When a forest isn’t a forest

A prairie savannah in what had recently been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.
A prairie savannah in what had once been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.

We so often think that forest is the natural result of just letting nature be and that to see forest is to see an indication of a healthy ecosystem. Yet we forget that many ecosystems are actually not forest-based at all, or else they are a mix of forest and other types of ecologies, such as grasslands and prairies. Years of fire suppression and mismanagement in the US have actually allowed many formerly grassland and savannah (mix of grassland and forest) ecologies to become completely dominated by forest, which is then often dominated by one or two species that have simply outcompeted everything else.

This scenario was very much the case within what is now Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio. Years of fire suppression, grazing, and dairy ranching on the site had turned what had once been prairie, prairie savannah, and some forest, into basically all forest. So embedded had the forest look and feel of the area become that within the local narrative of the place people simply saw it as natural and having always been there. Recently, when the site was to be re-envisioned as a park, designers and ecologists had to contend with vast stands of juniper that had worked their way in and basically choked out native grasses, oaks, and perennials.

This foresting of places that were never forests to begin with is nothing new in American history. In fact, much of California was grassland before European settlers arrived. In his book, Trees in Paradise, Jared Farmer writes that settlers coming to the Far West wanted to “complete” the land by foresting it. “They forced grasslands and wetlands to metamorphose into fields, orchards, and garden cities,” he writes. To use a term of the time, they “emparadised” it. These longstanding efforts, combined with years of fire suppression, have transformed parts of California into hybrid manmade-natural tree-dominant ecologies that didn’t exist prior to the arrival of the Spanish some 450 years ago.

Of course, the lessons we can learn from these examples are not that trees don’t have their place in spaces where perhaps they once didn’t grow. Our urban and suburban landscapes are brimming with things that didn’t used to be there – pavement, right angles, roofs, to name a few – so to make the case that trees shouldn’t be there because they weren’t there before doesn’t really hold water. Not to mention that we need street trees more than even, given the realities of the urban heat island effect and climate change. Yet when it comes to our less urbanized and wilder spaces and places, rethinking the role of the tree in ecologies that were not ever forest is a much-needed endeavor. To restore these places back to prairie or Savannah is a way of ensuring that they are able to grow and evolve in a way that ultimately reaches a balance, so that one species – such as juniper – doesn’t become so dominant as to prevent biodiversity from flourishing. As a result, intense, long-term maintenance of the space does not have to be a prolonged and expensive reality.

Goldenrod, a sign of now

An illustration of goldenrod from the Macmillan Wildflower Book, 1954
An illustration of goldenrod from the Macmillan Wildflower Book, 1954

Late summer and early fall in much of the country are characterized by golds and purples, if you know where to look. In fields, prairies, vacant lots, and roadsides, the gold of goldenrod makes its determined and brilliant appearance. Growing from spring through summer, slowly sending its flower buds forth, it finally bursts into explosions of gold when many plants have long finished flowering and are already getting ready to slow down for winter. Bees and butterflies then flock to its flowers, stocking up on pollen and nectar before hunkering down or flying south. And then, just like that, the spectacle of color is over – or seemingly so – as a new spectacle then appears: birds, coming to feast on the seeds.

While some goldenrods do look a bit on the weedy side at times, we can forgive them for that, because everything else about them is, well, golden. For further reading, we cannot think of a better writing on this amazing plant and flower than the poem “Goldenrod” by Mary Oliver. You can read that here.

A landscape postcard

prairieform, landscape design, minneapolis, los angeles, san francisco, irrigation-free, wildlife, prairie, natural, wild, design

We’ve written so little of late. Moving to a new city is energy- and time-consuming. We are on the cusp of new work, focusing mainly on weeds. In the meantime, here is a little landscape postcard that arrived for us last week. This is the Joppa Avenue Landscape in full midsummer splendor. This is its seventh year in the ground. If you would like to see before/after photos that go way back, click here. This little landscape started off as little more than a patch of bare earth.

Second hottest July on record, irrigation-free landscape thriving

irrigation-free landscape, prairieform, minneapolis, landscape design, minnesota, drought, xeric, xeriscape, landscapes
A view of the irrigation-free landscape in August, looking north. Most of these plants have not been watered since June 6

We’ve held off on prematurely declaring the irrigation-free landscape a success, but thus far it has exceeded even our expectations. This July was the second hottest on record for Minneapolis, with June being particularly sweltering too. In spite of this, of the 204 plants in the irrigation-free landscape, 90% of them have not been watered since June 6. And they are thriving. A recent visitor to the landscape commented the landscape looks so full you would have no idea it was only planted less than two months ago and that most of the plants haven’t had supplemental water since early June. For more photos of how the landscape has evolved and grown, click here. Seeing is believing, though, so come by for a visit: 2853 42nd Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN.

On-site workshop for the Irrigation-Free Landscape

It’s MInnesota, it’s summer, and it’s hot and dry, yet again. Learn how to make proverbial landscape lemonade out of lemons, how to create a landscape that can beat the heat and not require a sprinkler, and come to the on-site workshop for the Irrigation-Free Landscape. Click on the photo above, then click on it again in its new window, to see the flyer. For more info, click here.