Ecological Landscaping

Harnessing Ecological Principles in Landscape Design: Understanding Ecosystems & Assessing Site Conditions 

In the context of landscape design, ecosystems refer to interconnected communities of living organisms and their physical environment. These environments are usually within a defined geographic area. These ecosystems encompass a wide range of elements, including plants, animals, soil, water, and climate. These elements have the tendency to interact with one another in complex ways.

The ecological approach to landscape design emphasizes the relationships and connections between the different components of a landscape. In addition to the physical environment and living communities, human activities shape the landscape and are shaped by it.

Ecological principles have guided the minds of great landscape architects for decades. These minds not only created aesthetically pleasing designs, but ones which are ecologically functional as well. Great minds such as Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of modern landscape architecture, and Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of the prairie style architecture and landscape design, have long pioneered these principles in their work.

Ecological Landscape Design Principles - A Field with Native Plants, Including Joe Pye Weed

In this article, I am going to share my professional insight on how to integrate ecological sustainability into landscape design. 

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Demonstrating an Understanding of Ecosystems

In order to understand the importance and logistics of integrating ecological principles into a landscape design, one must first demonstrate a strong understanding of ecosystems. This includes how native plants interact and live in harmony, all the while creating habitats for wildlife.

Understand the Local Ecosystem When Planning an Ecological Landscape Design

 There is also a component of incorporating the built environment with nature by using sustainable materials and installation practices. To achieve this you must also use energy efficient design strategies within the construction aspect of the design.

The final piece of this is encouraging community engagement and stewardship within the interaction of the ecologically designed space. This is useful for not only education and recreation, but creating a sense of place within the community.  

In the context of landscape design, it is important to note that ecosystems are not static entities. Ecosystems are constantly evolving and responding to changes in environmental conditions, human interventions, and other external factors. 

By incorporating ecological principles into landscape design, designers can create landscapes that enhance the beauty and functionality of outdoor spaces. They also create spaces which contribute to the health and well-being of the surrounding environment.

Understanding the Local Ecosystem

Studying the local ecosystem is paramount in a landscape design for several reasons. These reasons include site suitability, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and resilience to climate change. My experience tells me that understanding the local ecosystem is the first step in creating a sustainable landscape design. A designer can then select plants, materials, and design strategies appropriate to the conditions of a particular site.

Plants interact positively with each other depending on factors such as climate, soil type, topography, and hydrology. This creates a plant community which thrives over time. This is also a direct reflection of how the landscape will function over time. By studying these ecosystems, designers can identify opportunities to enhance biodiversity. This causes an increase in ecosystem function and services over time. This includes clean water, pollination, soil fertility, and water mitigation. 

The effects of climate change on local ecosystems include changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events. The population of Sugar Maple trees in New England is a great example.

Sugar Maple Trees - An Example of How Local Ecosystems Adapt to Reflect Climate Change

The trees rarely thrive in southern New England due to the increasing temperatures and pollution. The trees fare better in large colonies in the cooler climates of northern New England. In order to mitigate climate change, designers can study how ecosystems respond to stressors, enhancing resilience and adaptability. 

It is crucial to consider the cultural and historical context of local ecosystems. Ecosystems and environments often serve a cultural and historical significance to a community. They often serve as a source of inspiration, identity, and connection to the land. I always make sure I create a sense of place for the community, reflecting and celebrating their local identity as a designer. 

Assessing Site Conditions

Assessing site conditions and ecosystem characteristics is essential for informed landscape design decisions. These include site surveys, which help designers understand the physical characteristics of the landscape. These surveys include topography, soil composition, drainage patterns, and existing vegetation. Visual observations, soil testing, and field measurements can be used to gather this information. 

Assess Site Conditions When You Begin Planning Your Ecological Landscaping Project

Analyzing local climate data, including temperature, local climate data, including temperature, precipitation, humidity, and wind patterns, provides valuable insights into the environmental conditions. These insights will influence plant selection, water management strategies, and energy use within the landscape.

Conducting ecological inventories involves identifying and cataloging the flora and fauna present within the site. This may involve field surveys, wildlife tracking, and habitat assessments to determine the biodiversity and ecological value of the landscape.

Assessing the hydro logical characteristics of the site involves studying water flow patterns, groundwater levels, and surface water features . These features include streams, wetlands, and ponds. This information is crucial for developing water management strategies and mitigating erosion and flooding risks.

 Analyzing the existing vegetation helps designers understand the plant communities present within the site and their ecological functions. This may involve identifying dominant plant species, assessing plant health and condition, and mapping vegetation patterns across the landscape.

Embracing History & Engaging Stakeholders

Conducting historical research helps designers understand the cultural and ecological history of the site, including past land uses, changes in vegetation cover, and cultural heritage features. This information can inform design decisions and help preserve and celebrate the site’s unique heritage.

Engaging with stakeholders, including property owners, community members, and local authorities, provides valuable insights into the social, cultural, and economic context of the landscape. This may involve conducting interviews, surveys, and workshops to gather input and feedback on design priorities and preferences.

Engage Local Stakeholders, Including Community Members and Neighbors in Your Ecological Landscaping Project

By employing these methods for assessing site conditions and ecosystem characteristics, designers can gather comprehensive data and insights. These insights inform the development of ecologically sensitive and sustainable landscape designs. Through this holistic approach, design solutions are tailored to the specific needs and conditions of the site. Gathering comprehensive date creates landscapes that are both functional and harmonious.

Landscape designs that represent and work with connections between the physical, built, and social components of the ecological system are much less likely to produce negative consequences and more likely to contribute to ecological sustainability. 

Stay tuned for the next installment, Native Plants: The Foundation of Ecological Design.


Nicole Forsyth is a passionate Instructor of Plant Science at an agricultural vocational high school, and a certified landscape design professional, certified horticulturist, certified arborist, and the CEO of NF Landscape Design and Horticultural Consulting. Nicole’s core value is to transform outdoor spaces into living works of art that not only enhance the natural beauty of the environment, but also enrich the lives of her clients. She believes that harmony between nature and human design can create spaces that inspire, rejuvenate, and connect people with the world around them.We are proud to have Nicole join as a member of our expert panel.

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