LandTexture: Do Landscape Architects Still Design Gardens?

Sandra Fischer, FASLA, shares her experience and insights into the importance of designing gardens.

Portrait of Sandra Fischer

Landscape Architects advocate for cross-disciplinary practices that address green infrastructure, climate adaptation, ecological restoration, urban revitalization, community enhancement, transportation, water and stormwater, parks and recreation, habitat and equitable placemaking. Our professional works address development, conservation, and restoration, focus on projects and to a lesser extent policy and program planning. Do we design gardens? Are they worthy of our attention? Why should we embrace plants, and a gardener’s perspective?

I offer an enthusiastic: “Yes, we do, and we should design gardens and embrace plants!” Gardens present opportunities to make great, healthy, publicly accessible places that strengthen communities, protect landscapes, and engage people in learning and stewardship. Embracing plants is an expertise that landscape architects should own. No need to compete with engineers, architects, and ecologists.

After over 5 years of practice, I have rediscovered the profession’s roots and am focused on designing gardens throughout the United States! The residential, community and botanical gardens I am working on incorporate all the practice areas listed above. In November, Land Morphology and I were honored to have Landscape Architecture Magazine feature Leach Botanical Garden in Portland as a cover story and 22-page article. As part of the Land Morphology team, I led the complex master planning and entitlement effort for revitalization of a 17-acre Botanical Garden. The first phase consisting of $12m of investment was completed in 2020. The full article can be accessed here

In this newsletter article, I will discuss the range of issues the Leach Garden plan addresses and results that were realized in the first phase of implementation.

Equitable Revitalization- The Garden is in an underserved, ethnically diverse and low-income neighborhood. The investment by the city, friends and donors was envisioned as an investment in community and economic development. The investment brings more people to the neighborhood, provides education and employment opportunities, and improves neighborhood access to greenspace. Through partnerships, youth engage in realizing restoration projects while building skills.

Historic Preservation- The plan preserves a modest estate complete with Arts and Crafts home and historic garden and plan collection. However, the design is not constrained by a style. Instead, it embraces the founder’s values and promotes resiliency and sustainable design.

Green Infrastructure- Storm water is sustainably and attractively managed on site using low impact methods and demonstrating how these design principles can be applied to homes and campuses.

Ecological Restoration- The forest has been enhanced and improved through preservation of trees and reintroduction of more diverse understory vegetation. Johnson Creek environmental zone is protected and managed for conservation. The shoreline and Johnson Creek are protected, and native vegetation is featured.

Habitat Enhancement- A new pollinator meadow with native and adapted species has been planted, the forest enhanced, and shoreline protected. The garden features over 200 species and cultivars, assuring adaptability to climate change.

Sustainable Transportation- In addition to walking paths in the garden, a bicycle path connection along an arterial street was added to improve neighborhood and community connections.

Sustainable Design- Carrying on the legacy of the founder’s forward-looking values, the gardens and building are being planned and constructed with a commitment to low impact and sustainable strategies including designing to LEED certification and bird friendly standards. Lilla Leach was a botanist and plant explorer. Her husband John was a pharmacist; hence the plan includes alpine and physic gardens.

Education and Research-The garden is a living laboratory and demonstration project that makes thoughtful and sustainable design accessible to many. It can be adaptively managed and incrementally improved, supported by programs, policies, and projects. The diversity of species supports climate resiliency.

Related gardens I have been involved in include the planning of Sensory Garden at Woodland Park Zoo; Bird Meadow and Marsh at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island; master planning, design and implementation of new gardens at Yew Dell Botanical Garden in Louisville; and conversion of 3,500 acres of former timber land to a county park, expected to include extensive forest and meadow restoration, a plant nursery and environmental learning center. On multiple single-family residences, we are restoring shorelines, forest, meadows, and habitat; testing native and adapted species; and protecting heritage plants, seed sources, and landscapes.

Gardens have the benefit of gardeners; people who interact with the landscape on a day-to-day basis, yielding successes resulting from a sustained and consistent level of observation and care. The beauty of designing gardens is that the plants and garden experience are the primary reason people visit. Therefore, the landscape must be well maintained and managed. Gardeners can plant, prune, nourish plants consistently and at appropriate times.

Too many landscape architectural projects have not been stewarded, adaptively managed and incrementally improved. Traditional landscape architecture projects too often suffer from being overly ambitious and being planned and built using traditional architectural and engineering (A&E) project delivery methods. The A&E industry methods of project delivery, with less than optimum installation times and limited maintenance planning are not the most appropriate means for delivering living and resilient landscapes. As an alternative, landscape architects should explore methods practiced by restoration ecologists and gardeners. I suggest our profession would be well advised to learn and embrace “gardening” if we want to deliver successful and resilient landscapes.

About the author:
Sandra Fischer is President Elect of the MSU LA Alumni Advisory Board. She graduated from MSU with Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (1976) and Master of Studio Art (1979). Her MSU education, coursework at Bainbridge Graduate Institute (now Presidio) in pursuit of an MBA, curiosity, and a sense of adventure prepared Sandra  for leadership positions in international, national, regional, and local firms as well as local government including AECOM, EDAW, JJR, Wirth Associates, Fischer & Associates, Fischer Bouma Partnership, Land Morphology, and The Mayor’s office at the City of Bainbridge Island. Early in her career, Sandy practiced in Michigan with JJR/Smith Group, Linsemier and Associates, LPDA, and State of Michigan DNR State Parks Division. Sandy has retired from owning, leading and managing firms, projects, and clients. She continues to contribute as Board member at MSU and Pacific Horticulture, serves on professionals’ council and as adjunct faculty at the University of Washington, and as principal consultant and advisor to Land Morphology and Fischer Bouma Partnership, both firms of which she was a founding partner.

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