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 glaucescens
  • 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, provids 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 glaucescens, 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 glaucescens, 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

There were also a few unidentified things, this shrub, for example.  A legume of some kind, if anyone can ID it, please let me know.

Unknown Legume

Unknown Legume

Rose-winged Parakeet

Rose-winged 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.


Other articles by ML that relate to this topic:







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

hazel pruning methods
January 9th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

In my previous post I talked about a regenerative planting methodology for urban landscapes, in which I suggested you would manage, rather than maintain your planting areas. So how exactly do you you do this? Both involve work and the difference is a subtle but important one, in both attitude and application. Think urban forester rather than garden pruner. The picture above illustrates this perfectly, so let me explain.

It shows two hazels in my garden, both planted as young bare-root trees in the winter of 07/08. The one on the left was coppiced down to the ground in the winter of 12/13, the other has been pruned to keep a structure of older wood, with all suckering growth removed annually. What is the difference? The coppiced hazel has been less work overall and has not been touched since it was coppiced, the pruned tree has been pruned annually, which was not great amount of work but this is just one tree. If there were a hundred, it would be a different matter. The main difference is that the pruned tree has catkins, the coppiced tree does not, but I think this is a difference of genetics, rather than pruning technique, as they have always been like that. The shape of the pruned tree is also wider in its spread and will become gnarled as it gets older.

So in terms of management, if you go the coppice route you do nothing much to the trees except coppice them every 4-5 years. I would suggest that 50% of the trees are coppiced so that not all structure is removed at once. Notice that the growth of the coppiced hazel is straighter, making for a productive yield of canes and poles that can be used in the local community. Other trees that can be coppiced include sweet chestnut, lime, alder, ash, willow and hornbeam. Birch and oak will coppice, but from young trees only. Willows and dogwoods grown as bushes for their winter colour can be coppiced or “copparded” (inbetween coppice and pollard) to around 300-600mm every two years to keep the winter stem colours strong.

Salix elaeagnos

Salix elaeagnos (foreground)

By adopting such techniques in our larger masses of urban street planting and parks, we would deliver a more biodiverse, beautiful and biophilic interaction for all concerned. It would also cost less both to establish and possibly to maintain, than traditional planting. The above willow is beautiful and graceful, yet I have seen it all too often used in municipal car-parks and reduced to a-n-other shrub that is caressed all to frequently with the indifference of a hedgetrimmer.

Time to re-wild our inner selves, and our urban landscapes. We can do so much better than the average landscape we see in our towns and cities.

Posted in Arboriculture, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, My Garden, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

regenerative tree planting methodology
December 29th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

Almost all urban landscapes are contrived and designed, due to their artificial nature and short timescales of development and use.  We see increasing use of mature rootballed trees and extensive hard landscape and this is normal for intense inner urban areas; I do get concerned that the increasing complexity of urban planting systems divorce trees particularly from their natural functions and prevent the occurrence of the biological interactions/communities that go to make up an ecosystem.  For example, I have seen trees planted whose surface levels are around a metre below the surrounding paving level.  No matter how well designed, this seems fundamentally wrong to me.

So I’m thinking that there must be a way of dealing with the majority of less intense landscape zones (especially where there isn’t the financial budget that a high-end development attracts) to provide urban regeneration, ecological restoration and biophilic connection, all on a modest budget.  This would create a new method to allow for wide-spread adoption in urban and suburban zones.  I think the solution comes from Nature’s own process of natural regeneration and a developed philosophy of minimal (but specific) preparation.

silver birch regeneration

silver birch are pioneering species for natural regeneration

Starting from the observation that Nature is very efficient at regenerating itself, what can we do?  Too often, I have seen unnecessary interference in this process.  I still recall that a few years after the great storm of 1987, I walked through some nearby National Trust woodland of pines and birch.  A great deal of damage had been done with many trees blown over.  Birch had however, regrown abundantly from dormant seed and was already three or four foot tall.  The NT then sent in the bulldozers to clear out the fallen wood so the area could be – replanted.  I watched them tracking over all the natural regeneration.  Why didn’t they just leave well alone?  The restoration of the woodland was only slowed down by such clumsy interference and this was not even a productive forest.

