Ecological Landscape Management and the big picture

What is the best way to achieve a landscape garden that hums like a humming bird?

By designing it from a birds eye view of course.

This high level perspective brings the big picture into view and with it the information needed to create systems that tend to regenerate the landscape rather than deplete it. Being a maintenance gardener for some twenty years my appreciation for thoughtful design and careful installation has grown. One of my mentors, Bill Mollison encourages “Prolonged and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action.” Unfortunately conventional landscape maintenance is defined by and even based on protracted and thoughtless action. The need for endless toil may be interpreted as job security by landscape maintenance contractors but this does not consider the environmental impact. It is wasteful landscaping with a heavy carbon-foot-print exacerbated by ill-conceived design and hit-and-run installation. A truly ecological landscape is designed, installed and maintained to work with nature while many conventional landscapes seem to work at odds with natural processes and require maximum toil to maintain. I believe that tending the garden will always be a valued and honored skill. The toil on the other hand can and should be designed out. If we really want to we can replace leaf blower toil with broom use or even using Owen Dell’s famous Sustainable Alternative to Power Leaf Blowers, a modified Scottish bagpipe. ( See Owen’s article here)

We say it’s time to replace lawn maintenance chores with food forest management skills.

The ecological view of the landscape fits well with this big picture approach. When one thread of the fabric of the ecological system is pulled it becomes evident that it is connected to the next thread in the weave. Being able to identify what the different threads represent is essential. When considering the health of a garden the ecological gardener looks beyond the leaves of the plants and seeks to gather information from multiple sources, starting with the soil below, moving up into the canopy of the trees and into the sky above. It is a, “toe bone is connected to the foot bone and the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone’, kind of thing. With this in mind let’s take a look at the snap shots that make up the big picture of the ecological landscape.

Starting from the ground up.


Soil health is the first piece. There is a vast network of life in the soil referred to as the Soil Food Web.

The interconnected nature of this web is it’s hallmark. Care of the soil is central to the ecological approach to the landscape and is a whole book in itself. It is interesting to note Leonardo Da Vinci’s insight that “We know more about the stars in the heavens than the soil beneath our feet.” While we know a good deal more than we did in Da Vinci’s time, there’s sure to be a boat load that we don’t even know that we don’t know about the stars and the soil.  The fact that there are billions of microbiological life forms in a single teaspoon of healthy topsoil is a hint at the wonder and complexity teaming therein. (see “Nurture the Soil” on When we understand the amount of life at play it is easier to appreciate the care and management needed. This teaming network of life has it’s ideal conditions and conversely it’s threats. It may not be a big surprise that human activity brings with it multiple threats to the soil. In fact just about everything we humans do to the soil causes it harm sooner or later. For instance both cultivation and overgrazing cause erosion due to exposure to sun, wind and rain.  Let’s assume a threat is anything that diminishes the soil life. The life in the soil matters because healthy living soil makes for healthy plants and is the cornerstone of the ecological landscape. Compaction and stagnation are further effects on the soil from human activities. Then toxification from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. When the overall health of the soil is disregarded and it is overused and abused there tends to be a negative feedback loop in which each ill affect compounds the next.

“The skin of the Earth must be approached with great sensibility. It is alive and it contains a spirit. It is easily bruised or damaged. In some respects, it is even more delicate than the bloom on the surface of a plum. Approach it without sensitivity, or at the wrong time, and you will damage it.” Alan Chadwick

Alan Chadwick UCSC garden


Learning about these threats is the first step towards reducing or eliminating them.

The problem: Compaction causing reduced water penetration and oxygen availability.

The solution: Reduce or eliminate pedestrian or vehicular traffic in planted areas. Manually aerate compacted lawn areas annually. When possible only work the soil in dry conditions, avoiding wet or muddy conditions. Working wet soil destroys its structure and its ability to except water and hold onto oxygen.

The problem: Erosion due to wind, rain and runoff.

The solution: Protect the soil from the affects of wind, rain and baking from the sun with mulch or other erosion control measures such as jute netting or coconut fiber blankets. Work the soil when it is not wet, muddy and saturated.

The problem: Stagnation due to covering soil with impervious material like black plastic and concrete.

The solution: Use porous materials like pervious concrete, pavers, rock or brick laid on sand and alternatives to plastic like cardboard or newspaper or biodegradable weed barrier paper.

The problem: Plants showing signs of nutrient deficiencies.

The solution: Testing the soil to find out if there are deficiencies. Request recommendations for organic soil amendments.

The probem: Toxification from pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals.

The solution: Discontinue or reducing the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.


Water management is one of the most important responsibilities of the ecological landscape gardener. From a design perspective this includes the integration of aquatic areas from large estuaries to small ponds and fountains, with terrestrial areas. Integration is an important consideration because water elements add an aesthetic function for humans and is an attractor for insects and wildlife.

“Just as water is the foundation of life it must be the foundation of design in the built environment.” Betsy Damon

As water becomes an evermore precious resource, how we manage it rises in importance. There are many tools to achieve water conservation.

Terra Nova and water conservation.

