerative Planting, Sustainability, Trees, Urban Landscapes Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Adaptive landscape design
April 25th, 2019 by Mark Laurence

The world is finally, at the last minute, waking up to the impending effects and consequences of climate change. In the scramble to work out what we must do (apart from the obvious cessation of burning fossil fuels), one thing, one factor is looming large: we need to put carbon back into the soil, where it can be stored indefinitely, and we need to reforest the Earth. Much of this is in the agricultural realm but there is a huge amount that can – and must – be done within the landscape and horticultural sectors.


Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet

At the centre of this is good soil husbandry, something that we have largely forgotten about. Modern agriculture bypasses all need of soil health by chemically feeding crops; no need for microbes, nutrients, humus, mycelium or earthworms. Chemical fertilisers and herbicides bypass the lot. Most of our soils now are depleted to the point of useless by chemical farming, exacerbated by the tradition of ploughing, which causes erosion from rain and enables much of the soil carbon to move back into the atmosphere.

So whilst we need current global models of food production to transform into regenerative agriculture and agroforestry, we also need to look at our urban landscapes and gardens, and create a new design ethic, a new paradigm, even. I can’t deal here with agriculture but I have been thinking long and hard on what the landscape and horticulture trades need to do; fortunately, I believe there is a lot that we can do.

We need to envelope our existing horticulture trade within ecology, to create an “environmental horticulture” You could also call it ecological, resilience or regenerative horticulture. We (those of us in the trade) know that as a profession, the training of both horticulture (growing) and landscape (doing) are in decline. Horticultural colleges have shrinking budgets and often get the less ambitious or capable students; after all, who is inspired by the prospect of strimming verges or hedge-trimming another unloved carparking lot? Yet last year’s report by the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group valued horticulture at £24.2 billion in GDP in 2017. That’s not inconsequential, yet it goes unrecognised. Fortunately, there is a way to make it much more enticing to prospective students.

Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet. That mission is to adapt our urban landscapes and gardens to cope with climate change, to mitigate temperatures, water flows, to grow biomass and regenerate soils back to health. Healthy soil is the foundation of life, of all life, including our own. Good soil holds fertility, water and carbon. Yet who amongst us now knows much of soil science? Who designs landscapes as ecologies, as “novel ecosystems”, who chooses plants because they have these abilities, not just for pretty flowers? Who designs plantings for their biomass harvest, for creating mulches to feed the soil?

In this respect, I don’t believe it’s necessary – or right, in fact – to work with native plants only. What is native? What was native? What was here 11,700 years ago when the last glacial period ended and the glaciers retreated? Flora and fauna move around the globe all the time, they are opportunistic, not fixed permanently into some tightly integrated ecosystem. We know there is no “ecological climax”, no ultimate ecosystem for any given place. As temperatures rise, climate zones are now shifting away from the equator quicker than Nature can keep up, although it’ll get there eventually. Maybe we help nature, rather than interfere when we bring in exotic plants that naturalise. Maybe those plants are the start of new ecologies that will adapt to the rapid changes that this climate emergency is bringing us. If plants do well, we need to understand how to enhance and build new ecologies with them. This is how we adapt, how we survive and how we rectify the damage we have done as a species; not by returning to some pristine “before” (which doesn’t exist) but by assisting Nature to heal and adapt. The Earth will do this all by itself, and has done so many times. It doesn’t mind if it takes thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years to adapt. But we do; we can’t wait that long.

So horticulture needs to stop growing pansies in peat with unrecyclable plastic trays and start sorting out which plants really matter for our future; which ones contribute to new and existing ecologies, which ones are good for biomass, which ones contribute to soil health, which ones give us ecosystem services. We should not enhance one environment at the expense of another.

What’s needed is a very-near future profession of trained eco-warriors, soil saviours, tree patriots and landscape lovers. It needs people who understand soil, who know how to design and use sensors, data and the internet of things, people who see what’s coming and how to mitigate and reverse negative effects, people who really know how to design and install green infrastructure and future automated robotic maintenance systems. Our landscapes can grow food in amongst all the beauty, with urban food forests. We need new knowledge built on old and we need passion, commitment. A wise government would fund this for the returns will be numerous.

