The effect of
greening your landscape

Spatial arrangement of plants, rocks, and water courses is an important factor in making a landscape attractive

By David Slawson

Just as landscape painters and photographers capture impressions of nature in compelling forms, landscape designers can weave 3-dimensional tapestries in earth and stone, plants and water. We evoke the forms and moods of nature inspired by regional landscapes. Buildings can be designed to fit harmoniously into the landscape, with windows serving as picture frames to invite the exterior scenes in for the enjoyment of the buildings’ occupants. The power of such designs lies in enhancing a deep sense of belonging.

The ecological world view sees our human role as working in partnership with nature to the benefit of both. We see this view portrayed in Far Eastern landscape painting and gardening, in the “organic” architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the landscape design of Jens Jensen of the Prairie School, Fredrick Law Olmsted’s naturalistic parks and Emerald Necklace concept, as well as the movement to use native plants in landscape gardening and along our nation’s highways.

University of Michigan environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have found that humans across cultures have remarkably similar landscape preferences. Humans prefer natural features which evoke feelings of coherence, legibility, complexity, and mystery.

Such aesthetic reactions are not trivial, but are tied to “an environment where effective human functioning is likely to occur.” As with our sexuality, people need not be consciously aware of landscape preferences. “Preference feels direct, immediate, and holistic,” the Kaplans write.

A key element of landscape preference is fascination, which can be evoked with a spatial arrangement of plants, rocks, and water courses that subtly employ natural patterns. Geographer Jay Appleton finds that another satisfying ingredient is “the ability of a setting to offer prospect…and at the same time to afford refuge.”

Indeed, as Gordon Orians notes in his study of their age-old landscape art, the Japanese select and prune species like maples, pines, and oaks to accentuate the same sort of fine leaf texture and spreading, multi-layered canopy tree forms that cued our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors to find life-supporting savanna landscapes, and which humans are still attracted to today. “Landscape preference is now understood to be a remnant of the adaptive behavior that helped establish the species.” (Charles A. Lewis, Green Nature, Human Nature).

Green landscape takes into full account this often overlooked but essential element of ecology and energy efficiency—the human senses and the psychology of human perception. Designers proficient in nature-based landscape art can create compelling forms that both nurture the human spirit and conserve natural capital. When this form of green design is applied to the built landscape, human spiritual satisfaction, health, performance, and property values all are enhanced, both in the short and long term.


Books (on designing in response to the natural assets of the land)

  • Design with Nature by Ian McHarg
  • Green Development, Rocky Mountain Institute
  • Noah’s Garden & Planting Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein
  • Sustainable Landscape Construction by Thompson and Sorvig
  • The Once and Future Forest by Leslie Sauer
  • The American Woodland Garden by Rick Darke
  • A Gardener’s Encyclopedia of Wildflower by Cole Burrell
  • The Native Plant Primer by Carole Ottesen
  • Woody Plants of Ohio by Lucy Brown
  • The Native Plants of Ohio, Ohio State University Extension, Bulletin 865
  • For a primer on the evolutionary basis for human landscape preferences, see Green Nature, Human Nature by Charles A. Lewis.

Web sites with information on green landscape design:

  • Colorado State University Libraries’ Selected Web Sites for Horticulture and Landscape Architecture
  • SULIS – Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series – by the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota.
  • Green Landscaping with Native Plants – EPA site with practical information and links to other native plant sites.
  • Introduction to Permaculture: Concepts and Resources
  • Wild Ones
  • Environmental Protection Agency Greenscapes (look at all regions)
  • National Wildlife Federation: Provides information on creating backyard wildlife habitat and certification
  • OhioLine
  • Native Plants Bulletin: Information on native plants of OH; growing conditions, where to purchase, etc.
  • National Audubon Society
  • Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Natural areas' invasives section
  • Division of Wildlife: 1-800-WILDLIFE. Provides information on backyard wildlife habitat
  • Division of Forestry: You can purchase several native trees and shrubs from the Division
  • Birdsource: Information on creating backyard wildlife habitat
  • Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy 
  • Invasives

is a local landscape designer and author of Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens.

Thanks to at local landscape design firm, Salsbury-Schweyer, Inc., for additional resources.

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Garden design: David Slawson. Photo: Sylvia M. Banks


“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Aldo Leopold

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