Ask the Expert: Landscape Architect

Landscape architecture is her field, but Alexandria’s knowledge of and passion for plants goes far beyond the average 9-5. From planting a small NYC garden of wildflowers for a friend’s wedding to designing a natural filtration system to reduce polluting water runoff in a developing country, we have a lot to learn from this expert. In the interview below, we asked Alexandria questions to gain insight into the secret life of plants as well as guidance on how to tap into their benefits no matter where you live.

Can you give us a quick introduction to what a landscape architect does?

I think of landscape architects as the composers and stewards of the land. Our responsibility is to work with nature, our greatest collaborator, to create beautiful places and bring humans into closer interaction with this beauty. Landscape architecture is a profession that regards global ecology with a creative, open heart and critical eye.

What are three things about plants that you are still in awe over?

I am continually in awe of the entire plant community for its incredible resiliency to the world around it, including:

  • How trees and perennial plants respond to the seasons. Some perennials can reach up to 5 feet by August only to die back come fall, hibernate in winter and reappear to do it all over again at the start of spring. This to me will never get old.
  • How plants connect us to our senses. The smell of fresh herbs on your window sill, lilac blossoms in spring, the velvety underside of a magnolia or the sheer grace of a meadow blowing in the wind.
  • How plants are always teaching us that there is another way. For instance, the mushroom (Pestalotiopsis microspora) that can eat plastic or the Willow (Salix sp.) whose fine branches create incredible wind and flood barriers.

When landscaping, what are the main factors you think everyone should consider?

  1. Consider native plants. They can inspire us to feel more closely connected to the place we live and provide food for local pollinators such as birds, butterflies and bees. Native plants also help to restore soil nutrients specific to the area.
  2. Soil Composition. This is the basis for plant health and longevity. Some plants require high acidity levels while others prefer more alkaline environments. This is controlled by the composition of organic (peat and compost) and inorganic (sand and lime) material within the soil mix.
  3. Biodiversity. Landscapes with high biodiversity are likely to have a more robust ecology where the plant and animal community is more resilient to disease and pests, more nutrient rich and symbiotically supported.

Do you have any tips for overcoming common mistakes when it comes to plant maintenance?

Yes, maintenance strategies vary depending on landscape, garden or specific plant type but here are some of my favorite.

  • Basic planting methods. I believe everyone should take great care and interest in planting properly. This is the first moment in which a plant has a chance at life in the ground. A few tips: 1.) The hole you dig should be twice as wide and deep as the pot it came from; 2.) Sprinkle the hole with nutrient rich soil or compost, creating a healthy base for the plant to sit on; 3.) When you remove the plant from its pot, be sure to tickle the bottom roots from the center out spreading them from their previously bound position; 4.) Pack fresh soil a tightly around the plant making sure not to pile the soil too high; and 5.) Water as needed.
  • Climbing vines invading trees.Cut invasive climbing vines at the base of the plant rather than pulling the vines from the tree. Ripping the vines can cause extreme damage to the exterior bark which consists of layers of protective and nutrient transmitting tissues.
  • Allow dried seed heads to remain on perennial plants. They provide beautiful winter interest, food for birds, can be collected for future use and allowed to self-sow for plant propagation.
  • Don’t uses pesticides, herbicides or any other nasty chemicals.
  • Aerate soil by planting spring bulbs. The sprouting of daffodils, iris’ or lilies, for example, can help loosen compacted soil areas like street tree pits and highly trafficked public parks.

Can apartment dwellers enjoy some plants too?

Of course, a fire escape (if your landlord approves of it) is a perfect place for a miniature herb garden. Shared garden plots which most cities offer are a fantastic place to grow food and flowers, meet really great friends and be outside. Otherwise, there are hundreds of indoor plants that will thrive with little care while providing air purifying and detoxifying benefits. Some of my indoor favorites are Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), Gerbera Daisy (Gerbera jamesonii), and Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina).

If you are interested in learning about how landscape architects are rethinking the built environment and taking on big environmental issues with their unique perspective, check out this article.

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