Designing Abundance with Claudia West

“The horticulture I learned was decoration”, landscape architect and author Claudia West tells me over the phone from Arlington, Virginia. “It wasn’t until I realised that this profession could have a much larger meaning, and a lot more depth than is currently taught in many horticulture programs, that a fire was lit in me.” The flames are obvious. Claudia is an articulate and passionate advocate of gardens being not only human spaces, not just “the parsley around the turkey”, but richly woven ecologically functional spaces. Places of beauty and abundance.

Claudia is a principal at Phyto Studio, a landscape architecture firm whose work is grounded in the design of plant communities that offer both ecological functionality and human connectedness. In 2015 Claudia and her business partner, Thomas Rainer, published Planting in a Post Wild-World (Timber Press). It is an incredible book, offering a framework for thinking and planting that is grounded equally in ecology and emotional resonance. It articulates so much of what I’ve been bumbling towards haphazardly in my own garden and garden thinking. And so much more. It’s a gem.

I caught up with Claudia ahead of the 2020 Australian Landscape Conference (ALC) which, of course, didn’t happen due to COVID-19. The event has been evolved and adapted to a vastly changed world, thanks to the fearless leadership of conference organiser Fleur Flannery. It’s now scheduled for 19-21st of March, 2021.

Claudia is again one of the speakers, though this time, via video link. Find out more about her and her approach to planting design and biodiversity in gardens in the interview below.

Claudia West.

I watched a short video of you walking through New York last night. So much of what you said about humans and nature really resonated with me. And it got me thinking about gardens. It saddens me, when I see the slash and burn approach to gardening, that caring has become so divorced from the ways we interact with nature – in gardens and also more broadly. How did we get here?

It’s one of the great mysteries I have a very hard time understanding. How did we become so divorced from nature?

I’m reading the Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage right now. What an incredibly deep relationship the Indigenous Australian people had with land. Landscapes that were both wild and human created. Contrast this with a modern urbanite who never leaves the city and doesn’t know how to plant a plant, whether to take the pot off or not! How did we get here? It’s a really sad development that has tremendous consequences for the planet. If you don’t know it, you don’t care for it, and you don’t protect it.

We do occasional projects with urban kids, prisoners, people who have lived surrounded by concrete for years or decades. It’s incredible to get them out into a natural environment and see their eyes light up with love. We may be removed from nature but it’s still so deep in us. It’s an instinct that doesn’t go away. We’ve lived with nature for thousands of years. We can’t expect a few hundred years of living in cities will make us OK with not being in nature. Nature is still very much our home and where we come from.

I agree. And I think with this disconnect comes a weird idea of nature as concept, rather than relationship. That ‘nature’ is pristine wilderness that exists not right here on our city streets but only in the great ‘out there’.

One of the greatest dangers is that we have pushed an idea of nature, an ideal really, into national parks and left it alone out there. Whereas these lands were never truly wild. The more we understand about First People and how they managed the land shows that they were actually cultural landscapes that had been managed for tens of thousands of years. However, the people who came to these lands never understood this and called them wild.

This is what shaped the idea of American ‘nature’ or Australian ‘nature’. Europeans thought it was pristine wilderness but actually it was managed very sophisticatedly. It was gardened.

In the US, our National Parks are some of the most gardened landscapes there are. It takes tonnes of resources to keep the illusion of wildness alive. They are under siege from invasive species and predators such as wolves and bears are nearly extinct in some areas. Wildlife managers are tasked with taking their place by managing populations of animals and plants. The amount of resources it takes to keep this illusion alive is nearly laughable. This tension is a big conundrum for me.

The wildest places out there are urban landscapes. They are the steep embankments where no humans ever go or the spaces between highways. These places are very much the new frontier.

Vernonia glauca with swallowtail butterfly.

We’re certainly falling, stepping, lurching into a very interesting time.

Yes, it feels like it, doesn’t it?

I feel like our response to the times we live in, right now, will really frame our species future. Yes, we’re facing so much loss, and so much damage, but personally I feel like the only way to keep my head above water is to focus on what can be done and how we can change things – to see this time as a time of opportunity, not just devastation. What do you think about this? Where are you at on the scale of hope and despair?

This is a really difficult question to answer. I’ve just been to China, Russia, Ukraine, all over the US and Europe on speaking tours about our book and our work. What I see everywhere is environmental devastation at a scale that is unimaginable. Every time I come back I feel sad and overwhelmed. But then I remember my childhood in East Germany.

I grew up in a communist society that was controlled by a regime where the environment didn’t matter. The streams of my childhood had a different colour every week because of the chemicals and clothing dyes going into the water from local factories. I saw villages, churches, graveyards dug up to get to the coal that was a few feet below the surface.

And I go back today, only a few years later, and these areas that were dead, where nothing survived and you couldn’t breathe the air, they’re now young forests and beautiful meadows and park landscapes. It’s amazing how quickly things can heal and how we can see this in our lifetime. This gives me hope and the energy to carry on. Nature is resilient. If there’s a will, we can easily repair a lot of the damage we’ve created. Not to a pristine ideal, but to another meaningful state that can perform essential ecosystem services in a short amount of time. That is really what keeps me going.

Planting design by Phyto Studio.

It seems you had no hope but to become involved with plants, Claudia! Your parents sound like very serious green thumbs. After the re-unification of Germany, they had a florist business, a landscape design and construction firm and a plant nursery!

Yes, I come from a very traditional horticultural background. But the horticulture I learned was decoration. There may have been a human health aspect but certainly not an environmental, bigger picture context at all. It always made me feel unsure about the profession because I didn’t want to be decorating the small spaces between houses.

