Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, two leading voices in ecological landscape design, have been keeping watch on the natural world from two different continents, North America and Europe, for a long time. After observing communities of diverse plants that display resilience and beauty without human interference, whether a pristine native landscape or a simple “hell strip” of weeds, they realized there are lessons to be learned. And a new way of landscape design to be understood and implemented, be it in large-scale public spaces or in the humble confines of our own backyards.
They’ve woven these time-tested yet revolutionary principles into “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes” (Timber Press), a groundbreaking guide that lays out an alternative to traditional horticulture: designed plantings that function like naturally occurring plant communities. As practical as it is poetic, theirs is an optimistic call to action, “a manifesto dedicated to the idea of a new nature, a hybrid of both the wild and the cultivated,” one that points toward a new future in planting design.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
Q: Can you distill the essence of “Planting in a Post-Wild World”?
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Rainer: It’s really about how plants fit together in the wild and how we can use that to influence our design and plantings.
West: It’s a powerful design tool that meets nature halfway.
Q: Why is it so important that gardeners begin to think this way?
West: The benefits of this kind of planting method are much more “management,” in quotes, as opposed to maintenance, and much higher diversity and density of plants and planting. This kind of planting density is sorely needed in our cities and suburbs, where we need plants for clean water, clean air, to provide beauty and habitat for insects, for example, for Monarch butterflies.
Q: How did this concept evolve in your work?
Rainer: We were both doing designs, often in the public sector – for municipalities, for governments – projects that had money to be planted once but didn’t have much maintenance staff. We were increasingly frustrated by the fact that traditional horticultural planting really didn’t provide the set of tools to deliver what clients were asking us for – all those ecosystem services that Claudia mentioned – and the expectation of year-round beauty.
Both of us were captivated by the way plants behave in the wild; not only how dense and diverse they are, but how legible and clean and ordered those plantings appear to be despite their diversity and heavy competition. We knew there was something in the idea of the plant community that posed some real solutions for us. We thought we could extract some principles and real-world solutions. There is a lot of high rhetoric in the book, but the middle part is really practical, how to put X’s and O’s together and make it work.
Q: Where might the home gardener begin?
Rainer: Start with the bare soil in your garden, the areas where you see mulch, and start to think through how you can replace that mulch with a layer of plants. This can be underneath existing shrubs, the edges of beds, lots of spaces in gardens that might not be the highest maintained area, the edges of the property where there’s bare soil. Start thinking about replacing that with a density and diversity of some of the green, native ground cover plants. That, to me, is the simplest thing.
West: Begin to see plants as a little bit less like paint on canvas and more as living beings that establish what we call populations. That’s a term coming from ecology, of course, but gardening is art with very ecological processes. Just as people manage large ecosystems in the wild, we do that in our own gardens on a smaller scale. We can create a much more long-lasting and resilient composition in the garden.
Rainer: One simple thing would be for gardeners to pay attention to a plant’s shape, because a plant’s shape, its morphology, is really a reaction to how it grew among other plants. It’s why a plant like echinacea is really terrible ground cover; you couldn’t mass 15 or 30 of those together, or they’d flop over. They’re meant to grow out of a matrix of other lower grasses, for example. Also, pay attention to the plant’s growing strategies. Is it going to spread horizontally or stick up straight like something that could be dotted into a matrix of low-growing plants? Paying attention to how it grows and its shape are really good clues to how you can start putting plants together.
Q: You emphasize naturally occurring versus native plants. Expound.
Rainer: We’re interested in both. We’re very inspired by native plant communities, the pristine examples we see in national parks, the older undisturbed examples where you really see plants starting to sort themselves out and having long relationships with their companions. But in some ways we’re almost equally inspired by the naturally occurring, including a lot of the weeds in our environment. There’s an image in the book from a neighbor of mine who never mows his lawn. It’s this little hell strip. I took my weed ID book out there, and there were probably 20 to 26 different species growing. I remember thinking, “I have nothing like this at all in terms of the diversity in my own garden. And I work really hard.” It wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t showy, but there were just so many different growing strategies between them, some upright, some horizontal. The tapestry was really impressive.
So, for us, it’s different kinds of beauty, obviously. We’re probably more inspired by the native communities, in terms of beauty and legibility. But in terms of functionality, it’s hard to beat how well these things grow together in places where nothing else wanted to grow. We just felt like strong lessons from both types of plant communities could benefit gardeners.