When you stick a shrub into the ground outside your front door, lay down mulch around your sugar maple or spread grass seed over your suburban lawn, you’re creating something. You’re a sculptor. You’re also not just impacting your environment visually — you’re leaving a biological mark as well. What if you thought to integrate those two things, the aesthetic and the organic, and treated each with equal care?
What if your next landscaping chore were equal parts Michelangelo and Mother Nature?
And what if every builder, contractor, urban planner and parking lot owner approached every new project with that same holistic approach?
If you’re Casey May, it’s the only way to roll. She is convinced that this level of care will make the world better to look at and healthier to live in.
Reboot the landscape
May, an Indianapolis-based landscape architect, is on a mission to reboot the way we landscape and the way we garden. “For the past century,” she says, “we’ve designed gardens with one thing in mind — the way we want them to look and how they fit into our artistic sensibilities. If we designed buildings the same way, they’d fall down.”
May aims to make landscape design an undertaking that benefits the existence of every other bit of life in any given region.
After studying at Ball State the art of designing where to plant what (and when), May designed residential landscapes for her husband Adam Garvey’s company, Gardens of Growth. Eventually her talents wound up at Ratio Architects, where she was responsible for green spaces adjacent to and around larger buildings: hospitals, universities and the like.
Her wealth of experience led her to look well beyond the backyard, beyond the obligatory-patch-of-green-with-a-bench down at Corporate HQ, beyond the jungle-gym playground, and challenge our notion of what green space — public and private — should provide us and the other critters with whom we share this marble.
May thinks the seeds of that revolution can be sown — pun intended — at the most basic level. “I think it’s important that we express ourselves on our personal property,” May says, “but I also think it’s really powerful whenever we reach out beyond our property line and we start talking to our neighbors about what we want our neighborhood parks to look like and really create community spaces. Those spaces are the grass roots way of moving toward some of these environmental ideas that I’d like to champion for planting design.”
Outdoor spaces, designed properly, provide humans a respite from stress and the opportunity to learn. “I think that a lot of education is moving toward project-based and open-ended play materials,” she says, “and outdoor spaces have always offered those things for kids. You see it when you have a toddler and you take them outside and it calms them.”
To her, “plant material is play material.” A long piece of grass becomes a sword, a shrub can become cover for a game of hide-and-seek, and the simple pleasures of wind in the hair or bare feet on grass trumps the “king o’ the hill” mentality that playground gear can engender. Natural elements foster imagination and the layout of those public spaces is key.
Trees are the perfect start
May’s thesis at BSU focused on designing green spaces for kids at the bottom of the socio-economic pile. This led her to think about the differences in the ways kids and adults use the same spaces — issues of scale, safety and child development. Part of her mission is to inform us just how complex planting design can be. The layers of information needed to build the right park for a specific neighborhood include everything from median income to median age to a respect for the non-human users of those spaces.
When it comes to lower-income neighborhoods, the simple addition of trees and grass are the first step toward curbing conflict. “There’s a strong correlation between green spaces and less violent acts in, say, government housing projects,” says May. “The neighbors are outside, there are more eyes on the street. In its simplest form, planting trees is the perfect start.”
May realizes that there are challenges here. Whether it’s a shared garden or a play space, community engagement is critical. “Three to five people can do a lot — get the funding and so on — but you’ve got to get the whole neighborhood involved. You have to have as many people involved as possible. Five or 10 years down the road, you want that park to be thriving and adaptable and flexible and accommodating to the neighborhood.
“There’s a great organization,” she adds, “the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, INRC. They do free workshops for people who want to do this.”
Some trees are better than others
OK, we’ve decided to make a hole, loosen up the root ball and put a happy tree in a patch of grass outside an apartment building. May wants you to understand which tree really should go in that spot. Observes May, “There are some trees that support the base of the food chain better than other trees.”
In Indiana, ponder the mighty oak.
“A lot of people don’t consider oaks,” says May. “Probably because it’s a slow-growing tree. Yeah, it’s slower growing than say, a maple or a river birch, but it’s also longer lived. They provide habitat and food for a lot of different animals. Herbivores like caterpillars, katydids and beetles — they simply cannot live on the exotic plants we adore. We need to start thinking about life-sustaining landscapes. … If we starve the bugs, we starve the birds — and we all know from middle school where that food chain goes. One of the simplest reasons I can give people for including native plants in their designs is that it supports the base of the food chain.”
