Several months ago, wrote about a remarkable book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West: Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (Timber Press, 2015).
In that book, Rainer and West present interesting, insightful and inspiring ideas for landscape design. Central concepts include interlocking layers of plants that grow compatibly in nature, while creating landscapes that are naturalistic but “more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance.”
Some of their concepts, in plainer language, are the following:
“Plants are social creatures” —This thought advocates close planting of natural companions, rather than isolating plants from each other, separated by areas of organic or inorganic mulch.
“Plants are the mulch” — This catchphrase points to the practical value of close planting as a strategy for blocking weed growth and thereby reducing time and effort.
The Rainer/West vision, while complex, is predominantly optimistic. Their book is certainly worth reading. My review, titled “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes,” is archived here.
A reader of this column who had previously read this Rainer and West book observed that the style they described emphasizes landscape uses of herbaceous perennials and annuals in a climate with year-round rainfall. By contrast, while California has “lots of shrubs and sub-shrubs with some annuals” and a summer-dry (Mediterranean) climate. The reader asked how to go about adapting the style presented in this book to our California climate, and where in California has such a garden been created.
These are worthwhile questions. The authors recommended drawing on locally relevant resources, e.g., the California Native Plant Society. Also, my column referenced a book by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook: Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens (University of California Press, 2007).
There are more relevant resources available online, notably Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design website.
Gardeners also have access to many books on Mediterranean climate plants and especially California native plants, but such books typically describe individual plants in alphabetical order rather than in the “interlocking layers” envisioned by Rainer and West. We encounter the same organizational model in mail order plant nursery catalogs and in local garden centers, so many garden designs amount to scatters of single specimens.
The Rainer & West style was published fairly recently, so there are few California landscapes that are based on this style. The Keator & Middlebrook book cited above approaches that concept by grouping native plants within particular regions of California (e.g., coastal scrub, grasslands, deserts, oak woodlands), but leaves it to the garden planner to adopt fully the Rainer & West style.
One might seek exemplary designs in gardens included in annual garden tours that feature California native plants:
- Bringing Back the Natives —Gardens in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, early May (http://bringingbackthenatives.net)
- Going Native Garden Tour—Gardens in Santa Clara Valley & Peninsula, San Francisco Bay Area, early April (http://gngt.org/GNGT/HomeRO.php)
Although the Rainer & West style could take many different forms in California gardens, avid gardeners should keep watch for examples of this emerging approach to landscape design.