Planting in a Post-Wild World

plantingcover

The front lines of the battle for nature are not in the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools…This book is dedicated to anyone who can influence as small patch of land.

—From the introduction

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by co-authors Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, is a beautifully written and illustrated guide to how we should be designing our landscapes from now on out. Simple as that.

Thank heavens someone has finally written this book.

It feels to me as if this book is not just another entry in the overcrowded gardening category, but a manifestation of a something needed, something important, something that’s been waiting to come into the world for a long while.

I know, I’m getting a little woo on you, but I’m excited.

I’m excited because this book unites philosophy and practice. I’ve written many times on this blog of the need for what I call “loving landscapes” — diverse, sustainable gardens which serve the greater good. And I’m not alone. After the long tyranny of the lawn and hedge, there’s a revolution underway. The problem is that for all of our good intentions–us lawn remover types–we don’t necessarily know how to replace the dominant paradigm with something both attractive and sustainable. We have precious few good models to follow. And for all our good intentions, sometimes our efforts fail.

Now we have a guide.

The basic premise of this book is that the traditional approach to garden design, which is based on arranging individual plants in a landscape according to abstract, anthropocentric principles, such a color harmony, creates lifeless, high maintenance landscapes.

You end up with beds of annuals that need constant upkeep, lawns which need mowing and chemical CPR, and sad perennials floating like lonely islands in barren seas of mulch. These gardens may look tidy (and somehow tidy has become perhaps the single most important virtue in landscape design) but they are a lot of work to maintain, and they don’t do much other species, or the air, or the soil, or the water… and they don’t speak to our souls.

Rainer and West ask us to go out and look at places where plants grow freely. This might be in a place we call “nature” — a local wildlife preserve, perhaps– or it might be in a vacant lot in your neighborhood. Left on their own, plants form dense, cooperative communities. These communities are generous and life-sustaining on many levels. The authors ask you to consider how you might be able to mimic these local communities to create landscapes which are more sustainable all around, landscapes which can delight our eyes, and heal the land.

The underlying philosophy is that while the natural world is enduring terrible losses everywhere–losses we can do little as individuals to prevent–we can support nature in our own backyards and office parks and school gardens. Our world is post-wild, but that does not mean it need be lifeless, or sterile, or stripped of all relationship and love. The post-wild landscape is a new paradigm for plant-human interaction.

Translated, this means making more diverse, untrammeled landscapes. Perhaps best known example of this is the High Line Garden in New York City. Did you know the High Line has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world? People love this garden. The naturalism of the plantings speaks to them, I think, as does the attractive interplay of built and wild.

High Line Garden in NYC

The High Line. Photo credit: bettyx1138

As the High Line’s designers know, the trick with this kind of landscaping is letting it be spontaneous, but not too wild, so the neighbors don’t call the authorities and accuse you of growing a yard full of weeds.

There are strategies for getting around this, and Rainer and West cover this well. For instance, part of good design includes providing what they call “frames” (also called “clues to care”) which are basically man-made elements which neaten the wilder spaces, making the viewer understand that this is a cared-for space.

deck

Pic from the book. An unidentified rooftop garden showing good use of “frames”: design elements which make spontaneity palatable.  I want to live there.

But the real challenge in this process is designing a plant community which is attractive and functions in a sustainable, self-supporting way. These landscapes are not completely care-free, but if designed correctly, they should require less in terms of human intervention that traditional gardens. A beautiful wild meadow doesn’t need our water and weed killer, after all, and we have to ask just why that is.

We can’t hope to match Nature in her complexity and wisdom, but we can mimic her ways as best we can. So this is not just a matter of letting your existing plantings run wild. This is a well-thought out and carefully executed design process. Rainer and West do a fantastic job of breaking the task down into clear steps. (If you’re a fan of Piet Oudolf, you might call this Piet for Dummies–all apologies to the authors.)

They cover more ideas than I can even touch on here, including, importantly, a fine stress on recreating a sense of the local and the specific in your designs. I could spend the rest of the year talking about just one idea from this book at a time–but I’m not going to. I think you should just buy it and start planning.

But one of the most innovative practices they stress is designing in vertical layers. Plants are not arranged as individuals, but in dense inter-layered communities, with allowances made for various factors like root depth, function, behavior and seasonal succession. Under this model, no ground is left bare for weeds to colonize. There’s no need for mulch either, as the community forms its own green mulch. Every planting has four vertical layers: the structural layer, the seasonal theme layer, the ground cover layer, and the filler layer. Plants stacked on top of plants. Plants intertwining. Plants giving way to other plants as the seasons progress.

layers

Another pic from the book showing the system of vertical layering in the design process.

