How an Insect Became a Landscape Architect

Guest blog post by Teresa Fourcher, AIA, LEED AP, Site Design Group

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a symposium entitled “Trees as a Legacy in Design & Development” presented by Bartlett Tree Experts and the Chicago Botanic Garden. During a lecture by an entomologist, Michael Raupp, Ph.D from the University of Maryland at College Park, I was struck by the similarity between good design principles and principles of an ecologically healthy landscape.

Dr. Raupp’s theory is simple: the more varied the landscape, the more diverse the insect population; the more diverse the insect population, the healthier the ecosystem; the healthier the ecosystem, the less pesticides and fertilizers needed. Good for everyone, right? But does this mean that urban residential landscapes should be a haphazard mish-mash of all kinds of plants? Well, no.

The above can easily be fit into traditional principles of “good design”:

  • Rythmn – While variety is key, there needs to be a critical mass of any one plant. Consider groupings that follow a pattern such as A-B-C-A-B-C or A-B-C-B-A, etc.
  • Proportion – Layer the landscape to create horizontal planes at three levels – low, medium and high. By introducing plants that grow at different heights, you naturally increase a larger range of plant types to your landscape and the habitat for a range of insects, birds, etc.
  • Scale – Consider not only the initial size of the plant, but the mature size as well. A mature landscape is highly valued by humans and insects. When mature heights and sizes are not considered, plants are often removed from the landscape as they become too large for the space they were intended for.
  • Variety – The key point to Dr. Raupp’s research.
  • Interest – Select plants that can provide interest throughout the year. Also consider incorporating a range of plants that bloom at different times of the year.

Most importantly, select plants that are native to the region in which you live. Plants and insects have developed over thousands of years to work together in harmony. Non-native plants can quickly become invasive and can introduce diseases and pests which our native plants are not equipped to handle.

Pictured below: Mary Bartleme Park in the West Loop, a park designed by Site Design Group