Managing Spontaneous Urban Plants for Improved Aesthetics

As discussed last week, our wild, urban flora is a cosmopolitan mixture of plants that were either native to the area before it was developed, introduced from all corners of the world on purpose or by accident, or brought in by migrating wildlife. These are plants capable of establishing and sustaining themselves outside of human cultivation and management, and are found in abundance beyond the borders of our tidy gardens and manicured landscapes. They vegetate sectors of our city that have been abandoned, overlooked, or routinely neglected. Given enough time – and prolonged lack of intervention – such vegetation will proceed along the process of ecological succession in the same way that plant communities in natural areas do. And just like other plant communities within their respective ecosystems, these wild, urban plant communities provide a suite of ecological services vital to the health of our urban ecosystems.

Peter Del Tredici writes in Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, “landscapes that include spontaneous vegetation fit the technical definition of sustainable in the sense that they are adapted to the site, require minimal maintenance, and are ecologically functional.” In an interview with Scenario Journal, Del Tredici goes on to define sustainability as “the value of the services provided by the ecosystem divided by the cost required to maintain that ecosystem.” Spontaneous urban landscapes offer “substantial ecological services at relatively low cost, or in some cases no cost,” and thus, by Del Tredici’s definition, they are “highly sustainable.”

There is one unfortunate downside – “weedy” landscapes like this are, by popular opinion, thoroughly unattractive and a sign of urban decay. This belief is held in spite of the fact that many of the plants found therein would be cherished or admired in other settings. Among deteriorating infrastructure, litter, and less attractive plants, some of our favorite plants are rendered guilty by association.

Despite their ecological benefits, abandoned areas vegetated with wild, urban plants are not favored by the public. So, to appease our aesthetic standards, sites like this can be enhanced through minimal intervention to be more attractive while retaining their ecological functions. In a paper published in a 2006 issue of Journal of Landscape Architecture, Norbert Kühn asserts that “to use spontaneous vegetation for ornamental purposes, a kind of enhancement or design work is necessary.” Species can be added and removed, and simple, infrequent maintenance measures can be implemented. Examples include extending the flowering season with spring flowering bulbs and mowing the area once or twice annually to maintain and improve the composition of the stand.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – one of the plants that Norbert Kühn included in his study as a candidate for improving the aesthetics of spontaneous, urban plant communities.

Favoring attractive weeds over less attractive ones and using minimal maintenance to improve aesthetics and function are the principles behind Del Tredici’s “cosmopolitan urban meadow.” In his book, he lists some criteria for plants that would be suitable for “this novel landscape form,” including: erosion control (long-lived; vegetatively spreading), stress tolerance (full sun; drought; compacted and polluted soil), aesthetic value (ornamental characteristics; not “weedy” looking), wildlife friendly (attractive to pollinators; edible seeds), and commercially available.

In an article in Harvard Design Magazine, Del Tredici and Michael Luegering describe the cosmopolitan urban meadow as “a stable assemblage of stress-tolerant, low-maintenance herbaceous perennial plants that are preadapted to harsh urban conditions and that will provide an attractive vegetation cover on vacant land.” Whether it is a “long-term landscape feature” or a placeholder until future development, it will have “the capacity to increase the aesthetic and ecological value of vacant land without the investment of large sums of money typically required for the installation and maintenance of traditional managed landscapes.”

Abandoned or undeveloped, urban lots like this one are ideal sites for “cosmopolitan urban meadows.”

In an urban context, some plant species are particularly noxious and may need to be removed from urban meadows, such as ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) for its allergens and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) for its Urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. Species with a history of being invasive should also be avoided and contained, particularly in sites that are adjacent to or within a short distance from natural areas. Despite this and other minor concerns, spontaneous vegetation has great potential. In Kühn’s words it is “authentic” and a “reminder of the history of the site,” it is part of “the natural dynamic” with potential to bring us “closer to nature,” and finally, “it can be maintained for a long time [with] less care and low costs.”

Finding beauty in these urban, wild landscapes might even cause a shift in what we find appropriate for cultivated landscapes. In her book, Grow Curious, Gayla Trail reminds us that, despite all of our efforts, wildness persists even in our most earnest attempts to subdue it. Perhaps we should embrace it:

‘Wild’ and ‘cultivated’ are social constructs that we place in opposition to each other, when in reality there is a knotty labyrinth between them. We subjugate our cities and our gardens with chemicals and artifice because we are unable to see that wild and cultivated can be entwined, can be all at once tended, lyrical, surprising, domesticated, irrational, functional, and free.

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See Also: Arnold Arboretum’s Cosmopolitan Meadow at Weld Hill

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6 thoughts on “Managing Spontaneous Urban Plants for Improved Aesthetics

  1. I think with the popularity of the Lurie Garden and the High Line, this shift is already happening. Larry Weaner, a landscape designer in the Philadelphia area and author of Garden Revolution https://www.amazon.com/Garden-Revolution-Landscapes-Source-Environmental/dp/1604696168 seems to use some of this philosophy in his design except it’s more in a way to reduce weeds rather than use them in the design. I think the definition of weed is starting to change. Many plants with the word weed in them such as butterflyweed are no longer considered a weed to many but there’s no doubt the continued popularity of traditional garden design as demonstrated on this blog about the Hillwood Gardens in DC. https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/2427770/posts/1631115050 The good thing is things are changing and I think the way to make this idea work is not to offend too many people and better yet inspire them. A challenge for sure.

    • Thanks for the links! Meadow and prairie-like gardens certainly seem to be gaining in popularity, which I’m sure helps when it comes to the acceptance of spontaneous urban meadows. I think there is a time and place for all types of gardens, but my preference has always been for gardens that serve purposes beyond aesthetics – water saving, wildlife supporting, pollinator attracting, soil building, food growing, etc. Finding ways to create gardens that serve all (or most) of these purposes, including aesthetics, can have its challenges, but it’s definitely the way to go.

  2. “abandoned areas vegetated with wild, urban plants” are actually one of my favorite things, but I recognize I’m in the minority, and I’m glad people are studying ways to incorporate the good things that happen when plants take up residence in neglected urban areas. I have nothing against the idea of a little enhancement. Better than paving it over! This post has great value in introducing some new ideas. The final quote is wonderful, thank you!

  3. Just as I learned to appreciate the structure of dead brown plants with seed heads in the winter a la Piet Oudolf of High Line fame, after reading this I am going to look
    at “spontaneous urban landscapes” with a more positive eye. Thank you for opening my mind
    to this possibility.

    • Thanks for reading. I hope we all can be more forgiving of and find the beauty in these important plants. With the caveat, of course, that certain species may need to be dealt with. 🙂

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