This is the enlightenment, that out of dire stress and trouble, we could really learn how to value, connect with and protect this crazy, beautiful world within which we live. Or we can do nothing and watch it all go to hell. I know which I’ll be doing.

Posted in Adaptive Planting, Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Edible Planting, Environment, Garden Design, green roof, Green walls, Landscape Futurism, landscapes, living walls, Natural Landscapes, Planting Design, rain gardens, Regenerative Planting, Smart Cities, Sustainability, Trees, Urban Landscapes, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

The dry garden - created over the remains of an old driveway
January 24th, 2019 by Mark Laurence

The emergence of the idea of resilient planting is a response to a number of different pressures which all have one underlying cause – climate change. Whatever the cause – and I’ll get on to that later – I see it as the most exciting change to the way we design our gardens and landscapes.

Last year we had one of the hottest summers ever recorded and it serves to heighten awareness of the vulnerability of some plants and garden styles to the increasingly erratic climate we are dealing with in the UK. We seem to swing from one extreme to the other, and this is only likely to get worse. I’ve witnessed a number of stressed plants in my own garden but feel relieved that most have thrived throughout the heat, without any watering on my part. this is down to soil, drainage, micro-climate and above all, plant choice.

Ballota pseudodictamus, a Mediterranean sub-shrub with grey, felted leaves, loved by bees.

Ballota pseudodictamnus, a Mediterranean sub-shrub with grey, felted leaves, loved by bees.

We garden on an alluvial coastal plain, and are fortunate to have a very free-draining soil overlying a clay substrate.  It gives us fertile soil, great drainage and a moist sub-strata within the reach of most plants (many areas around us are of much heavier clay).  A large section of our front area used to be a paddock with a rubble driveway and this now forms the basis of much of my dry garden.  Some rubble was removed and topsoil added, but a lot of areas are still rubble-strewn, not unlike some rocky soils.  The down side of all this is super-fertility and a soil filled with weed seeds, bindweed and couch.  To be honest, I’d have preferred a poorer soil.

When thinking of resilient planting, we have to match our plant type to the environment; we also have to think, long-term, of how our environment might change in the coming years.  This is not so important when dealing with short-lived plants such as herbs, sub-shrubs and perennials, but is super important when dealing with long-term structures, especially trees. This is doubly true when we look at the potentially disastrous effects of imported pests and diseases that we are having to content with.  Climate change, especially milder winters, mean that exotic pests are happily making a home here and wreaking an unintentional devastation to trees such as our native ash and even oak.

Phlomis russeliana, after flowering. The stem leaves have since dropped, leaving an brown, architectural structure.

Phlomis russeliana, after flowering. The stem leaves have since dropped, leaving a brown, architectural structure.

No-one can say exactly which way our climate will go as the world hots up; we know we (in the UK) will always be maritime, because that can’t change, but as the Jet stream (wind currents) varies and the Gulf stream (water currents) weakens, we don’t really know what kind of climate we’ll end up with.  We can only plan for extremes, and select our planting choices with that in mind.  In this respect, the “new perennial” or “naturalistic” planting isn’t necessarily going to be the toughest choice as they come from a continental climate which generally have hot summers and very cold winters.  Prairie plants tend to get out-competed here with our mild winters and grasses and forbs that can grow all year round, given mild conditions. The aforementioned fertility (at least in my garden’s case) also doesn’t help as wildflower meadows/prairies tend to have poor soil which helps keep the grasses from assuming dominance. During the heat-stressed weeks, I noticed that where I have perennials like Echinacea and Veronicastrum (in moister areas than the dry garden), they suffered from the lack of water. which resulted in the Veronacastrum flower spikes looking stunted.  for more moisture-demanding planting, sub-surface irrigation using harvested rainwater might become a necessity.

To my mind though, if you need irrigation you’re working with the wrong plant-types, trying to grow plants that can’t naturally cope with the conditions that predominate.  Save your water for the newly planted and the vegetable plot and for this, consider rainwater harvesting, rather than mains.  When selecting plants, see what grows well, both of native and non-native origins and build adaptive micro-ecologies.  Our climate is changing faster than the current ecosystems and ecologies can cope with and we need to do whatever we can to build new planting that is of maximum benefit to local wildlife, as well as ourselves.

