The Living Landscape

THE LIVING LANDSCAPE:livinglandscape
Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden

By Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy

This article is much more than a review of the book Living Landscape, it might also have appeared as an essay by Tom, titled A Garden Ethic for a Living Landscape. Tom’s opinions shine through in every turn of a carefully chosen word or crafted phrase. A retired professor of English he is not shy about educating his reader.

The numbers that follow quotes from books are the page numbers in the books wherein the words appear. Books referred to are listed at the end of the article. ED.

Beauty is function; function is beautiful. Is that all you need to know on earth? Well, not quite. But it’s close.

It’s certainly the lesson that came across most powerfully in Rick Darke’s keynote addresses at this year’s Wildflower Association of Michigan conference. And it’s reinforced in the newly published book that he and Doug Tallamy co-authored, The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden (Timber Press, 2014). However, woven through Darke’s talks, Tallamy’s keynote addresses at the 2013 WAM conference, and their new book is a theme even more compelling than their call to expand our aesthetic sense of beautiful landscape to include its function as habitat, its ability to sustain a rich, complex web of living relationships.

For me, the importance of their book lies not in its emphasis on functional design but in its argument that what we most need is a new garden ethic—a sense of what is fundamentally right or wrong for the whole community of life. Although Darke and Tallamy don’t mention him, the ethic which underlies their entire argument strikes me as a re-focusing, for home gardeners, of the “land ethic” developed by Aldo Leopold.

Beauty and the human Factor

Beauty was an important consideration for Leopold, as in the classic formulation of his land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Moreover, like Darke and Tallamy, he always included the human factor. Leopold’s was an “ethic dealing with man’s relation to the land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it” (Leopold, 218).

Darke and Tallamy, aside from being friends and neighbors, are both specialists. Tallamy’s writing is informed by his scientific research in entomology and wildlife ecology, as well as by his experience in restoring the natural ecosystem of his own land. Darke’s background includes his major role in designing the plantings at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, his studies of plant communities throughout the world, and his fascination with “garden narratives,” the stories that a landscape tells about the many interactions between human culture and ecological process— traces, tools, and structures left behind by settlement, farming, paths, roadways, and industry. To Darke, a landscape is like a palimpsest, a parchment document scratched out and written over many times, leaving traces that can reveal, to the practiced eye, what was almost erased (83). Whatever their differences, scientifically and culturally, both are ecologists. Together, they call for a “new ethics” based on a “modern recipe for inclusive habitat” (131).

Their book, however, is not a recipe-book. In part, it’s an art-book, filled with beautiful photography by both authors and including Darke’s emphasis on the art of observation and the “art of ethical, functional design” (9). Basically, it’s an ecological explication of natural design and process, both in the wild and as it pertains to our gardens and our lives—as active participants in a living landscape.

An Ethical Obligation to Life

What is our obligation to this living landscape, aside from “making a garden and living in it” (9)? Our ultimate ethical obligation is, simply, to life. More scientifically, if you will, to “biological function.” Or, perhaps, to “ecosystem services.”

For me, the crux of the book’s argument consists in its central chapter, by Tallamy, “The Ecological Functions of Gardens: What Landscapes Do.” It’s here that Tallamy questions the “anthropocentric focus” of the term “ecosystem services”:

All living things [he emphasizes] require ecosystem services to make it in this world, not just humans, and there will be no ecosystem function without the myriad of life forms that create it… The relationship between landscaping practices and the production of vital ecosystem services has created ethical issues never before faced by gardeners [emphasis added] (119).

The Necessity of Complexity

Even if we persist in our blinkered focus on human benefits, Tallamy argues, our true need is nonetheless “ecosystem complexity itself”: complexity of design, food webs, and “ecosystem interactions” (118-119). This biological complex of interactions is precisely what is lacking in the unsustainable, unsustaining fragments to which we have reduced natural ecosystems. Only through linking these fragments by means of our very own managed landscapes can we “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (Leopold). Only thus can we serve ourselves ethically.

In its exposition of design principles, The Living Landscape always implies an ethical basis:

  •  The purpose of linking is not simply to provide “biological corridors” through which animals and plants can move but to create habitat in which they can “successfully reproduce”—spaces which will “support entire life cycles of local biodiversity” (116).
  • The “best strategy” for achieving full “biological function” in our gardens is through “reintroducing layers to residential landscapes” (13). The major part of the book is devoted to analyzing and illustrating the vertical, horizontal, temporal, cultural , and “edge” layers essential to this restorative process.
  • Only complex layering provides the myriad niches necessary to support full diversity of specialized species.
  • We should aim for the “highest supportable diversity.” An important (and underdeveloped) corollary to this principle is that we must “avoid unsustainable variety” (151). Experiment is good. Experiment without careful attention to context, both local conditions and the larger landscape beyond, is a waste of resources (127).
  • Every garden must have a “core group” of productive—i.e. fully functional—native plants (108). This again requires careful choices because the key concept is not native but functional. Some natives provide little function; some are superbly multi-functional. Beyond the essential “core group,” both Tallamy and Darke allow latitude for choosing according to our own tastes—e.g., a low-functioning native or a “colorful” non-native. On the other hand, as Tallamy insists, every species makes a difference—in its local ecosystem (100-101).
  • In this time of climate change, with all its stresses and uncertainties for the future of virtually every ecosystem, our criteria for choosing plant species must include their potential for carbon sequestration, as Tallamy advocates in the planting of oaks (112).
  • We must enlarge our sense of what is beautiful to include the “irregularities and imperfections” in a community of plants that result from “years or decades of adaptation to everchanging conditions.” To replicate such a community in a “managed” landscape requires, says Darke, two essentials: “seeds—and time” (89). Beauty consists in temporal interaction and adaptation, not just composition. “The first and final order of the creation,” as Wendell Berry observes, is like that of a drama, “an order in which things find their places and their values… according to their energies, their powers, by which they co-operate or affect and influence each other.”
  • Every gardener must develop the art of observation. Our role in the “drama of creation” is not that of director. Perhaps we are merely stage managers, observers from slightly offstage, waiting patiently, watchful for cues.