It wasn’t until I realised that this profession could have a much larger meaning and a lot more depth than is currently taught in many horticulture programs that a fire was lit in me. I realised this would be my small opportunity to be part of a bigger movement. If you don’t live the change you want to see it won’t happen, right?

The change is not just about fashion in ornamental planting. It’s almost like a gradual change of landscape culture and that is a wonderful thing. It feels like the direction of this big ship is slowly shifting.

Your work at Phyto Studio, and the ethos of your book, is really inspiring to me. What appeals is the idea of working to principles, rather than a particular style or fashion. Principles like seeing plants as communities rather than objects, designing in ecological functionality, using archetypes from nature to help a planting resonate emotionally, and designing for management not maintenance. Can you speak more about your work at Phyto Studio?

Yes, our work does not conform to a particular design style. It can be wild, neat and tidy and formal and anything in between. Rather, our work is about principles. None of our projects ever look the same – many different design solutions can come out of the same approach.

We work on a really wide variety of projects with a really wide spectrum of clients. Some of them have a very traditional aesthetic and others embrace wild immersive gardens. We create plantings and landscapes that fit these contexts. We will use something that appears as a block planting for some projects but the clients won’t see that it’s under-planted with groundcovers and smaller species that are needed to increase the functionality of the project. Other clients might never know that we’ve planted straight species rather than cultivars because they have higher pollinator value. How these species are aligned, whether in rows or clusters, doesn’t matter to the birds and insects.

Native streetscape planting in Baltimore by Phyto Studio.

It’s possible for a very traditional landscape to be more functional by incorporating these ideas where they fit. It’s not restoration. These are ecological landscapes where people live. People are a huge part of these landscapes.

In additional to making planting ecologically functional, gardens have to be appealing to people and reconnect us to the wild, even if what we are creating is a fantasy of the wild. Something that reconnects us to something long gone but we crave it because it’s part of our ecological history.

The emotional content and depth of the planting is just as important as making landscapes ecologically functional.

Water management project by Phyto Studio.
Water Management project by Phyto Studio.

There’s a focus in your book, and I am assuming in your work, on maintenance and management. This so important, and yet so often it’s not considered within the design process. How do you approach this at Phyto Studio?

It is really important to not design in a bubble. To ask from the very beginning: who will be managing or maintaining the project? Do we have the luxury of trained staff or are we dealing with a public works department in the city? Are we dealing with an estate land manager or a home owner?

We try to be very realistic about the complexity we build into a project. We don’t want our projects to last five years and then begin to fail. We want to make projects for the longer term. This sometimes mean we don’t have the luxury to create a very complex and labour-intensive plant mix.

In terms of ecological landscapes, I probably see more failed projects than successful ones. One of the biggest issues which is partly to blame for this is that we’re still selling landscape as a finished product; as something we plant and it gets handed over the client and the designer walks away. This is not a reality. It takes many years for a planting to mature and to get to a point where it needs less hand holding. You can’t leave children or teenagers alone for too long. The same goes for plants. You need to see it through all the way.

Meadow design by Phyto Studio.

You are speaking my language! This was always a problem for me when designing gardens – a garden cannot come to life from a piece of paper. So much changes, so much needs to change as the process goes on. It’s iterative and doesn’t end till long after the design is done.

We’re incredibly honest and open with our clients. We say, if you want an instant landscape we are not your designer. What we sell instead is an adventure. If you’re our client, we take you on a journey. We only take on long term projects. We say, ‘It’s a three-year adventure that we will be taking. We will build something together. It will be much more successful than if we leave after a year or two’. Sometimes a person may not understand the value and the time required, and that just means a client is not the right fit for us.

The care, the building, the establishment, the handing off. If that can be based on adaptive management instead of a frozen recipe that nobody can predict whether it’ll work or not, then the project will be more successful long-term. It can also save the client resources, because we only intervene or make adjustments when needed, not based on a recipe put down on a desk somewhere that sits on an office shelf.

It’s a very different approach. We ask to be involved much longer, which means we’re there till the project is truly ready to be handed off. We spend a lot of time educating clients and helping them see that this is what it takes to create something that they will be very happy with in the end. It’s a bit like missionary work! We’re paving the ground for a new approach, one we can all benefit from.

Planting design by Adam Woodruff. Image supplied by Phyto Studio.

Absolutely. More ecological and evocative, iterative and ephemeral gardens, please! But so many designed gardens don’t get there. Ultimately, I think most landscape professionals care, but somehow the design process people are working within doesn’t fit the outcomes required, and we end up with lacklustre gardens that say nothing and do nothing.

I agree. I find it frustrating that the landscape architecture profession gives into this reality without fighting for change. There are so many who are compliant. We all know better. I am really frustrated by our profession not taking its fate in its own hands.

There may always be cheap landscapes that will be purely decoration – the parsley around the turkey kind of thing – we’re at a point now where we can no longer afford horticulture being dead ornamentation with no function at all. If we don’t add the right kind of functionality into every single space we can get our hands on then our planet, as we know it, may be doomed.

Rebuilding abundance is key, biodiversity is key. We need new forms of nature where people live and work. We need to finally accept our responsibility as land managers. Nature has not been truly wild in a long time.

Land management is the solution, not ornamentation and decoration.  

Claudia West will be speaking at the Australian Landscape Conference (19-21 March) in Melbourne, alongside Fiona Brockhoff, Paul Bangay, Phillip Cox, Trisha Dixon, James Hitchmough, Charles Massey, Ulf Nordfjel, Ross Palmer, Bruce Pascoe, Tim Richardson, and Midori Shintani. MORE INFORMATION AND TICKETS

Planting design by Adam Woodruff. Image supplied by Phyto Studio.