It’s an exciting time to be a gardener, for there is no place now for the self-indulgence and nature-control-freakishness of the past. What there is a the possibility of co-creating new ecologies that adapt to changes, halt decline and make our local wildlife vibrant and healthy.

Along the way, we can create the most stunning of gardens!

Posted in Adaptive Planting, Biophilia, Climate Change, Dry Garden, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Garden Design, landscapes, My Garden, Natural Landscapes, Planting Design, Regenerative Planting, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

A natural water garden. The stream has built in biofilters to cleanse the water
January 21st, 2019 by Mark Laurence

Water in its purest form is the most simple of compounds – two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen – yet it is possibly one of the least understood “elements” on this planet. Strange, when it covers 70% of the globe and our bodies are 70% water. We take it for granted now, when once we considered it sacred. There is little appreciation of water; we no longer walk to the well, there is no effort involved and seemingly no end to its availability – except there is, but that’s not what this article is about.

I want to try and inspire a deeper appreciation of this element (not used to describe its chemical properties, for it is, as stated above, a compound), we need to reconnect with it as the source of life and spirit. I’ve worked with water for many years, building ponds and experimenting with biofilters and natural cleansing methods. I work intuitively, not scientifically and am the first to admit to large gaps in my knowledge, with a path of learning ahead of me that still looks impossibly steep! Yet the more you explore the qualities of water, the more you get drawn in: the secret of life itself lies in there. To that end, I have recently gone back to building new water features and greywater systems myself, for there is no substitution for hands-on experience and observation.

That water has properties “beyond the obvious” is a no-brainer – you can observe many of these for yourself. Understanding what exactly they are, how they are generated or destroyed, and just how far they go, is another matter altogether. You cannot investigate water for long without coming across the name of “Viktor Schauberger” an Austrian forester who investigated/discovered/rediscovered the more mystical properties of water during the first half of the 20th centaury.

spiral movements in water
spiral motion in water

So where do we begin, on a journey to a greater understanding of water? That’s difficult, but let’s start with what we can see: the way that water moves. Our mathematical minds tell us that the quickest way from A to B is in a straight line, but water doesn’t move like that, even when it could (in fact, nothing in nature does). Water moves in a never-ending series of spirals and vortices. Why? because that way water is energised; it generates or attracts minute electrical charges and controls it’s temperature, moving as close to the optimum of 4° C, when it is at its most dense (it expands either side of this point). This vortical movement causes the winding motion that we see in rivers once they reach the valley bottoms and plains, and the eddies and swirls you can plainly see in any moving body of water.

Vortical movement is centripetal, rather than centrifugal. It uses the force of implosion, rather than explosion. This form of movement gathers force and energy, rather than dissipating it outwards. Straight away this seems odd to us, for we are used to a science and technology based solely on the force of the centrifugal, explosive, dissipative; which inevitably must lead to loss and entropy. That Nature uses a different form of energy seems unreasonable to the scientific mind. It has been said that there is endless energy that can be captured from the movement of water (not from hydro-electric use) and if we could efficiently split water into oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis then we could capture energy with water as the only emissions; but I do know that the way that water moves is strongly bound up with its health, and so the health of all life, and that is an area that interests me greatly.

Schauberger states that water tries to maintain itself at its greatest density of 4°C; then it has greatest energy and the water is at its most “enlivened” state. The problem with this is that it is difficult to measure or assess by conventional scientific means; this does not mean, however, that it is cannot be true. What we can say, however, is that water in its most natural state is the most healthy, and so at its best for both ourselves and the environment.

vortex in water
Water naturally moves in vortical spirals

Water may also carries memory, which accounts for whether it is in an “enlivened” state or not. In homeopathy, a benign substance is diluted to the point where it is chemically nonexistent, but potentially very active, and this is based upon the latent memory of water. This is also true of pollutants, whose influence can still be there even once the source has been removed. Fortunately, water will self-heal if only allowed to move in its natural rhythms. The design of Flowforms is one response to this, allowing water to regain it’s own energizing movement, and other devices, such as spiralled copper coils and units containing pre-energised water are all said to effect and energise water that flows past them. I have no particular view about this, but then, I haven’t done any tests on such devises and of course, knowing how to measure potential results is always the problem. In pond ecosystems, health can be largely determined through observation and I prefer this approach, where the results of alteration can be seen in biological response.

