Like most everything in life, “Natural Companions” has evolved through the years.
When I first started writing this column in 1999, I focused primarily on topics related to combining plants and watershapes and wrote a lot about surrounding hard structures with greenery in sensible and sustainable ways. As the New Year approaches, I’ve been thinking about how things have changed with the column and where it’s now heading.
I distinctly recall having the sense about four years ago that my pool of available topics was getting thin. At that point, WaterShapes editor Eric Herman and I brainstormed ideas and a whole new perspective emerged: I recognized that this column was about much more than just a marriage of disparate elements, and instead had the potential to explore the synergies that existed among various design elements, trades and schools of thought within the whole of the watershaping industry.
It wasn’t that radical a proposition – there are, after all, very few settings in which one interacts with a watershape utterly devoid of any surrounding plant material – but it had the effect of redirecting my column in a number of distinct and, I think, interesting ways.
I’ve always believed – as do, I think, the vast majority of watershape designers and builders – that plants and water naturally go together. That’s where the name of this column originated, and Eric Herman saw from the magazine’s earliest stages that leaving regular discussion of plants and landscaping out of the magazine would be a critical error.
The magazine is designed to educate all watershapers about water, build awareness of its possibilities and celebrate water in all its forms. That’s a readership that unites a bunch of professions and a range of design and construction trades, and the ambition has always been to help everyone reach out to available resources and combine their efforts to create outstanding watershapes and overall watershape environments.
Let’s use a related profession to illustrate this point: An architect designing an office building can work in a vacuum and create an incredible structure that is visually stunning, unique and makes a magnificent contribution to the urban landscape and to other architects’ perception that what they do has value and merit.
Unless that same architect, however, has a clear, near-omniscient awareness of furniture, fenestration, exposures, interior finishes, spatial organization and much more, the structure may prove to be no more than a beautiful shell around a chaotic, non-functional interior space.
Rather than considering just street-level appearance, he or she must know how much space is needed for tables, desks, window treatments, storage spaces, movement between floors, mechanical necessities and so much more to be able to, on his or her own, create a design that serves its purpose (and its tenants) in a functional manner.
Without this omniscience, he or she must collaborate – which is what happens in almost every project of any size or scope.
To translate this to watershaping, the designer who lacks at least basic knowledge of plants and plantings (the sorts of things I’ve discussed nearly 70 times in the past seven years), cannot hope to deliver top-quality design programs to his or her clients. A watershaper needs to encompass planting spaces, root systems, types of plants appropriate for the site and any of a number of other considerations that might positively or adversely affect the final outcome.
A BIG NET
It’s in this context that we’ve examined such seemingly obscure topics as attractive or visually compelling types of tree bark, for instance, along with specimen plants, groundcovers and a range of subjects that may seem peripheral to the average watershaper.
I know from e-mails and letters I’ve received that plenty of you recognize my intentions and have told me time and again that these discussions have helped some of you participate in basic decisions about how your watershapes will be surrounded, how your work will be set off or subordinated within an overall setting and, basically, how your clients will perceive and appreciate your work for years to come.
Lots of you have been paying attention, and that’s all the encouragement any of us who have written for WaterShapes through the years really needs. Ultimately, it’s all about delivering excellence and finding ways to bring satisfaction to watershape owners on every market level.
I’m not suggesting that anyone should commit to memory everything I write; indeed, a huge portion of the landscape architects and designers who receive the magazine should already be well versed in the characteristics of locally available plants and techniques for encouraging them to thrive. My point is that even those with assumed expertise need to be thinking of their choices in light of the unique nature of watershapes and integrate this special perspective into their approaches.
The same holds true for the pool designers and builders who read the magazine: The ideas I present about specific plants and planting concepts are highly relevant to all watershape designs, and familiarity with them can only help win the confidence of clients and help you step away from the stigma of being “just a pool guy.”
This is an elevation of watershaping that all of WaterShapes’ columnists have offered as a collective goal for everyone who reads the magazine. Our points of view are as diverse as can be, but Brian Van Bower, David Tisherman and I all seek to celebrate water and raise the profession to a higher, more integrated level of quality.
By contrast, if we as professionals decide collectively that everything we need to know is restricted to our narrow function within the watershaping industry, we end up selling ourselves, the industry and our clients short.
Just as I needed to understand more about watershaping, lighting, masonry and other trades when I started writing my column in 1999 and, more pointedly, as I embarked on the project with Randy Beard discussed in my last column and covered as a feature in the magazine’s November 2005 issue, those who come at watershaping from the concrete-construction side of the market need to educate themselves about the plant kingdom.
As a plant specialist working with watershapers, I’d like to make the assumption that you all know that you need, on average, a minimum of 18 inches of width for a planter to provide adequate space for a successful planting. I don’t know that this is the case.
I’d like to assume that most watershapers will suggest (despite the fact that there are some exceptions) using evergreens rather than deciduous trees around watershapes. Again, I don’t know that this is the case. And I’d like to think that most watershapers have some knowledge of what plants do best in sun or in shade, but I know for a fact that most don’t.
The point is, if your clients are relying on you to create incredible outdoor environments, you owe it to them to have a basic understanding of what is required in a good planting.
If that means acknowledging your limitations and hiring a qualified landscape designer or landscape architect to collaborate with you, that’s fine – but you should still know enough about plants to recognize whether your hired gun really knows what’s what around watershapes. And it certainly can’t hurt if you have a few pertinent planting suggestions up your sleeve, just in case.
Recent times have seen much discussion in the landscape architecture community about landscape architects getting back to their “roots,” the implication being that too few of them have enough knowledge of great and interesting plants and that they tend too often to stick to tried-and-true plants that have always worked for them. This isn’t to say their plant designs aren’t good, rather that they could probably be better.
If that sort of debate is raging among planting’s supposed “experts,” that leaves watershapers with an even greater responsibility to take charge of the creation of stunning, visually imaginative watershape environments for our clients. By assuming this burden of knowledge on our own, we elevate ourselves professionally and in turn elevate our industry.
In other words, knowing what plants will work and having ideas that go beyond the standard planting palette is one critical way for ambitious watershapers to distinguish themselves from the pack.
As the New Year approaches, it’s the perfect time to examine where you are and where you need to be. I’m not suggesting you go and take plant identification classes and learn what has taken me 16 years to learn with daily focus on my specific field within the watershaping world. What I am suggesting is that the parcels of information I pass to you through these columns are things that, as a watershaper, you can easily apply to improve the caliber of your products and projects.
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].