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High Functioning Landscapes

Mueller Park Southwest Greenway Project - Ecosystem Design Group
The restored Blackland Prairie at the Robert Mueller development in central Austin is partially maintained by a local residents group and is host to graduate and undergraduate field classes.

Center director explains value of plant function at West Coast seminar

“When it comes to landscape regeneration, ‘Leave only footprints’ is not helpful,” said the the Wildflower Center’s Ecosystem Design Group Director Mark Simmons, Ph.D., to landscape professionals attending an April Garden Conservancy seminar in San Francisco. 

Simmons meant no disrespect to conservationists nor to Aldo Leopold who wrote those guiding words decades ago. Instead, he told seminar attendees he thinks it’s time we bring function into landscapes in order to conserve or restore them.

“We can still conserve, but we have to manipulate too. In landscape design we have to emphasize the importance of function of plants," Simmons told attendees of the one-day program, “The Way We Garden Now: A Seminar on Sustainability, Aesthetics and Gardens with Integrity.”  He was one of five speakers that included W. Gary Smith, the designer of the Center’s Children’s Garden and Texas Arboretum.

All plants provide ecosystem services – like clean air and water and food for wildlife – that have traditionally been taken for granted. “Nature gives us these things for free, and if we are to justify landscapes – natural and planned – we should learn to optimize all of their functions,’ Simmons said. “Doing so will help offset the development that claims so many native plants.”

The Center’s Ecosystem Design Group works to optimize landscape functions in its fee-based consulting work for public and private clients on projects such as national and regional parks, corporate headquarters, urban developments, institutional campuses, river restoration, state highways and botanic gardens.

George W Bush Presidential Center - Ecosystem Design Group

Schematic of a section of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Graphics courtesy of MVVA Inc.

At the seminar Simmons discussed the group’s role at Mueller Austin, a mixed-use development where they designed a 3-acre restoration of endangered Blackland Prairie in a park.  The group also worked with landscape architects to design a native plant demonstration garden. “Residents liked the prairie so much they asked that it be required to put prairie plants in yards there," Simmons said.

He also told landscape professionals  how the group suggested plants, native turf grasses and ecologically sound features for the George W. Bush Presidential Center being built at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University Campus.  The Center will include a native prairie habitat with a floodplain forest and a wildflower meadow.  Native Texas grasses will be used on the north and south lawns, and the entire landscape and watering system is designed  keep the native habitats healthy and ecologically stable.

Native turf plots at the Wildflower Center - Ecosystem Design Group
Octagonal beds at the Center where the characteristics of common Bermudagrass were compared to Buffalograss and a mixture of up to seven native grass species. Center researchers found the native species to perform better in general and require fewer resources.

The Ecosystem Design Group also conducts research on how to use native plants and sustainable design to address environmental challenges. Currently, that research involves fire ecology, using native plants in green roofs, assessing carbon sequestration by native grasses and developing a water-conserving lawn grass mixes.

Research has identified regional native grasses that are as attractive as the common non-native bermudagrass turfgrass but in general perform better and need less water and mowing.  The results of this study have recently been published online in the journal Ecological Engineering.

“Somewhere between 30 to 60 percent of urban fresh water is used for lawns,” Simmons told seminar attendees. “Developing alternative grass options that require less water could have a huge impact on pocketbooks and the environment.”

Now that’s a garden with integrity.

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