Reading the Landscape

Brown-eyed susan, a favorite native perennial for gardens.

Once, when I was in first grade, I fainted from holding my breath too long. At the time, we were living in a house in Modesto, California on the edge of rapid development. Our backyard was enclosed by a ten-foot tall redwood fence and beyond that were several acres of empty land where new homes were already planned. In the few seconds that passed while I lay on my back on the floor of our garage, I remember floating up over the house and looking down seeing everything changing back to the way it used to be. The houses below started to fade and the vacant lots became vineyards first and then scrubby grasslands. Less than a minute later, I was up again and laughing with my friend Kime about how silly I had been. Nevertheless, the memory of watching the world below fade to natural has been imprinted in my mind ever since.Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes is a national non-profit organization that focuses on preserving, restoring and establishing native plant communities in pockets large and small. There are more than fifty chapters in the country, with six located here in Minnesota. For the past thirteen years, the Twin Cities and St. Croix Oak Savanna Chapters of Wild Ones have collaborated on an annual conference as a way for gardeners, landscape designers, amateur naturalists and other native plant enthusiasts to come together and learn more about topics related to habitat restoration and landscaping with native plants. Employing a philosophy that is somewhat unique to Wild Ones, the organization focuses on bringing native plants into residential and commercial settings in addition to preserving them in designated natural areas.

This year’s Wild Ones: Design with Nature Conference will be held Sat., March 2 from 8am-4:30pm at the Plymouth Creek Center in Plymouth. The theme is Reading the Landscape, and presentations will examine the ways that we can read our landscape to reveal the nature and history of the land and make connections between the inanimate components – soil, rocks and water – and the living things – people, plants, animals and more. “In learning to read these stories we become better designers and stewards of our landscape,” say conference organizers. “We recognize the many ways our small, local spaces connect to and create larger patterns of water, land, and ecosystem.”

I have a game I play every so often in which I try to visualize my surrounding landscape the way it used to be, much like I did as a child living in California. The challenge is to strip away the built environment and try to imagine the flowers, trees and waterways that once existed there instead. Of course, both natural and built environments are constantly evolving and changing so my imaginary game is also somewhat like peeling away the layers of an onion. I peel away the houses and find a farm field. Beneath that, a stream runs through a meadow, but deeper still there is a forest with tall trees and shady glens.

The keynote speaker at this year’s Wild Ones: Design with Nature Conference, Darrel Morrison, will talk about landscape design as “ecological art.” His past projects include native tallgrass plantings at the Storm King Art Center in New York, a sculpture park in the Hudson River Valley, and garden designs at the New York and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Other conferences speakers will include Bonnie Harper-Lore – Future Conservation Gardens Large and Small, Dawn Pape – Creating a New Normal Across our Regional Landscape, and Diane Hilscher – Ecological Design: One Yard and Garden at a Time. The conference is co-sponsored by Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water®, Audubon Minnesota and the Horticultural Society of Minnesota.

To register or learn more about the Wild Ones: Design with Nature Conference, visit Early registration discounts extend until February 15th (Wild Ones members, $50; non-members, $55; and full time students, $25). Registration increases to $60 after February 15th. Conference registration closes February 25th, or when space has filled.