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Creating an Ecologically Responsible Garden with Director of Horticulture Travis Beck

Feb 23, 2017 04:00PM ● Published by Arden Haley

Photo courtesy of Mt. Cuba Center

by Aaron Kilbourne

Originally attending college as an English major, Travis Beck found his true calling when he received a master’s degree in Environmental Horticulture. He would then go on to be the author of Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, as well as an accomplished landscape and garden manager of the New York Botanical Garden.

Today, Beck is the Director of Horticulture at the Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware where he oversees the care and evolution of 582 acres of native plant gardens, landscaped grounds, and natural lands. The Mt. Cuba Center’s mission is to inspire an appreciation for the beauty and value of native plants and commit to supporting the habitats that sustain them. This aligns perfectly with Travis’s affinity for the outdoors and ecologically responsible landscaping.

“Successful, sustainable landscapes result when we align our efforts with natural processes. Such landscapes flourish without constant care and support life within and beyond their boundaries.” – Travis Beck

Beck has developed a new lecture entitled “Design with Native Plants” where he hopes to teach some strategies and theories that guest can potentially bring into their own gardens. Given Beck’s passion and experience, this presentation is sure to be thought provoking.

So branch out and don’t miss Travis Beck: “Design with Native Plants", Sunday, March 5th, 2 p.m. at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Phillip Merrill Center as part of Unity Gardens annual charity fundraiser. In addition to the lecture there will be a wine and cheese reception, tours of the Philip Merrill Center, and book signings.

This event is currently sold out! All proceeds will fund community greening grants for schools and non-profit community organizations in Anne Arundel County.

Photo courtesy of Mt. Cuba Center


You graduated from Swarthmore College with a BA in English a few years before you went for your Masters in Environmental Horticulture. What prompted you into a career in horticulture and landscape design? Was it something you always had interest in or a passion discovered later in life?


I always loved plants and wanted to find a way to work outside. However, I find that the further I go in my career, the more I am stuck having to work inside.


I notice that you oversee 582 acres of native plants gardens, landscaped grounds, and natural lands at the Mt Cuba Center in Delaware. How do you possibly manage to care for and maintain such a large mass of land?


With the help of an excellent staff! We have 22 full time horticulturists, natural land management scouts, and arborists. I oversee four different divisions: garden grounds, landscaped grounds, natural land grounds, and arborist culture. We have a tree management plan and garden plan we work through while trying to be thoughtful and do it as responsibly and ecologically as possible. I have the best job because I have to think about everything from the plotting of an individual plant to forest management.


The lecture you’ll be giving is entitled “Design with Native Plants”; what are some of the challenges you experience that are unique to designing and sculpting an environment with living organisms as the materials as opposed to that of a traditional architect?


The challenge in working with living organisms is that living organisms have individual needs and when you put them together, you have a system that functions within its internal logic. That may go how you thought or not. The key is to adjust quickly when you see something that is not working within the system. You have to be continuously responsive.


It is my understanding that the lecture will present the concept that “in all landscapes human and natural processes combine, thus successful, sustainable landscapes result when we align our efforts with natural processes.” What would be an example of aligning our efforts with natural processes?


Well simply put, we need to put plants in places where they will be successful. “Right plant right place” as they say. Factors considered include the plants position on a slope, the amount of sun versus shade, and soil type. Aligning our efforts with natural processes means knowing what plants really do make it there and working with nature as opposed to fighting it. Additionally, all gardens change over time as different plants mature and as they compete. We think long-term with landscape design, not just season to season.


Conversely, is there a landscape or environment you can point to as an example of our human efforts subverting natural processes and causing harm?


Mountain removal mining, but I guess that isn’t really landscaping. A good example would be golf courses. Golf course landscapers impose an artificial sense of what the land should look like that I personally disagree with. The large open flat lands provide neither good habit nor good water control. Some parts of golf courses do use native plants for rough patches and maintain them in that way. Overall, they cause harm to natural landscapes.


Your book Principles of Ecological Landscape Design was incredibly well-received. Will this new lecture be an expansion of the ideas presented in that book or an excursion into some different theories of landscape design?


I would say an excursion. The ecological ideas I explored in principles underlie all of the work I do. This lecture however, focuses on planting design both practical and atheistic.


What do you want homeowners/gardeners to take away from your lecture?


I want people to leave with several strategies they can use when designing their own gardens and landscapes with native plants. I intend to bust a couple of myths when using native plants to landscape.


Gardening with native plants can seem overwhelming for the beginner; what’s a good first step any homeowner can take with their own property?


I’d say if you have the room, plant a native tree. Native trees are a good addition to any landscape or garden. They look nice and can perform many beneficial ecological services.


Has there been any one accomplishment or project you are most proud of? If so, what was it?


It’s hard to pick just one. Designing and constructing a new native plant garden at the New York Botanical Garden. It was a large project that took several years to complete. The end result was pretty exciting and people really seem to enjoy it.

Another would have to be the new south garden here at the Mt. Cuba Center. It has a more formal landscape design that visitors have loved since it opened.


What is next for Travis Beck? Any new upcoming projects or perhaps another book?


No new books in the works. I am working on a master plan for Mt. Cuba’s whole property. We are working with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects to expand our gardens in an ecologically safe way while also expanding accommodations to visitors.

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