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Plant knowledge for landscape architects: It's not about what you know but who you know.

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

A Barangaroo Headlands Case Study

The creation of intricately beautiful and functional outdoor spaces isn't an easy task. With so many elements at play, a successful project often requires a team of experts from an array of disciplines.

In the field of landscape architecture and soil science, it is crucial to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between the two. Soil scientists provide essential knowledge and expertise to inform landscape design decisions, and landscape architects use this information to create designs that are sustainable, compatible and appropriate for the local environment.

Back in 2022, SESL Australia's Director of Science and founder Simon Leake spoke with AKAS Landscape Architecture co-founder Alistair Kirkpatrick about the critical relationship between soil and vegetation, and the plant and soil knowledge we should expect of landscape architects. This article (linked) was first published in the February 2022 ‘Biodiversity’ issue of 'Landscape Architecture Australia. Expanding upon these insights, this article discusses how optimising collaboration between soil scientists and landscape architects can results in highly successful outdoor landscape projects.

SESL Soil Science Team conducting a continued site investigation on Barangaroo Headlands earlier this month (March 2023)

Soil scientists study the physical, chemical, nutritional and biological properties of soils and how they interact with plants, water, and air. They provide critical information to landscape architects regarding soil properties and characteristics that impact plant growth and health, as well as the ability of soils to support the structural integrity of landscape features such as drainage, aeration, implementing structural soils or strata cells, retaining walls and pathways. Landscape architects, on the other hand, design outdoor spaces that are both aesthetic and functional. They consider a range of factors, such as site conditions, typography, local ecology, planting palette and the needs of the community or client, to create designs that are sustainable and meet the needs of the people who will use the space.

As Simon explains during the interview with AKAS Landscapes co-founder Alistair Kirkpatrick in 2022.

"It's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy: you start with weathered rock, vegetation grows on it and accumulates nutrients, and those nutrients are recycled back into the topsoil so that the vegetation can accumulate the nutrients it needs." (Leake 2022)

While having an understanding of plant knowledge is paramount to a landscape architect, it is not imperative to have an in-depth comprehension of soil and vegetation relationships. Instead, a collaborative approach with experts can ensure success. At SESL, we are experts in all things soil, from environmental soil guidelines, reuse and recovery potential, waste soils, urban horticulture, soil designs for manufacture and much more. Our consulting services bridge the knowledge gaps necessary for the accomplishment of complex and large-scale projects.

"I think a certain minimum of plant knowledge is absolutely necessary, but you need to know what you don’t know and when you need to get help."
(Leake 2022)

Take for example, the Barangaroo Headlands project design team that Simon joined in 2015. The project aimed to reconstruct the sandstone landform including native vegetation types. In the past many have sought to re-create a naturalistic version of Australian bushland, often with limited success, in due part to signifiant native plant loss in the years preceding the initial design implementation. The two architectural leads Adrian Pilton & Peter Walker understood the significance of expert knowledge of the Sydney Headland soils and native vegetation. Simon's extensive knowledge of the site's soil characteristics and previous experience using 100% site-won soils with Sydney crushed Sandstone rock made him the ideal expert for the project.

Early in the design exercise, Simon and Peter accompanied the team in an exploration of part of the escarpment where the original rocky landscapes and indigenous flora remained. This visual demonstration allowed the team to better understand the sequential plant groups along the hill-slope to the estuary. Simon tested and measured the unique target ranges of the plants that grow within Sydney's sandstone belt. These plants responded to different exposures to sun and shade, notably thriving in what might be perceived as extremely poor soils of sand and broken rock enriched by organic matter such as leaf litter and bushfire ash.

Continued site investigation on Barangaroo Headlands earlier this month (March 2023)

Through intricate collaboration between the architectural design teams, landscape architects, soil scientists and the rest of the team, the reconstruction of the pre-colonial headland was a major success. This is just one example of many where SESL's soil science knowledge has played a major collaborative part to the success of landscape projects.

By working together, soil scientists and landscape architects can create outdoor spaces that are both beautiful and functional, and that support the health and well-being of the people who use them.

Read more about our work on the Barangaroo Headlands project on our website here:

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