If we simply broke up paving in our urban centres and loosened up the sub-base, what would happen?  Nature would soon find a footing and things would start to grow; however, that process would be too slow and unpredictable for human sensibilities.  So what if we did a little more, adding a small amount of topsoil to the rubble, planting small (1+1 year transplants) bare root trees and shrubs,  with plugs of understory forbs, ferns and grasses. Starting so young, we’d generate a successful community in no time.  These could be designed as narrow ribbons – two to four metres wide, inserted into suitable wider areas of paving.

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

The above area was one I thought would be suitable for such an approach; there are many such areas throughout all urban spaces.  They cry out for regeneration, yet seldom can this be done for lack of adequate finance.  Below is a quick sketch showing how it might look.

Sketch showing regenerative planting

Sketch showing regenerative planting

The benefits of such an approach would be huge.  It would cost far less than using a traditional approach to landscaping such an area, maybe half (I haven’t costed it!).  The care would move from maintenance to management, using a rotational coppice methodology, rather than trim and tidy (which always ruins a plants natural habit. Biodiversity would be hugely enhanced, air pollution mitigation would increase, wind buffering, urban heat island reduction, stormwater runoff (they would act as rain gardens) and of course, our biophilic needs, our connection to nature.

Someone needs to be bold and try it; talk to me…

Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Living wall Maintenance
November 29th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

We are now a decade into the explosion of living or green walls.  There have been many successes and some notable failures along the way, some of of which may be system-induced and some caused by inadequate or inappropriate maintenance regimes. Assuming we now have systems that work at least reasonably well, what is required by way of maintenance to keep walls looking good?

First of all, we have to acknowledge it is the large, commercial projects which get the attention and sit within the public eye.  If anything goes wrong with these, it is noticed, big time. Commercial walls, I have found, are governed by financial pressures and that can sometimes mean that over time, budgets are cut and maintenance regimes compromised. When maintenance goes out to commercial tender, it is usually the cheapest price that wins.

Secondly, we have to understand that there is a profound difference in the way we perceive vertical landscapes from horizontal ones.  With ordinary planting beds, we would plant probably between five and nine groundcover plants per m². Living walls are planted at between 30 and 100 plants per m², a highly artificial and crowded environment.  Yes, we are treating these as groundcover which knits together, but unlike horizontal beds, gaps between plants are not deemed acceptable.  It is also harder for plants to spread or fill in laterally, depending upon the system they are planted into. Visually, when you look at a living wall, you look straight on at eye-level, then upwards. So the lower sections of walls can come under intense scrutiny.  Any failures have to be replaced and the rate is higher than that of horizontal planting, for the aesthetic reasons just stated.

Thirdly, living walls depend upon the right plants being chosen; they have to have the right characteristics of habit, growth and longevity. Some common garden plants are notoriously temperamental, short-lived or subject to pests such as the notorious Vine Weevil (which seems to attack an ever-increasing variety of plants). As a designer, I have previously used many plants that I don’t use now, and I find the list is shrinking, as you learn about a plant’s ruggedness over time. We are still pioneering a new methodology and now I’d rather use a smaller palette and feel more confident about it’s long-term success.

Fourthly, finally and perhaps of greatest importance, is the maintenance given to a living wall. I prefer the term living wall to green wall, because it reminds us that they are just that, living. They are also put into an extremely hostile and unnatural location and aspect. Sometimes those who look after them don’t do a good enough job. Many commercial landscapers are not horticulturalists and don’t really know that much about plants.  That may sound shocking (and I’m pointing fingers at no-one, for this is just they way things are) but a Kew or RHS trained gardener is unlikely to be employed in a commercial company. Even knowing what to do for the best health of a plant on the ground could be inappropriate if done to the same plant on the vertical.

maintenance-03 maintenance-02 maintenance-01

The pics above show living walls in three different systems, all in poor condition (including one using my older system); I’m not saying where or who because blaming is not appropriate nor my intention; rather, awareness raising is. The fact is that each and every system out there has good and bad examples to show. It is interesting to note that training efforts have been begun in at least one university, but this type of knowledge is a hands-on, college affair. Right now, it is only learnt on the job and this is art of the problem; many operatives simply don’t know their plants. If you don’t know the name, you’re not going to know anything about how it grows or when and how you should prune it.

