Why Landscape Design?


Landscape design is attention to your landscape.  This is key to tuning in to your existence, your impact, your place here in the natural order.  In our fast-paced commuter world, we rarely take time to contemplate how we fit into a bigger picture.  Most of us want to do right by the environment, and recycling is a great start.  But your outward expressions will naturally be more environmentally friendly if you’re coming from a place of connection to the natural world.  

That connection starts in your yard, the piece of nature you see every day.  With mindful attention, you’ll discover that it contains a vast richness of experience.  Connection starts with an appreciation of the birds that pass through it with no regard to property lines.  With attention to the plants that have rooted in the ground which supports you and your house.  A friendly rapport with the skunk that digs around in the back, or deer that come to nibble on your vegetable patch.

    You should care about your landscape because it’s your home, and it affects how you live in the world.  It’s also one of your biggest leverage points.  Saddened by the pollution and environmental degradation in the world?  Be the change you wish to see -- give the energy to your own environment to detoxify it, rejuvenate it, and let it flourish.  Landscape interventions are an opportunity to become consciously, intentionally, what you already are -- a member and citizen of a natural community.  

-Diego I.G.

A Healthy Soil Diet -- Drought Resilience in Your Garden

Drought may be the “new normal” even here in New England.  This year, most of the state has been in severe drought, and 2010 and 2012 were two of the hottest growing seasons on record, with precipitation below 50% for some of that time.

Source: National Drought Mitigation Center

In our first blog post we highlighted the importance of deep watering, especially of new transplants.  While watering is critically important, there is a more profound leverage point in our landscapes: the soil itself.  

The health of your garden soil can make the difference between plants that wilt and turn yellow in summer, and a garden that stays vibrant with minimal watering.  The biggest factor in terms of how much watering you have to do is how much organic matter (basically, compost) is in your soil.  

For every 1% organic matter, each cubic foot of soil can hold 1.5 quarts more of water. Imagine a 1 cubic foot sized milk crate is a cubic foot of soil; these quart-sized water bottles illustrate just how much water that soil can hold:

 Organic matter and water holding capacity

When it rains, or when you water your plants, you want the soil to hold onto as much of that moisture as possible.  

One of the gardeners we work with in Florence has been composting regularly for years.  Besides new transplants, she did not water once this season -- and her garden flourished.  When you dig into her soil, it’s like cutting into chocolate cake: soft, dark, and moist.  All that organic matter acts like a sponge, and also serves as a home for desirable microbes, insects, and worms which further contribute to a healthy soil structure.

Is there such a thing as too much compost?  It turns out there is, although opinions vary as to the upper limit on organic matter.  UMASS Soil & Nutrient Testing Lab says 8% in a vegetable or ornamental garden is the limit -- after that, things get out of wack due to too much organic matter. The extra compost acts as a greedy actor in the soil, holding on tight to nutrients and keeping them from your plants. During storms, these unused nutrients can leach into nearby waterways, causing algae blooms (that green color you see in lakes and ponds) that can be toxic to the watershed’s delicate ecology.  All that water-holding organic matter can also waterlog your plants.

Tracy Allen of the UMASS soil lab tells us that too much organic matter is like eating a diet of all fruit -- it can throw your whole system out of balance.

One of the best things you can do to be proactive about soil health for drought resiliency is get a soil test.  This is a great time of year to do it! The lab is less busy and hence the results come back quickly. And it also happens to be a great time to spread compost (and other nutrients and amendments), following their recommendations.  This way, your beds will be ready for spring planting.  You can get a test done for cheap ($21) by simply dropping off a bag of your soil at UMASS’ soil laboratory.  Here’s an example of what your results will look like:     

Soil Test Image 1 bar graph.jpg

Make sure you opt into the Soil Organic Matter percentage test.

Handy bar graphs tell you what range your nutrient levels fall into, and each soil test comes with further written interpretation and recommendations below. We can help you make sense of any questions you have reading the report.

Need more help learning how to make your soil as healthy as possible, so you can take off for vacation next summer and not worry about your garden during another season of the “new normal”?  Disturbed by the prospect of another season of drought and its effect on your landscape? Click on the title above to tell us what's on your mind. Give us a call if you want help getting it done.



Bringing Together Beauty and Nature in the Garden

        Are you fascinated with the promise of a garden that shines both aesthetically and ecologically?

A garden that

  • Bounces back from stressors, like droughts or storms

  • Self-fertilizes by recycling the present organic matter and nutrients

  • Captures rain so the plants aren't reliant on supplemental watering (you)

  • Connects habitats, so that animals, insects, and even seeds can move across a built-up, human environment


We are too. HOW do we achieve this in gardens that are ALSO beautiful and feel good to be in?  


Naturalistic gardens can appear messy and unkempt, or not look like a garden at all.  The ecological benefits are often invisible, operating over the long term or on a microscopic scale.  

In her essay “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames”, Joan Iverson Nassauer, professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Michigan, says "the dominant culture reads a neat, orderly landscape as a sign of neighborliness, hard work, and pride," qualities which rarely contribute to the flourishing of local ecology.

Her solution for the "messy" appearance of our yard ecosystems is to frame them in an orderly fashion.  Nassauer calls these frames cues to care.


We see the most success with the following cues:

  • Wide pathways with mowed, crisp edges

  • Limbed-up or pruned shrubs

  • Linear, geometric, and level garden edges and spaces

  • Garden art and built wildlife habitats such as bee hotels and birdhouses

  • Painted fences, retaining walls, and other structures

  • A high proportion of flowers to foliage (splashes of color)

  • Plantings along the foundation of a house


These design elements send the signal that the space is cared for.  As designers, we are working with the ecology, the existing elements of the site, and what you find beautiful. Through smart design, we can compose gardens that are vibrant places for people AND the more-than-human environment.

 Using defined edges and garden art.

Using defined edges and garden art.

            How have you worked with this balance?  What’s your next step, what are your challenges? Wondering how to bring more humming, buzzing, chirping ecology into your garden?  Leave a question or comment by clicking on the title above, we love to hear from you!