The Ethical Problem of Cultivars

The Living Landscape, as a book, provides admirable precepts, but it does not resolve some of our most vexing ethical dilemmas. It offers only sketchy treatment of cultivars and non-natives. “It’s time to stop worrying about where plants come from,” Darke insists, “and instead focus on how they function in today’s ecology. After all, it’s the only one we have” (7). Such a view directs us away from some ideal pre-settlement past and places us firmly in the culturally eclectic and ecologically disrupted here and now. But we are nonetheless faced with the ethical problem of determining, as carefully as possible, how much function persists in a cultivar or non-native. Because function is the key concept, isn’t it?

For Darke, as for Leopold, “stability” is a necessary element of a land ethic and of function. Therein consists another dilemma. Increasingly, writers indebted to Leopold’s land ethic emphasize that “stability” may not be possible in this time of climate change with its attendant uncertainties and disruptions. Instead, the criterion must be ecological “resilience,” a measure of how much stress a system can absorb and, although transformed and simplified, still persist as a self-regulating and viable system. The book barely recognizes the problem.

The Artistry of Time

I wish Darke had developed more fully his delight in cultural layering. He gives only passing attention to the land as a palimpsest on which a close observer can read the many-layered stories of local cultural history (81). Likewise, he barely suggests the aesthetic traditions that he draws upon: the 18th-century “picturesque” aesthetic and its later developments in the English cottage garden and the Arts and Crafts garden to which Darke devoted an earlier book, In Harmony with Nature (2000). If we are to enjoy what Darke calls the “artistry of time,” including its incorporation of our disruptions, we must master the art of observing the interactions of natural and cultural processes.

In both the present book and the earlier one, Darke quotes David Abram: “In contrast to the . . . global character of the technologically mediated world, the sensuous world . . . is always local” (In Harmony with Nature, 12). In his relish for the sensuous world of plants and patterns, Darke stops well short of what Abram evokes in his recent book, Becoming Animal, a visionary experience of a living landscape that enters into direct sensory communion with us, prompting us to renounce our stores of “mammalian intelligence” and simply revel in the experience of “the living land that sustains us”. Therein, perhaps, lies Darke’s limitation. He sees us as delighted observers and designers in nature. We are no longer Leopold’s “conquerors,” but neither are we full and empathetic participants in the “land-community.”

Birds in Every Layer

Tallamy, for all of his scientific approach, sometimes comes closer than Darke to direct participation in living landscape. He’s more specific about plant-insect-bird interactions. In his section on “Birds in Every Layer,” Tallamy is beautifully specific about how “layered landscapes” are functional because they “provide a complex of interacting organisms that are both beautiful and fascinating to those who learn to see” (79). On the whole, Tallamy provides more detail about landscape function and tells more stories than Darke, who emphasizes the importance of stories embodied in the landscape but doesn’t tell us very many.

In his concluding section, “Celebrating Life in a Managed Landscape,” virtually the book’s final word, Tallamy delights in disorder, in the element of surprise provided by his home landscape, particularly its spontaneous, serendipitous, unmanaged shaping and “design” through seed dispersal by birds, squirrels, and deer, and by the wind (which “bloweth where it listeth”). For Tallamy and his wife Cindy, nature’s own order, beyond or even contrary to their own best-laid plans, is both beautiful and fascinating. To their delight, “the design, diversity, and abundance of the plants in our landscape are very much the result of a collaboration between the Tallamys and natural processes” (285). That collaboration is worth celebrating.

Something of a Patchwork

I harbor a suspicion that the collaboration between Darke and Tallamy was not always entirely easy. Their approaches, although complementary, remain distinct. Their book, although beautiful and impressive, seems to me something of a patchwork. It advances a coherent ethic, but it lacks the interplay of two voices in conversation.

What I admire in both men and what I felt so wonderfully when listening to them speak at Wildflower Association conferences is their delight in the vivid details, ever-changing beauty, and undivided wholeness of living landscape. What impresses me about them is the inclusiveness of their generosity. They need to share their joy and delight with us. They want us to see the beauty, understand what we are losing, and collaborate with each other and with nature in our own vital function as gardeners.

Wildly Functional Is the Standard

If their collaboration seems to fall somewhat short of what Leopold means by “integrity” and physicist David Bohm calls “undivided wholeness in flowing movement,” keep in mind that neither “wild” nor “natural” is their standard for judgment. Darke’s phrase perhaps best expresses their objective: “wildly functional” (56). The ideal, for both Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, is the “second  nature” espoused by Michael Pollan.

Their book provides myriad hints and patterns for us to follow. More than that, however, it requires of us a difficult collaboration: to learn the art of observation, appreciate all the beauty, make the ethical choices, and, like the book, personify, as best we can, “the new balance between humans and nature that will happen right in our gardens” (9). That’s what a truly living landscape calls us to do.


Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. 2011.

Berry, Wendell, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. 1972

Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Routledge, 2002.

Darke, Rick. In Harmony with Nature: Lessons from the Arts and Crafts Garden. 2000.

Leopold, Aldo, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac. Oxford, 1996.

Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. 1991.

Walker, Brian, and David Salt. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems in a Changing World. 2006.