My answer (and this goes much against my designer instincts) is to restrict the planting palette to those most able to survive. I always want to use more varieties, but it is sobering when you see them dying because they can’t cope with the conditions, or falling off the wall because the roots have been eaten by Vine weevil or millipedes. Beautiful grasses that  have high levels of old, straw-like debris among the new healthy leaves are a no-no and geraniums may or may not look good in the winter months; such plants must be used with care. Patterned designs seem to fall by the wayside too; bold swathes are fine until one species fails and dies back, then you are left with a gaping wound.

So you may be thinking, should we do this at all?  My answer is an emphatic yes, we should and must. We need to green the vertical in cities, for it is often the only space left available. We have all the needs of biodiversity, pollution mitigation and biophilia to account for and living walls provide those where no other greening method can – not even trees. We still have much to learn however, and the skill of maintenance has to be appreciated more by all involved. In fact it needs to be venerated and it’s practitioners respected and paid more.

Systems, at best second or third generation, need to evolve and be better understood.  Or rather, plants need to be understood more, and their optimal needs met.  We have, as I keep saying, hardly scratched the surface of what is possible and of what needs yet to be done. We need to learn more, try more and expect more.

Let’s get to it.

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Green walls, landscapes, living walls, Sustainability, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

A Living wall designed by Mark Laurence
October 31st, 2015 by Mark Laurence

There is something incredibly exciting about living walls.  Stacking green plants on the vertical plane on buildings, where you’d think they just should not be, goes against the odds.  Yet nowadays they are almost commonplace, and most people have encountered one somewhere.  They cling to life with extraordinary tenacity, usually in a growing medium only a few centimeters thick, with water fed via irrigation pipes. Cynics may criticize and some walls are without doubt better designed and maintained, or use a better system than others, but we should applaud this urban green trend, and encourage it.  We need it.  Modern systems are reliable and use very little water or energy to run.

As a global society we are going through unprecedented changes; now more than 50% of the world’s population is urbanised and this will grow to 75-80% by 2050.  Most of those people are essentially disconnected from Nature. It is now recognised that we have an innate need, called biophilia, to maintain our relationship with Nature.  Not surprising really, when you think how we have evolved, yet the psychological and physical cut-off, over the last 100 years, has been astonishing.  This can only become more pronounced as cities continue to swell, and highly-stressed people produce dysfunctional societies.  If we can green our urban streets then perhaps we can counter this negative effect.  Green walls take up almost no footprint in the urban landscape, not even a pavement width.  All that is needed is a supporting wall and we have plenty of those.  Trees are beautiful and add huge amounts of biophilic interaction into a citiscape, but we find them increasingly difficult to site, due to underground services and growing space needed.  Those of you who read my blog will know that I also consult on trees, so I love them dearly, but I see living walls as having a different role to play and as being more versatile.

Living Wall in a small courtyard garden by Vertology

Living Wall in a small courtyard garden by Vertology

Living walls have physical benefits on the environment too.  They provide a haven and food source for insects, especially bees.  Birds find seeds, berries and of course, insects on the wall and smaller birds are known to nest amongst the foliage.  Living walls are also helpful in mitigation of air pollution; I was involved with designing and plant selection for a wall put up by Transport for London (top picture) to test the ability of plants to capture pm10 – airborne particulates, primarily from diesel engines.  Whilst we need to remove the source of these pollutants, capturing them is a good secondary strategy.  It turns out that walls in a street canyon (where the building height is greater than the street width) cause the air to move in a cyclical manner, so air passes through the foliage of a living wall several times.  Trees can do this, but dense canopies can actually trap particulates down at street level, concentrating them where people are.  Most trees also are deciduous, so have no such benefits in the winter months.

