Their primary audience may be other designers, but Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2016) offers many take-aways for regular gardeners too. The book outlines how to design and maintain an ecological landscape, and does so in beautifully clear, fluid language that is easy to read and absorb.
The first few pages had me reaching for my notebook to jot down phrases from the book and ideas it sparked for my own garden. Even better, Rainer and West pointed out gaps in my own way of designing. My biggest aha was their concept of “design layers.”
“The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.” — page 17
I was used to thinking in terms of vertical layers of plants that physically occupy different niches; this frankly produces landscapes that are ecologically functional and diverse but not necessarily beautiful to those who don’t understand ecology. What makes them beautiful is their robust health and the life they support; visual impact is strictly a secondary consideration.
But Rainer and West present a powerful set of tools for adding aesthetic oomph while maximizing ecological function. They advise viewing a landscape in terms of four different layers (really, roles) that can be focused on individually while designing, and also while determining ongoing maintenance strategies.
Structural Layer: most powerful year-round key parts of a design. These should be retained through the years, replaced if needed, and kept clearly defined as they form the backbone on which the rest of the design hangs.
Seasonal Layer: waves of color and/or texture provided by each season’s visually dominant “design” plants. These are maintained by treating them en masse, thinning or spreading as necessary.
Groundcover Layer: provides the main diversity of the planting and therefore most of the ecological function. This layer does not contribute noticeably to the aesthetic design, except as a living mulch. Manage it by retaining and augmenting diversity as much as possible to maximize its functionality and the health of all the plants in the landscape.
Gap Fillers: self-sowing plants distributed regularly through the planting and encouraged to set seed. This builds up a seed bank of desirable plants which will ideally sprout to fill any gaps that occur.
I love how the authors separate the main aesthetic contributors (the first two layers) from the main ecological contributors (the last two). That makes it much easier to create a landscape that is strong in both beauty and functionality.
For a gardener unfamiliar with ecology (the science of how nature works), this book is a great primer. Sample insights include:
- Plants fare better in communities.
“When plants are paired with compatible species, the aesthetic and functional benefits are multiplied, and plants are overall healthier.” — page 47
- Rational guidelines for moving past the natives-only debate.
“… place the emphasis on a plant’s ecological performance, not its country of origin… The combination of adapted exotics and regionally native species can expand the designer’s options and even expand ecological function.” — page 42
- Work with each unique site.
“For designers interested in creating communities with a rich sense of place, the first step is simple: accept the environmental constraints of a site. Do not go to great effort and cost to make soil richer, eliminate shade, or provide irrigation. Instead, embrace a more limited palette of plants that will tolerate and thrive in these conditions.” — page 47
- Rather than creating generic “ideal conditions” (by bringing in soil or amendments), rely on plants to gradually improve a site.
“Hundreds of thousands of root channels will heal and rebuild even highly disturbed and compacted soils over time, and enrich low-lying soil horizons with organic matter. The more roots, the more quickly a soil is restored. In order to get as many roots in the ground as possible, plant as densely as possible and use a diversity of root morphologies to interact with the soil at different levels.” — page 194
- Cover the ground with plants.
“Plant ground covers wherever there is space for them: under trees, shrubs, and taller perennials. Fill all gaps between taller plants… Use them like you would mulch.” — page 180
The authors move from details to big-picture with ease. They advise starting each design with a “vision” patterned after a natural landscape (or archetype) such as woodland or meadow. This concept is dear to my heart, and I would like to see it treated in more detail beyond the few basic archetypes mentioned in this guide. Some of the most affecting landscapes I’ve encountered were created by designers who were intimately familiar with regional ecosystems in their many variations, and were able to use them as inspiration.
Another important point brought home by the book is that a designed landscape — to stay functional and beautiful — needs thoughtful management as well as ongoing attention to its design. An installation followed by generic maintenance strategies will not preserve aesthetics or ecology. This aha combines that beloved old adage “a garden is never finished” with Abraham Maslow’s astute observation that “if you only have a hammer, it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail.”
“Because communities are dynamic, managing them is a creative process… Designers must be part of a planting’s life as regular and ongoing consultants.” — p. 221
Let us hope the well-defined and highly desirable steps laid out by Rainer and West help to hasten the end of the modern “mow-and-blow” approach to landscape management, in which we routinely cut down, poison, or prune plants without regard for their growth habits or their web of connections, applaud sterility and unpalatability, and kill off the majority while pampering the chosen few. Let us follow Planting in a Post-Wild World into a future where humans respectfully manage landscapes for our comfort, our quality of life, and our very existence, while acknowledging (in our treatment of them) the inherent value of these living communities.