The memoir of a native plant designer reflects on a life in the field

In a sense, all of our yards and gardens, no matter how old, represent an obliteration of the wild plant communities that once marked the land, none more poignantly lost than the American prairie.

The prairie's demise is linked more to agriculture than urbanization, but still, we are trying in our limited and stumbling way to make up for the loss by planting perennials and grasses of native origin.

We'd do well, then, to seek guidance from Darrel Morrison, who has spent a fruitful life designing with native flora and teaching others how to do the same. His journey is recounted in a memoir, "Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature." It was published by the Library of American Landscape History in June, the month Morrison turned 84.

The topography of the Midwest was always in his DNA - he grew up a farm boy in southwestern Iowa - but it wasn't until he arrived at the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a graduate student that he began to see what was lost and how to revive it in some measure.

His decision to study the then-esoteric field of ecological design was spurred by the discovery of a book, "American Plants for American Gardens," originally published in 1929 and written by plant ecologist Edith Roberts and landscape architect Elsa Rehmann.

Another important stimulus was the Curtis Prairie at the university's arboretum, where, in the 1930s, the environmentalist Aldo Leopold and others had reconstructed the complex plant community of the tallgrass prairie. This was the first restored prairie in the world, Morrison writes. It was also a recognition that its wild progenitor had been all but destroyed during the preceding century thanks to the invention of the steel plow.

In the gardening world, designers turned to perennials and grasses in the 1980s, and this naturalism later evolved into a popular and sometimes simplistic insistence on native plant gardens.

My mantra, as ever, is that gardens don't need to be native; they need to be objectively beautiful. Great beauty can be achieved with native plants, but planting a few coneflowers here and some switch grass there isn't enough; you need to plant en masse and in layers, drawing lessons from how these plants grow in the wild.

"People collect native plants and put them in a design and consider that to be an ecological design. It needs to be so much more based on whole communities of plants," Morrison told me. Why? Not just because they are ecologically sound, but also because they are pleasing to the human eye and spirit. "You can't really improve on the aesthetics of functioning plant communities, so they become the best models for design," he says. And we are not just speaking of the prairie.

As an academic, landscape architect and plant ecologist, he has spent chunks of his life in Wisconsin, Georgia and New York, and he has helped design private and institutional landscapes in other states, too, including in Texas, Montana and Utah. This has opened his eyes to the vast array of ecologies that serve as models for the gardener.

Leading field trips while at the University of Georgia, he took students high into the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway (in North Carolina) and lo: There was a grassland "bald" at 6,000 feet, with expanses of mountain hairgrass and mountain oatgrass, along with bluets and orange lilies and the acid green of hay-scented ferns. "Like the prairie, a grassy bald evokes a sense of freedom and vulnerability - exposure to rain, wind and lightning," he writes.

Elsewhere in the Southeast, he spent long hours observing the granite outcrops and old-growth longleaf pine savannas of Georgia, along with the coastal salt marshes of South Carolina. Each offered lessons in species preferences and associations.

His commissions have included gardens at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, the Native Plant Garden at the University of Wisconsin at Madison Arboretum, and the Native Flora Garden Extension at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York.

In the last project, he replicated plant habitats of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. One of his favorite sections contains sweeps of the grass little bluestem and the perennial sweet everlasting amid scattered plantings of pitch pines.

While working and teaching in Utah, he was struck by the "fantastic red rock formations and canyonlands" and by the grasses, sage plants and conifers that have adapted to the dryness. "It seemed ironic, and sad, to me that people who were initially drawn to the natural beauty of Utah's native landscapes often replaced them with generic, irrigation-requiring landscapes."

At a Montana ranch, he enhances the flora of another harsh environment, a place where the slopes are dotted with clumps of balsamroot and the limber pines, gnarled and wind-swept, cling to the rock outcrops.

"Now I'm pleased that it is impossible to see my design or to differentiate between the plants we introduced as plugs and those that were already here," he writes.

In nature and garden alike, Morrison extols the idea of not relying on landscapes of few species. "I'm increasingly aware of the importance of species diversity in whatever we do so there's more resilience," he says. "So if one species can't make it, the others will."

The lessons of the prairie and other biomes, thus, are transferrable to the home garden, even if most residential landscapes will lack that key feature of the grassland - the horizon - and its sense of expansiveness.

On his own condo terrace in Madison, he has three cedar planters replete with more than 30 species of grasses and forbs. "I see the backlit gray-green leaves of little bluestem on hot summer afternoons, and the backlit coppery leaves of those same grasses through the winter," he writes. "Throughout the year, they sway gracefully, reminding me of many happy days I have spent in protected or restored prairies and other natural landscapes in many places."

Gardening tip:

Flowering annuals such as geraniums, petunias, calibrachoas and marigolds can be refreshed by cutting back leggy growth and spent flowers to promote bushy regrowth and new blooms. Apply a liquid fertilizer at recommended rates to encourage late-season vigor