There are a number of issues I have experimented with at times: enhancing the natural rhythms of water movement, enhancing biological activity in breaking down pollutants, and incorporating ornamental pond systems with purification of household greywater discharge, rainwater harvesting and garden irrigation. All these things require biological understanding and observation but to my mind, they most of all require an open mind and a sense of respect, an acknowledgement that water is in fact precious and scared.

I live in an area surrounded by intensive agriculture, which extracts groundwater to irrigate vast monocultures of salad crops. This is the worst kind of abuse of water, treating it as an inexhaustible utility, to pollute with herbicides, insecticides and fertiliser runoff. Mankind’s ignorance and lack of respect for the most fundamental and vital element on this planet can only lead to exhaustion, depletion and pollution on such a scale that the very existence of all life is put under threat. We need to look for the highest potential of life, not the lowest common denominator. Time to get critical in our thinking, and get connected back to deeper understandings.

The most exciting thing is that understanding water truly can reveal the secrets of life. Through appreciating this simplest, yet most profound element, I believe that humankind can come to a greater appreciation of himself, and his place in the Universe.

All for a cupful of water.


First published in 2007

Posted in Natural Landscapes, rain gardens, Water Gardens Tagged with: , , , , ,

A natural Xeriscape
March 23rd, 2018 by Mark Laurence

A problem, or an opportunity for a new landscape paradigm?

I was recently working on a tree project in Abu Dhabi when I came across a derelict site which intrigued me with it’s range of exotic self-seeded, non-native plants.  The site was next to the Corniche and sandwiched between the Formal Park, my hotel and Capital Gardens.  It struck me initially as the perfect basis of a xeriscape, as all the plants (mostly trees) were thriving without irrigation.  On closer inspection and identification of the species involved, things got more complex and raised a lot of potentially conflicting thoughts and issues.

A natural Xeriscape

A natural Xeriscape

The site was clearly awaiting redevelopment and the plant invasion was opportunistic.  Nothing that I could identify was native, yet all seemed happy there.  When you see the list, you might understand why.  Amongst the plastic and litter I identified:

  • Prosopis juliflora
  • Ficus benghalensis
  • Eucalyptus camaldulensis
  • Conocarpus lancifolius
  • Washingtonia robusta

Of those plants, the P. juliflora was the most robust and when you look at its reputation, that is of no surprise. It was of landscape scale, lush and greener than anything in the adjacent parks.  It’s form, leaf, flowers and seeds are attractive from a landscape perspective.  Yet this is undoubtedly the most controversial plant on this list – some would say alarming.  A Native of arid zones in central and South America, this was, like so many others, introduced into the UAE in the 70’s as a forestry plant.  Lauded as something of a super-crop tree, it is tenacious, vigorous, provides fuelwood and stock-feed in the form of abundant seeds.  The latter, it turned out, were a problem in that they are spread by cattle and are extremely aggressive.  Plants also regenerate rapidly from the roots when cut back and they reputedly produce biochemical inhibitors to suppress competition (allelopathy).  With no natural competitors in the UAE and roots that can descend 50m in search of water, they out-compete native flora, even their cousin, Prosopis cineraria (ghaf tree).

Prosopis juliflora flowers

Prosopis juliflora flowers

P. juliflora has a low, mounding habit, attractive from a landscape point of view.

P. juliflora has a low, mounding habit, attractive from a landscape point of view.

Also on the site were a number of Banyan trees, Ficus benghalensis, which seemed to be growing happily. Another tough survivor, it should be borne in mind that the water table here is likely only a metre or so below ground, although it will have a high saline content.

Ficus benghalensis

Ficus benghalensis

Then there was Eucalyptus camaldulensis , another forestry/amenity introduction of the 70’s, also known and now generally avoided for its aggressive roots, yet here looking beautiful with its grey, lanceolate foliage.  This was the tallest tree on site.