Interior Living wall in Norway, designed by Mark Laurence

Interior Living wall in Norway, installed by a Vertology partner

We can bring living walls into the interior, and in fact in hostile climates, that’s where you’ll find most of them.  Whilst I have designed outdoor walls in climates as diverse as Dubai, Norway (Trondheim, 62° latitude) and Chicago, in such places it is often easier to put your dose of biophilia indoors!  We spend 80-90% of our time inside, so this makes sense.  Such walls also clean the air.  Much quoted studies by NASA have shown that a range of common houseplants (which are basically plants of a sub-tropical origin) are efficient at removing Volatile  Organic Compounds VOCs, such as formaldehyde) from the air. These can be found in concentrations far higher than outdoors, due to the nature of air recirculation and energy conservation.  So we bring the jungle indoors, where we live and work.

Walls have the most drama when they are large, but they don’t have to be.  Small walls in intimate spaces still have a large impact.  This can be a home, courtyard, rooftop or office reception.  Small is beautiful.

A small indoor living wall by Vertology

A small indoor living wall by Vertology

Having worked extensively with living walls over the last decade,  I now consult, design and install them worldwide via my company Vertology Living Walls, and its approved partners.  Grab yourself some biophilia – install a living wall!

Posted in Biophilia, Design, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Green walls, living walls, Retail, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

January 23rd, 2013 by Mark Laurence

I was chatting to the local farm manager the other day, out on the snow-lined track.  “There’s nothing in the hedgerows for the birds” he told me.  It made me glad that there was in my garden, which borders the track and fields.  It also brought home such a startling truth:  the birds need us and we need to garden for them, and that means for the whole food-chain.

A Robin sits on one of our Wayfaring Trees - Guilder Rose, or Viburnum opulus.

A Robin sits on one of our Wayfaring Trees – Guelder Rose, or Viburnum opulus.

The picture shows a Robin; but they don’t eat the berries; Blackbirds and Thrushes do, at least around here.  I’ve been wondering why, since the berries were first produced in Autumn, they hadn’t been eaten; perhaps they were saving them for harder times, maybe it is not their favourite, but it is there, they are eating them and so surviving.  I’m so glad that a planting choice I have made has made a tangible difference to the birds.  Although native, Guelder Rose does not naturally grow on the south coast, so perhaps they simply hadn’t discovered the fruit – but they have now and the bushes are almost bare.  To me, this is the best reason to garden for wildlife; the simple rewards are better than almost anything I can think of…

Posted in Environment, landscapes, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , ,

October 23rd, 2012 by Mark Laurence

I gave a talk last week on Internal Bio-Systems for buildings, to eFIG, the European Federation of Interiors Group (http://www.efig.eu.com/) which was reported on swiftly by Horticulture Week .  They picked up on my use of the phrase “war-footing” for the kind of response levels needed to deal with the issues at hand.  Why?  Well, climate change is now more of a real-term threat than terrorism, yet which do we spend the most money on?  With Obama and Romney not even talking about the issue, what is the point of “defence” if for political and business reasons we don’t allow ourselves to see the biggest threat of all which is looming large, and which we’re not even taking defensive actions on?

Bio-Systems need to become an integral part of our solutions to environmental problems, but they need designing and implementing wholesale to make a difference – and what a difference they could make! We can regulate building temperatures and energy use, clean air and water, create biodiversity, quieter streets, rehydrate the local hydrological cycle, grow food where we consume it… so much!  But the odd enthusiastic building owner/user doing it won’t make enough difference – we need critical mass; did I mention CRITICAL?


I’ll post a link to my talk here, once it’s loaded onto Vimeo…

Posted in Design, Economic Issues, Environment, landscapes, living walls, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , ,