Dissecting the Quantum Shifts of Nature to Make Our Industry Approaches Better

by James Sottilo

Nature / Image: James Sottilo

Here’s looking at you, Sustainability.

Today more than ever sustainability is used in our line of work; designing and managing green spaces that reflect the value of the word. It only makes sense that nature remain, as she always has, sustainable.

Over the past several years our team has worked on projects across the United States. These national experiences have exposed us to a variety of natural soils and fauna such as the gumbo clays and wildflower meadows of Southeast Texas, the high silt soils along the Mississippi River, the clay loams of the West Coast and the forests of the Northeast.

Nature by herself always seems to have the answers to the questions we are asking when designing and building new landscapes. It is our job to dissect the ecological behaviors of the landscape, explain them and apply them in our work.

There are times when we believe we have unlocked certain secrets of the Earth and developed efforts unparalleled, but eventually science and/or technology deem these efforts linear or one dimensional when compared to her.

Our efforts are stretching beyond the industrial landscape plane and asking the critical questions to scientists and academics that are not part of the main stream landscape franchise. Foresters for example have a different perspective on certain ecologies, scientists in the management of human microbiology have in-depth knowledge on bacteria and how they grow and respond. Agronomists, who manage thousands of acres of farm land, may look at soil completely different then you and I – yet all of these individuals have insight into the same problems our industry faces such as soil compaction, pH, lack of nutrients, etc.

Soils are the foundation of the landscape and plants are the engineers of the ecosystem. One cannot survive without the other. Questions that we are often faced with include, where does the plant end and the soil begin? Is it realistic to have a specification on soil and second specification on planting? Should both be combined into one specification as a system?

As of now we are still figuring out the answers to those questions but perhaps as we adapt changing paradigms, our soils and plants will shift into performance specifications and eliminate the constant finger pointing when a problem arises with the health of the landscape.

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Things Are Not Always As They Seem

by James Sottilo, Ecologist/Arborist; Dr. Efren Cazares, Mycologist; Ted Hartsig, Soil Scientist

Expedia Waterfront Campus / image: Surfacedesign, Inc.

Introduction

Our team began the day reviewing the landscape of Expedia’s anticipated waterfront campus with Michal Kapitulnik, Tim Kirby and Heath House of Surfacedesign, Inc. Our mission – find the potential of current site soil for repurposing. Reusing native soil profiles in future blends can have a tremendous impact on future plant acclimation and site maturity. The campus presented a contrasting ecology. Certain areas of vegetation were lush and dense while other areas displayed brown, drying turf; it was clear to the team where our attention would be needed – right?

Exploring the vibrant sections of vegetation, soil was dark, rich and moist to a depth of 14-inches. Its observable characteristics were rated as productive and ideas for soil reuse and logistics were already being explored.

Taking a few steps into neighboring areas, the look of the landscape began to change. A particular section of grassland was going dormant due to irrigation having been turned off as the site was pending demo and construction. Rooting in this area was measured at 4-inches and the soil profile was a fine sand and clay mix. Another section of land, deemed the Rectangle of Death, had dying to dead grass cover; the soil was a sandy gavel mix with obvious signs of compaction.

Healthy vegetative soil / image: James Sottilo
Dormant grassland soil / image: James Sottilo
Rectangle of Death soil / image: James Sottilo

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Mycorrhizae: Ecological Succession’s Copilot

Harvesting mycorrhizae off roots / image: James Sottilo

Ecological Succession: A Driving Force

Ecological succession (ES) remains one of the most significant determinants of Earth’s biotic life and diversity. Defined as the process of change in the species structure of an ecological community over time, ES drives the environmental shifts of nature and conceives the biological architectures of past, present, and future landscapes.

ES can be broken into three recognized phases: primary succession, secondary succession, and climax community. Primary succession is the series of community changes that occur within an entirely new habitat that has been devoid of life—for example, after a major disturbance such as flood, fire, or volcanic release.

Secondary succession is the process by which an established community is replaced by the next set of biodiversity. Most biological communities remain in a continual state of secondary succession as communities experience minor disturbances, either natural or man-made, that inhibit or reset the successional process.

A climax community represents a stable end product of the successional sequence. Many recognize the Oak-Poplar Forest as a climax community but still acknowledge that any environment can be suddenly disorganized by random variables such as introduced, non-native species. It is said that ES will always remain as Earth is in an ever-changing state.

Today, many forget to recognize the successional phases that are undoubtedly turning all around us. Aesthetic, monetary, and time resources can, at times, skew an image, only accounting for the “now” variables. While this planning stage is necessary, a landscape may be on borrowed time without subsequent conception. Where will the landscape be in one year, one decade, one generation from now? How will it be enjoyed? Will it serve a greater purpose than its original scope? What changes have and will be exerted on this space? Questions such as these can help build upon the natural rhythms of succession while also bridging histories.

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A (Natural) Melody in Midtown

Grand Army Plaza, New York City / image: James Sottilo

I have known James for over six years. We met at an ASLA Annual Meeting when I heard him speak. Subsequently, I invited him to speak at all four of the Organic Landcare Symposiums that Atlanta BeltLine put on. His breadth of knowledge is inspiring and every time I hear him, I learn something new. I hope you will find this post enlightening and that it might even encourage you to explore more about creating environments for healthy soil microbiology.

-Kevin Burke, ASLA, Sustainable Design and Development PPN Officer

Located in Midtown at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, Grand Army Plaza stands as a gateway to New York City’s Central Park. Its grand gesture design and historical significance have made it a notable place since its original construction in 1916.

In September 2015, the Central Park Conservancy completed a major restoration of the northern section of the plaza, including the General Sherman statue. Site work included reconstruction of paving, stonework, benches, and lighting, all designed to be in keeping with the original historic design. Electric, drainage, and irrigation infrastructure were fully replaced. The trees at the plaza perimeter, previously lost in an October 2011 snowstorm, were replaced with a double row of London Plane trees, to be consistent with the original design. The placement of CU-Structural Soil™ was incorporated beneath all pavements to provide adequate soil volume for mature tree root systems.

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