The Mt. Cuba Center, an acclaimed native plant botanical garden in Hockessin, Delaware, interviewed Senior Associate Jenna Webster, an instructor in Mt. Cuba’s certificate program since 2017. In the interview she discusses what inspires her and shares insights on some of her favorite projects at LWLA. The interview was conducted in 2021 and is reposted here.
Mt. Cuba Center: You hold a master’s degree in sustainable landscape planning and design from the Conway School. Can you tell us about your professional background and when your passion for landscape design began?
Jenna Webster: Landscape design is a second career for me, following on past work in art museums. While I loved the museum world, it didn’t fulfill my interests in ecology and land use. Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by what defines a place, what makes it distinctive, and how our environment affects us as people. I grew up on a Maine island, where the ecology of salt and fog is a defining force, particularly on the island’s plant communities. While these plant communities are not as species diverse as in other parts of the country, they have their own charisma and are a key part of Maine’s iconic coast. I also grew up witnessing how the land affects cultural traditions and people’s livelihoods, with people harvesting from the sea, logging, or quarrying stone. The landscape shapes the people and vice versa.
Feeling defined by the ecology of a place taught me about connectedness to landscape on both an emotional level and a functional level. And this carries through in my work today. I’m continually trying to get at how people and the land affect one another. I see it as a profound relationship.
In the Ecological Landscape Design course, I encourage students to consider their own sources of inspiration, and it’s always thrilling to see how that comes through in students’ designs.
Mt. Cuba Center: Aside from instructing certificate classes at Mt. Cuba, you are a designer with LWLA. What is your favorite landscape project that you designed?
Jenna Webster: I feel fortunate to work on projects across scales and context throughout the eastern U.S. Most of our firm’s work, traditionally, has been in residential landscapes. Designing a home landscape is uniquely rewarding — you are helping people solve practical problems in their home setting while also shaping spaces that give people respite and enjoyment every day. It’s a special experience to be part of that process.
Yet as the scope of our office’s work has expanded, I find I’m most drawn to projects with a public dimension, particularly where there’s an opportunity to reach a wider audience and tell a story about how cultural and natural forces have shaped a place over time.
I also love projects that are beyond the garden scale and necessitate practices of ecological restoration, including recruitment of native vegetation already present on site. So rather than seeding or planting, we’re reading the existing vegetation and developing strategies for recruiting that vegetation over time to achieve ecological and functional goals. This is the start of a deep engagement with a site. It feels a bit like dancing with the land — we make a move and the land responds not through plantings imposed on it but through vegetation that’s already present or may be laying in wait in the soil seed bank. Watching a landscape reveal itself is a tremendous feeling, perhaps stemming from the beguiling mystery of engaging with something larger than yourself.
Recently, some of my favorite projects — hopefully this doesn’t make me sound macabre — have been in cemeteries, including habitat restoration and planting design work in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although most cemeteries consist primarily of turf and scattered trees, habitat potential in these places is significant just by virtue of the sheer size of many cemeteries. In Boston alone, cemeteries constitute nearly 33 percent of green space, such that cemetery vegetation and how it’s managed can have significant ecological benefits. Cemeteries are also the ultimate designed landscape — they’re sacred landscapes memorializing our loved ones. It feels fitting to bring greater ecological function to these spaces. I’d like to think that a dynamic landscape full of flora and fauna is perhaps the best memorial of all!
Mt. Cuba Center: What does an ecologically sound landscape mean to you and what are the essentials to have one?
Jenna Webster: An ecologically sound landscape requires diversity, and yet our notions about diversity are often rather simplistic. The concept of species diversity is familiar to most people but functional diversity — meaning the diversity of functions met in a given ecosystem — is often overlooked. To give just one example of a function, having plants that flower from early spring through fall ensures nectar and pollen resources are present for pollinators across the season. Phylogenetic diversity — or taxic diversity — is another important consideration: a meadow may be species rich with lots of wildflowers but if all those wildflowers are in the Asteraceae family, the genetics in that meadow remain limited. All this is to say that we need to be attentive to more than just how many species are present as we attempt to create truly robust, resilient landscapes.
Mt. Cuba Center: What aspects of the course benefit both the home gardener and the professional horticulturist?
Jenna Webster: At the most basic level, the Ecological Landscape Design course teaches the design process. Students move in a structured way from site analysis to concept design to detailed planting design. Once you understand this process, you can tackle any site design project, whether for personal enjoyment or professional practice. It’s a powerful tool.
Because few people enter the course with a background in design, we explore principles that help achieve legibility and coherence in the landscape, including responding to a site’s patterns as informed by things like sun/shade, water flow, and soil variation. Students also learn the power of repetition and that repeating key themes and plants, when done well, can enhance legibility and coherence.
Since the course explores a plant community-based approach to design, we also consider what plants commonly grow together, how plants within these communities interact, and how to layer plants in both space and time. As a way of learning from others, we study how planting design experts combine plants to create spaces that are long lived, dynamic, and nuanced. We also learn a lot just through sharing our experiences as a group with the plants native to our region.
Mt. Cuba Center: This class works to increase biodiversity with native plants. What native plant(s) do you use frequently in your landscape design?
Jenna Webster: My design practice is based on plant communities in that I draw from naturally occurring models in the regions that I work. The point is not to copy these communities note for note but to stylize from them, replicating their essence and key components. In designing a meadow, for example, it likely doesn’t make sense to include all the plants that might be found in a naturally occurring meadow (it may be impossible to source all those plants anyway!). But you need to understand the members of that community, how they grow together, and what plants to include so that your design has the functionality, resilience, and aesthetic richness of our native plant communities.
In terms of plants I use frequently, there are lots of workhorse species I depend on simply because they are reliable, perform multiple functions (including aesthetic ones!), and can survive and proliferate under varied conditions. These tend to be generalist species, and while they are critical in many situations, we need to be mindful of specialist species as well. Specialist species, while they may be more specific and finicky in their requirements, are important because they often are critical host plants to endangered wildlife or fill unique niches. So, I rely heavily on generalist plants but look for conditions that allow for use of more specialized species.
As for a favorite plant, I love so many that I struggle to answer that question as I love so many! Ultimately, I find myself drawn to the plants that uniquely express place, that reflect underlying patterns and reveal the character and story of a particular landscape or habitat.