Eucalyptus glaucescens, showing adult foliage

Eucalyptus camaldulensis , showing adult foliage

Of course, there was the ubiquitous Conocarpus lancifolius, widely planted still yet also recognised and a danger to any nearby drains, and on it’s way out in popular use.  Except it does make such a good tall hedge, and it has a much nearer native origin, coming from Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen.  I’m not sure that the UAE landscape industry is ready to ditch it just yet.

Conocarpus lancifolius

Conocarpus lancifolius

There was even a palm, Washingtonia robusta, self-seeded around the place.  Much of it was to be found growing underneath the canopy of the P. juliflora, so that at least is not put off by any allelopathic biochemicals from the Prosopis.

Washingtonia robusta

Washingtonia robusta

Unknown Legume

I believe this legume is Sesbania sesban, more commonly seen with yellow flowers.Rose-ringed Parakeet Rose-ringed Parakeet

Inhabiting, or at least visiting the site, was a Rose-winged Parakeet.  Another exotic invasive with beautiful form but aggressive tendencies; it seemed appropriate to the moment, somehow.

What does this mean for future landscapes and ecology?

From a conventional ecology point of view, these plants are all threats, and the threats probably outweigh their usefulness.  So why am I even talking about this?  Clearly, the move towards more naturalistic landscapes draws heavily on native species and would shun all of these species.

Except we have climate change.

Climate change is the elephant in the room, when it comes to ecology, in fact when it comes to sustainability generally and a livable planet overall.  That we have already moved beyond vital tipping points is highly likely; that climate zones are moving away from the equator at a rate too fast for nature to adapt is a fact.  Flora and even some fauna just can’t move regions that quickly.  They will adapt, eventually; but those that are rare, specialist and struggle with change, will die.  The tougher generalists will adapt and survive.  Nature will build a new ecology to reflect the new reality, and it doesn’t mind if it takes a few thousand years to do so.  Only we humans mind and so, if we are to survive, we must adapt our environments to fit the new reality.  It is a sad fact that many cherished plants will eventually die out or move zones.  In the UK, I dread losing our native oaks (I view these as our ghaf tree equivalent), yet we may get Mediterranean species to replace them, such as holm and cork oak.

If you are already positioned in the arid equatorial zones then you have precious few plants that will form your new ecologies and landscapes.  Perhaps the plants I have described above will be UAE naturalized-natives in 100 years’ time and the ghaf and sidr may be gone, or diminished, or moved north.  I hope not, but before we spend vast fortunes on eradication and control of non-natives, we should look to the future.  These aggressive invaders may just form the landscape of our children; I know I’d rather live with a landscape, than none at all.  If there is no landscape, there is no life.  They may, in fact, be here to save us.

Once we grasp this fact, we can look at building new landscapes to suit our changing environments. I’ve written about this before and you can read the articles listed below.  We must be vastly more holistic in our thinking in order to do this and broaden our horizons to understand the new future.  Technology will help us to monitor, collect data and produce working strategies.  Robotics and drones will help manage and control plant communities.  Alongside that, we need a vastly better understanding of soils, microflora and fauna, for the bit of nature that we see is just, literally, the tip of the iceberg.  The selection of tree and shrub species for adaptation is easy, we get this wrong when we don’t deal in whole context thinking eg. only thinking of forestry or ornamental benefits.

The challenge ahead is huge but in a weird way, exciting; it will challenge the human race to grow.  There’s a whole new science to develop and we’d best get on with it.

Update

According to Google, the site has been cleared some time in 2019:

Site cleared of vegetation in 2019

But seeds will be waiting for future opportunity!

Other articles by ML that relate to this topic:

http://www.marklaurence.com/wp/trans-migrational-landscapes-a-survival-strategy-for-the-world/

http://www.marklaurence.com/wp/why-we-can-and-must-create-new-adaptive-ecologies/

http://www.marklaurence.com/wp/trees-climate-change-our-landscapes/

Posted in Arboriculture, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Natural Landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Sustainability, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,