The problem: Water waste

The solution(s):

  • Performing a water audit to determine how, how much, where and when water is wasted. Pinpointing more solutions such as…
  • Designing with hydrozones so plants with similar water needs are placed in the same irrigation zone. This helps prevent waste from under and over-watering plants.
  • Use drought tolerant plants and Xeriscaping techniques where appropriate.
  • Employ low flow irrigation, like drip systems that are designed to conserve water.
  • Install intelligent irrigation controllers. ‘Smart’ timers can integrate data on soil, plant and irrigation type, zip code and slope to achieve maximum water savings.
  • Repairing irrigation leaks
  • Install graywater systems, Taping household water such as shower, bath and laundry for reuse in the landscape.
  • Install rainwater catchment cisterns. Storing and using rainwater for use in the landscape.
  • Use reclaimed water where possible.
  • Slow it, Spread it, Sink it – Earth works such as bio swales and rain gardens to redirect storm water to be absorbed into the soil instead of drained and piped away.
  • Mulching to prevent evaporation.

Thank you very mulch!


Every plant species has its ideal conditions for sun, shade, chill hours, water, soil type, nutrients, drainage and space. For this reason it is important to know the specific species needs. This is the first piece of information when looking for answers regarding plant health. For optimum plant health placing it in the right place from the beginning is essential. Once it is clear these requirements are being met other possible causes can be investigated. No amount of fertilizer will fix a plant in the wrong place. Often plants will have pest problems simply because they do not have the correct conditions to start with and pests prey on plants that are stressed.


Just as with humans there are many organisms that can cause disease or damage. Plant Diseases have two large categories. Non-parasitic disease caused by cultural conditions like incorrect pH balance in the soil, too little fertilizer or excess humidity and Parasitic diseases that are contagious and caused by fungi or bacterial passed from one plant to another through hands, tools, insects or other means of contamination.

The Problem: Plant health issues

The Solution: Get symptoms diagnosed. Identify if it is cultural, a disease or a pest problem. Treat specifically for the cause not the symptom.

The Problem: Leaf damage from insect

The Solution: Get pest identified before treating. Seek organic controls for specific pest. For example Holes in lettuce leaves. Early morning observation of snails on lettuce. Place empty plant pots propped up slightly for snails to hide from daylight, then collect during the day and feed to chickens. Use the organic snail killer called Sluggo.


Weeds are ubiquitous and as George Shultz once said, “The way to keep weeds from overwhelming you is to deal with them constantly and in their early stages.”

With the ecological approach to weed management persistent and toxic herbicides are not an option, therefore the weeds have to be out-smarted or manually removed. Hoeing, Solarizing (using temporary plastic tarps over the soil surface to trap the suns heat to kill weeds) , sheet mulching or just regular mulch are the primary control methods. There are a few organic herbicides available but they are expensive and are often not economically feasible. White vinegar is one exception for small weeds in pavement cracks. Weeds can be designed out of the system by a method called sheet mulching. With this method the weeds are cut down low then covered with multiple layers of cardboard and then the cardboard is covered with 4 to 6 inches of wood chips or other mulch. This smoothers the weeds and prevents new sprouts from reaching sunlight. In general mulch is one of the most important weed deterrents. Mulch helps cover the soil, keeps moisture in the soil and prevents weed seeds from sprouting in soil areas.


For safety and liability reasons it is important to check how infrastructure is functioning in the landscape. This includes irrigation, drainage, retaining walls, pathways, parking lots and seating areas.


How is the landscape looking as a whole?

How are the individual elements contributing to the unified look and feel?

Is the current look consistent with the original designer’s intent?

Are there aspects that need to be redesigned?

The Problem: Dead branch at eye level:

The Solution: Prune out dead, diseased and damaged wood as soon as it is noted regardless of time of year.

Terra Nova maintenance client property

As we gain this higher view we can paste all the snap shots together to create a panoramic image with a check list. This checklist can be revisited weekly, monthly and/or annually as needed and can be a management tool for workers on site, landscape designers/architects and the home or property owner. It is important for all concerned with site management to have unambiguous indicators of quality, health and sustainability in the landscape. The following checklist is meant to help quantify these indicators for that purpose.

-Ken Foster

Ecological Landscape Management check list

Soil Health

How is the soil health over all?


Over or under watered?

What % of organic matter is in soil ?

Are leaves allowed to create natural mulch when possible?

What type of soil is on site?

Jar test conducted?

Is there a need for a soil test?

Is there sufficient mulch to cover soil?

Water management

Irrigation controller schedule?

Irrigation efficiency?

Coverage uniform?

Hydrozones? Is the irrigation plant appropriate?


Mulch in place to prevent evaporation?

Weed management

How is weed management working?

Are weeds controlled before going to seed?

Is sheet mulch being employed?

Are weeds: hoed, pulled and mulched often enough?

Non toxic herbicides being used? Vinegar, Burn Out (product), etc.

 Plant health

Are plants in the right place for sun and shade requirements?

Is appropriate pruning being employed?

Irrigation: over or under watering?

Nutrient deficiencies?

Pest problems?

Damaged foliage?

 Is the landscape serving best needs for all users?

Humans? Pets? Wildlife?

How is it looking

How are the aesthetics of the site. Is it consistent with the intent of the design?


Individual elements? ie, the plants, water features and other design features, the hardscape and the mulch?

Is there a need for re-design?

 Has the site had a Sustainable Landscape Audit performed? Would the owner(s) like one? Have they been asked?

Has the site had a water/irrigation audit performed?

Would the owner(s) like one? Have they been asked?

– Terra Nova Landscape Management Team


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