Thomas Woltz: Wild By Design
Unlike many landscape architects, Thomas Woltz isn’t interested in imposing his will on nature. He’d rather let nature set the terms. In the process he’s turning heads and proving that ecology can be beautiful
Thomas Woltz is in a hurry. On a blustery afternoon beneath a sky of bruised clouds, the landscape architect bounds up a hill on a 133-acre estate west of Charlottesville, Virginia. His ankle-high Chelsea boots (dinner-party fashionable, red-dirt practical) churn through brittle pasture grass toward a “pinetum”—an arboretum of pines, Woltz explains as I stagger-step to keep up—that he and his firm, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, designed for the owner. This collection features conifers from around the world, but only those that grow at the 38th parallel, the local latitude.
At the top, we pause for two beats to admire atlas cedar native to Algeria and Japanese black pine. We pivot west and, for two beats more, absorb the pastoral view below: white Georgian Revival manor house winking from a grove of trees, barn, rolling meadows ringed by woodlands, and, in the distance, the saw-toothed silhouette of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We walk over to a circular metal map of the horizon perched on a post, like something you’d see at a national park. I crouch, sight across a steel nib poking up from the center, and identify one of the peaks by aligning it with a scale drawing etched on the map. Woltz, who devised the system, one of many ways he decodes nature, looks on admiringly. He’s bundled in a three-buttoned topcoat whose gray herringbone perfectly complements not only his purple tie but also the dash of gray at his temples. His entire ensemble, in fact, appears tailor-made for the overcast day, which heightens the impression that everything I’m seeing is part of Woltz’s master plan. Before I know it, he’s off again, crunching through the meadow grass to show me something else.
Like other landscape architects, Woltz rearranges nature to reflect the hand of man. Unlike most, he redesigns farms—working farms—though his chief aim isn’t to pretty them up. Looks matter, but in his broader, more scientific view of aesthetics, beauty springs from the ecological health of the land. “This idea of decorating the outdoors is not what we do,” he explains.
Landscape architecture has its share of self-important designers who impose their singular vision on nature—who hate being considered glorified gardeners, wear their indifference to horticulture like a badge of honor, and don’t much care what plant you use as long as it can be sheared into a hedge or arranged in a geometric grid. Woltz isn’t one of those. At forty-five, with not quite two decades of client experience under his belt, he has emerged as a leader among a new breed of landscape architects who put as much stock in science as in art. He and his mentor and business partner, Warren Byrd, both Southerners raised to revere nature, exude passion not only for plants but also for the complex biological systems in which they thrive. “We design for ecological excellence,” Woltz says.
He has brought me here, to Seven Ponds Farm, to show me the birthplace, some fifteen years ago, of the Conservation Agriculture Studio, his name for the firm’s multifaceted program for designing “working land.” The ConAg approach differs from region to region, but generally, Woltz seeks to make farmland healthier and more productive and, as a result, more beautiful. As designer, he collaborates with three key partners: landowner, farmer, and a team of scientists, including conservation biologists, soil scientists, ornithologists, and others. Together, they do things like remediate silt-choked streams by building check dams and fencing out cattle; improve pasture through rotational grazing; and boost native wildlife by killing invasive trees and shrubs. Woltz is a big proponent of warm-season grass meadows, which don’t require fertilizers or machine mowing and harbor quail and buzz with diverse populations of pollinators. In terms of aesthetics, whether bursting with wildflowers or waxing brittle golden in winter, meadows look great in all seasons.