Watching me go for a walk is like observing some deranged insect. I’ll set off intentionally in a direction, get distracted by a colorful flower, scan for other individuals, glance back, notice something interesting that I missed, take a loop around to look at the drainage and species distribution, then saunter on towards my next distraction. It’s infuriating to anyone trying to be efficient.
For me, walking isn’t usually about getting to a destination.
Instead, it’s about getting to know a place. I love walking. It’s a privilege that my body affords. To me, walking is the best way to discover landscape - traverse the land in different ways, under varying conditions, notice how it changes and what stays the same.
Fortunately for me, walking landscapes isn’t just something I enjoy. It’s actively a way of getting better at my craft - the practice of making landscapes, especially with designed plant communities. I find it a great way to increase my repertoire. The wider my knowledge of how different plants grow and interact in different situations, the better prepared I am to understand how to design plant communities. Building on that experience, I’ve learned that walking around wild (and managed) landscapes is one of the the best ways for me to learn about plant communities.
But I can walk and stop and talk and photograph without absorbing anything important. How do I get better at walking and looking at landscape? How do I look in an intentional way? What am I looking for? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Start With the Large Scale
Landscapes operate at different scales from humans, both in space and time. To better understand what’s going on in a landscape, I think it’s important to zoom in to the scale of individual plants - and out to the larger scale of plant communities. I usually start a landscape exploration by looking at aerial imagery. Talk about a place and I’m instantly clicked over to Google Maps. We’re phenomenally lucky to have access to this resource for so much of the world. I’m not quite to the level of a former coworker who would go frame-by-frame through imagery of space, looking for evidence of unidentified craft. But I will definitely take a lunchbreak vacation to street view in rural Ukraine or the Vinales Valley in Cuba.
Aerial imagery reveals routes, paths, access points. For plant geeks like me - aerial imagery shows a large scale view of plant communities - where different types of communities grow, how they merge into one another, their overall distribution across the landscape. Here in South Florida, the colorful flower-heavy herbaceous stuff that I’m especially interested in seeing often occurs at transition areas - scrub, grasslands, and at forest edges. I can choose routes (even parking and access locations) based on where I’m likely to encounter these kinds of conditions.
If I’m looking at a conservation area - especially in Florida - I’ll also search and see if I can find a Management Plan. These comprehensive documents will have the plant communities throughout the site mapped, as well as identification of any species of note (especially endangered and threatened species).
Equipped with a basic understanding of what I’m likely getting myself into, I trundle off in my Rogue - sneakered, sunscreened, and exuding a cloud of eucalyptus-citronella-grapefruit oil.
Pay Attention to Underlying Landscape - Topography, Hydrology & Soils
Arriving at a site, the first thing I usually notice is the topography. Topography is such a kinesthetic experience - I feel like changes in grade can really be understood only through walking. Here, where the peninsula of Florida erodes slowly down into the Gulf, even small changes in soil type and elevation can have a dramatic impact. In some areas, limestone ridges tip up and are exposed at the surface - forming rocky ridges. Plants that thrive on those dry ridges are often completely different from those that flourish on the sandy and mucky lowlands typical of south Florida.
Hydrology is closely tied to soil type and elevation. Low areas accumulate moisture - and organic matter. Sometimes these differences are subtle and hard to detect in dry season. In late summer and fall, Gulf monsoon rains flood areas that are completely dry for 9 months of the year. When I lived in more temperate zones, the flow of water across topography felt more important. Here, the vast difference between rainy and dry seasons seems more impactful.
I don’t have the best sense on soils. Their basic elements are easy - sand, loam, clay. Water and nutrients move most quickly through sand. They’re held in clay. High ph (typical of limestone-derived soils and water) binds up certain nutrients. Low ph binds up others. Organic content affects what grows. That’s pretty much it. You try to interpret those NRCS maps. I’ll believe whatever you tell me.
Do Not Disturb
People have built entire careers on understanding disturbance in plant communities. I don’t have such grand ambitions. I’d like to know it when I see it, though - understand the effects that different types of disturbance have on plant communities.
Disturbance can be a completely non-human phenomenon. At the edge of the sea, salt spray and wind shape the plant communities that live. Storms - tornados and hurricanes - physically clear the landscape of larger plants, removing large trees from the canopy and washing away vegetation cover. Hydrology of all sorts - rivers, creeks, deltas, floods - breaks the surface of the soil, transporting seeds downstream, and opening opportunities for new things to grow. Trees fall. Animals graze - and walk. All of these actions change existing physical conditions and instigate change. Soil is exposed. New plants grow.
Humans disturb landscapes, too. Mowing affects plant communities. When you mow, how often you mow, the type of instrument you use - all of these practices affect existing plant communities and stimulate different responses. Even driving and walking can change the spread of seeds and open up space for new species to thrive. At a larger scale, human-induced change through clearing and development will affect how water moves - and what plants thrive.
Fire is one of the trendiest of disturbances. Now, it’s usually human induced. First Peoples across the planet (especially in the Americas and Australia) used it extensively to manage their landscapes. Now you get planning permission and fire-retardant vests to accompany the flame.
(It’s All About) Distribution
When I’m in a wild (or managed) place, I am always looking at how plants distribute themselves - both horizontally and vertically. As a designer, I want to mimic that natural plant community intent where no gaps exist. Plants layer themselves together to fill each ecological and spatial niche.
Vertical layers can be challenging. Here at the edge of the tropics - we have SO many vertical layers. Plants grow upon plants, piling themselves together in aggregations that would floor the efficiencies of any monitoring program. I just want to get that natural process started. Looking at how unplanned plants distribute themselves vertically helps me understand where to start.
Horizontal layers? I started really thinking about how plants are spaced horizontally when I took Noel Kingsbury’s Gardening with Experts class on Planting Design with Perennials. Noel’s instruction made me think about how plants distribute themselves horizontally - are they spaced as single individuals, tight clumps, or loose running individuals? This horizontal distribution occurs at different scales. Think about the long loose Sabal Palm Forests of the Everglades versus the tight Andropogon washes of the Konza Prairie. Both are large scale monocultures, operating at different scales.
Plants’ life cycles and reproductive strategies are integral to their physical forms. Plants that shoot up, flower, create many seeds, and die don’t invest time or resources in the individual specimen. They are tap rooted, narrow, and grow in the cracks. Others - like Baptisia - are clumpers, establishing deep roots - in for the long haul. Some thrive on multiplicity, like the running mints and goldenrods which sucker everywhere.
Reproduction strategies are important, but I’m not your guy for that. I don’t know what insects like. Call Heather Holm.
I made a harmless dweeb sniff sassafras leaves last year - and sit through a lecture on sarsaparilla tea making. Maybe, don’t do that? But walking through wild and managed plant communities is a really great way to build your critical thinking skills. Go! Look at landscape. Think about it critically. You’ll be better equipped to design plant communities - even if your walking companions find your behavior ridiculous.