In a recent column, I referred to a book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes. Rainer and West present landscape design ideas that are worth applying in home gardens, and indeed in all kinds of gardens. Their ideas are intended to result in gardens that are “more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”
To review that recent column, visit ongardening.com, click on “Essays 2017” and then “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes.”
The ideas presented in this book ring true to nature and good sense, and require planning and knowledge of specific plants to put into practice.
This column cannot replace reading the authors’ thoughtful review of familiar landscaping practices and groundbreaking recommendations, but w can consider their essential messages.
Rainer and West indicate that good planting design results from harmonious relationships of plants to place, plants to people, and plants to other plants.
The first of these relationships recalls the “right plant in the right place” axiom, which often refers to locating the plant where it will have the soil, exposure, and moisture that it needs to thrive. To these aspects of place the authors recommend locating plants in the grassland, woodland/shrubland, or forest environment that is their natural home. A garden, as a built environment, should look and function like a “distilled version” of one of those archetypical landscapes.
Consideration of the relationship of plants to people addresses the visual appeal of the landscape. The authors state that plant communities need not be limited to a naturalistic style and can exist within any other style. There are too many garden styles to list, but the basic idea is that the gardener can develop any preferred style and still maintain the plant’s relationships to place and other plants.
Rainer and West feature the relationship of plants to other plants and write about the “levels of sociability” of plants. In nature, some plants grow as individuals, or in groups of various sizes, or in large areas. For example, plants that tend to grow separately from other plants would be candidates for containers, and some plants propagate across vast numbers in large fields (see photographs of this year’s superbloom of wildflowers).
The authors recommend combining plants in interlocking layers, as they occur in natural plant communities. This approach allows plants to support each other, form a diverse and lush garden (as distinct from swaths of a single variety), and provide natural mulch that retains moisture and blocks entry of weeds and invasive plants. They categorize plants in four layers:
- structural/framework plants — trees, shrubs, upright grasses and large leafed perennials that form the visual structure of the planting (10-15% of the total)
- seasonal theme plants — mid-height plants that dominate the scene when in bloom, and provide supporting companions to the structural plants when not in bloom (25-40%)
- ground cover plants — low, shade-tolerant plants that cover the soil, control erosion and provide nectar (50%)
- filler plants — short-lived species, e.g., annuals, that fill gaps and add short seasonal displays (5-10%)
The authors describe this plant community approach collectively as resilient gardening. The benefits include growing healthy plants, minimizing maintenance (always a popular objective), and providing a systematic approach to developing an attractive, full grouping of plants.
I have been vaguely dissatisfied with a garden that separates plants from other plants by mulch. Developing layered plant communities will require reviewing plants already in place, searching for new plants for the needed layers, and allowing time for growth. The authors have not provided tidy “recipes” for plant communities because there are too many possible variations, including personal preferences, to put in a book. Instead, they have left the design process to each interested gardener.
Enjoy your garden, and consider learning about—and developing—resilient plant communities for your garden.