Additionally, let’s think about the aesthetics of that oak. Full disclosure: May advised me and the missus when we were planting trees in the fenced half-acre behind our humble abode in a Marion County Vinyl Village. Those plans included four pin oaks, all of which are high and full enough to cover whatever’s nesting or munching inside. They don’t look like half-eaten food to our spoiled suburban eyes. They look like, well, really big and lovely trees.
May’s integrated approach came from an introduction to a gent whose fields of study include entomology and native plants. One of May’s mentors at Ratio, Ken Boyce, introduced her to Doug Tallamy, the author of a book called Bringing Nature Home. Tallamy inspired May to spread the gospel of native plantings to every application, whether it’s a formal garden next to the ritziest digs on Meridian Street or a strip of green between the rows of spaces at a downtown parking lot.
A pendulum shift
There’s mounting evidence that we’re buying what May is selling. Just look to the latest trends in micro-farming. You’ve seen the bumper stickers that read GROW FOOD NOT GRASS, right?
“I think there’s a pendulum shift going on,” says May.
She sees the green spaces, public and private in the subdivision of the future being designed to include everything from shady trees to areas set aside for growing tomatoes. She understands the struggle between the modern homeowner and the modern homeowner’s association, but she remains convinced that intelligent and thoughtful designs can speak to everyone’s needs — aesthetic, organic and nutritional.
While she’s not completely dogmatic about the use of native plants, she still wants to stress how crucial they are when we’re speaking about creating the magic mix of good looks and biodiversity. These plants do present their own set of challenges, however.
“Native plants are hyper-adaptable,” May explains. “If you go to Lowe’s, and you buy a plant off the shelf and you put it into the ground, whether it’s in sun or shade, whether it’s in clay or sand, whether it’s super wet or super dry, you can pretty much expect a similar reaction from that plant. It’s probably going to get 18 inches tall or whatever it says on the plant tag. It’s pretty predictable.
“However,” she adds, “with a native plant, because they are so adaptable, if you put that plant in a very organic soil, it might get to be six feet tall — if you put it in a less organic soil, it might get two feet tall. That’s a real struggle for people who pride themselves on this art.”
May has become a student of history, specifically Indiana-agro history. She’s learned what plants work well where, and what plants work well together. Just like people with common interests, green things thrive in plant communities.
This understanding, when passed along to homeowners or to the folks responsible for planting that pocket park, make us look at the space where we’re working and pick the family of plants that fits the space. Sloped site? Standing water? Heavy southern exposure?
Instead of imposing our will upon the soil, May wants us to let the soil guide us when we stick that shrub into the ground outside our front door.
You can follow Casey May’s blog here.
SIDEBAR: Let’s talk of ART
Ed Wenck, above, says, “Outdoor spaces – designed properly – provide for humans a respite from stress and the opportunity to learn for everyone from one to one hundred.”
This is not a subjective phenomenon experienced only by environmentalists. Wenck is describing a psychological effect called Attention Restoration Theory. We interviewed Dr. Alison O’Malley, a professor of psychology at Butler University, for more details.
What is Attention Restoration Theory (ART)?
O’Malley: Alas, our attentional resources are limited; prolonged periods of intense focus inevitably lead to mental exhaustion. ART organizes the vast array of empirical data suggesting that natural environments (whether it be the distant wilderness or an urban park) are particularly good and helping us restore our attention and thus regain our effectiveness.
How does playing in nature benefit children?
O’Malley: Activities such as walks in a park are linked to improved concentration, and mere views of nature are associated with enhanced self-discipline. Of course, playing in nature benefits everyone, children and adults alike!
How might fostering this early environmental identity benefit both children and the environment?
O’Malley: Direct educational experiences that deepen one’s sense of connectedness to the natural world are downright therapeutic, with ties to heightened empathy, lower apathy, and engaging in nature-protective behaviors.
How can people modify their houses/yards to reap the benefits of attention restoration and stress reduction?
O’Malley: Preserve the “natural playscape.” Go for green, diverse, and unstructured: trees, with ropes and rope ladders to make them more accessible; a garden; house plants. Consider positioning a standing desk somewhere that grants you a scenic view.
Dr. O’Malley also offered this quote as a final remark:
“Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers, and laypeople alike: interacting with nature.”