Darke Designs

Rick Darke’s keynote speech at last week’s FNPS Conference was a richly layered presentation beautifully illustrated with photographs that delivered. He arrived at the conference early so he could go on one of the field trips and incorporate local information and pictures, like the one on the right.  His talk, “Liveable Florida: Native by Design," included ideas for designing in gardens, but extended beyond garden borders to suggest designs, or plans, that contribute to a more sustainable world.

Although he had worked for many years at Longwood Gardens, Mr. Darke discovered that nothing from his experience there was helpful in designing his own eighth of an acre in Delaware. So he made a decision to go out into the woods there and learn directly from the source. Over the course of a year he took numerous photos of the exact same spot in in the woods, in all seasons, all kinds of weather, all times of day. The drama and visual interest of that study which was revealed through the photos, was compelling.

There was one flowering tree in the vignette he chose, a dogwood. Of particular note is that the dogwood’s flowers appear in the scene only briefly, but they are not the driving force in the interest of the composition even when open. In other words, it was the interest of contrast, texture, light, shape and form that made the picture appealing, not the blooms. This idea was punctuated with a truly lovely shot, all greys and browns, of bare winter trees shrouded in tendrils of fog. Point taken.
Rick Darke photo illustrating play of light and shape using a local and native plant
Mr. Darke noted that in general people today are becoming more disconnected from the natural world, hence it is more unusual for folks to understand what he referred to as ‘biological reality.’ This points directly to the fact that those who understand and appreciate the natural world have a special role in sharing those things with others. I know for me, and I suspect for many others present, that message was a great affirmation. “Know the signature of your landscape, and you will be able to teach and reach others” he said.

He also spoke of understanding plants not as isolated ‘things,’ but as elements that occur in relationship to each other. We need to combine gardening with ecology so that plants can grow in coherent groupings for sustainable perpetuation. We need to plant in masses to shelter wildlife, not just plant for a few berries or blooms.

He urged a more experiential approach. “Landscaping is about the language of mood; how do these things make you feel?" I liked that idea; while some of us may question our ability to draw a blueprint, we can all answer the question of how we feel about design elements we observe!

More Darke advice: "Relax into the wonder of life, give yourself permission to look more closely. Avoid 'nasty-neat,' you need holes for woodpeckers!"

Showing us a photo of magazine cover found in Miami's Museum of Decorative and Propaganda Arts
depicting an angelic figure flitting through a stylized orange grove, Mr. Darke cautioned, "We don't want to turn back the clock," our cultural heritage is important. What we want to do is to make sure we are measuring the functions of our natural systems, and understanding the benefits that they bring.
In a conversation outside the main hall, Mr. Darke mentioned that he never told people to “plant natives," instead he helps people to focus on what they really want their landscapes to be doing for them. One of the first ways people are drawn to natives is by a desire for birds and butterflies, and starting with those desires is the best way to motivate people to think about their gardens as functioning systems. He finds that negative examples aren't motivating...in other words, he refrains from  telling  people "Don't plant that."

If we really want to reach out to people, we have to acknowledge the power of technology, said Mr. Darke. It's the WOW presentations that are critical to reaching the audiences we want to connect with. It's up to us to teach ourselves to use these tools.

Toward the end of the talk, we saw the many ways Mr. Darke incorportated what he calls 'landscape ethics' into his own landscape at home: a lawn of naturally occurring groundcovers that needs no irrigation or fertilizer, the use of plant masses, primarily but not wholly of natives, the formation of useful spaces outside, to sit, eat, shower among other things! He doesn't use pesticides and is warning that it is imperative for us all, farmers included, to find ways to control insect problems without them.

His books are a great resource: The American Woodland Garden, The Encyclopedia of Grasses for a Living Landscape, and the new edition with his forward and photos, of The Wild Garden by William Robinson. His website, RickDarke.com, commerce free, is also a terrific resource, with links to lots of stuff both informative and fun, from a YouTube video of a truck that seems to roll through his garden without a driver to a 150+ page PDF for those who want to know how to plant wildflowers along a highway.

Thanks to Mr. Darke for a grand and memorable talk, and to FNPS for bringing him to Florida!

sue dingwell
Walter Taylor relaxing into the wonder of life, photo by Rick Darke



Ginny Stibolt said…
Rick Darke helped us to think about landscapes in different ways. Thanks Sue for a great summary.

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