They give concrete examples for how this would work in three different types of archetypal plant communities: open grassland or meadow, woodlands/shrublands, and open forest. These three community types relate surprisingly well to most landscaping needs. The grassland applies to flat open spaces with no tall species present. Woodland/shrubland relates to the typical suburban yard where trees and shrubs mix with lawn. The forest is for those lucky enough to have land with stands of trees.

Planting in Post-Wild World is not a simple how-to book. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it at all– but it is very clear. Its goals are ambitious, and while it might seem like it was written for designers, it can be used by a determined home gardener. It has to be, I think, because there aren’t that many designers out there working this way yet. And while I firmly believe in the value of investing in professional advice, we can’t all afford it. Basically, we all need to be designers now, because the need is great and the stakes are high.

So some of the vocabulary may be confusing at first if you’re new to this, but that is what the Internet is for (not for sharing cat videos, despite all evidence to the contrary). If you’re willing to sit down with the book for a while and do the research and thinking it asks you to do, I believe you could come up with a beautiful, resilient landscape of your own.

I have to believe this because I’m in the midst of doing it myself. I’m using this book to redesign our front yard.  I’d been trying to figure out a new design on my own–struggling in my half-baked, improvisational way to create a more loving landscape out of the Grey Gardens situation we’ve got going now — and not making much progress. Then this book came to my rescue.*

Look for posts in the near future charting the progress of our redesign using this system. October/November is the time for this work in Southern California. The idea is to get the plants in before the winter rains, so they can establish before the summer heat and drought hits.

In temperate climates, folks are just beginning to put their gardens to bed for the winter. So you lucky people can just curl up by the fire and sip your hot cider and read this book while the rain and snow falls outside your window. Meanwhile, I’ll be outside, chopping and hauling and digging and planting in the ever-bright LA sun. If you follow along, you should get a good preview of the process before spring rolls around.

*Disclosure time: I asked the publishers for a review copy of this book, because Erik and I are familiar with Thomas Rainer’s good work–and they kindly gave one to me. Score! But seriously, I’d pay good money for it, and the fact that I got it for free did not create the enthusiasm you’re seeing here.

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25 Comments

  1. Kelly I am SO THRILLED that you love this book as much as I do! FINALLY somebody comes along and writes a book that makes sense! Landscape design is not a business for mavericks – but it is those who think boldly rather than blindly follow dogma that see how gardens should grow. Creating landscapes based on planting associations was the way I started working after following the work of Piet Oudolf when I was a baby gardener, and I can’t imagine working any other way. When plants are combined to cover the ground as well as reach for the sky and occupy the middle planes, you can develop a community of plants that rely on each other for mulch, scaffolding, beneficial microbes, and that create a root network that stabilizes slopes and adds to the water-holding capabilities of soil. It thrills me that Timber Press got behind a non-traditional, dense how-to book, because I think these ideas are revolutionary to the home gardener. I’m so glad you reviewed it! THANK YOU!!!

    • Thank you, Ivette! I think we all owe huge thanks and maybe a glass of champagne or two to Rainer, West and Timber Press. I hope many people read it and use it.

  2. Why not buy a copy (I’d pay good money for it) and give it to someone who needs it?

    It sounds like an interesting book. I’ll probably get one and share with friends.

  3. If you need even more inspiration, or even if you don’t, I highly recommend “A Handmade Wilderness”, written by Donald G. Schueler. Although the author and his partner restored acres of land in the Mississippi piedmont, rather than a small urban lot, the spirit is the same.

  4. Curious – If you were going to buy just one book between this book and and the Oudolf/kingsbury Planting: A New Perspective, which book would you buy?

    • We own Planting: A New Perspective, and while it has good stuff in it, I’d go with Post-Wild. It’s just more practical and useful.

  5. I’m sold! I received my master’s degree in landscape architecture years ago and never used it in a professional setting because no one was really doing design like this. Instead, I’ve mostly been experimenting here and there in my own yard. I’d love to check this book out. Will there be a link on your page to click before I head over to Amazon…I’d at least like to be supporting your efforts when I purchase it. I enjoy your blog and podcasts quite a bit!

    • Thanks for thinking about us! If you click the highlighted title in the post, we’ll get a few cents–all the links to Amazon function the same from our page, whether it’s a picture in the sidebar or just a link in the text.

      What many people don’t know is that if you click through from our site to Amazon and end up buying anything at all there–not just the thing we linked–we get an “associate’s fee” — usually a few pennies, but it adds up. And if someone buys a camera or something like that, it’s much more substantial. This is true for all blogs/websites with Amazon links, and good to know if you’re planning on buying anything pricey via Amazon. Click through to Amazon from the site of your choice and you’ll give them a few bucks.

  6. Excellent review, thanks! Question: What new ground does this book cover from “Bringing Nature Home,” by Doug Tallamy? Sounds very similar.

    • Bringing Nature Home is really a treatise about WHY you should use native plants and WHICH plants provide the most benefit to Lepidoptera species. But it in no way shows you how to plant, garden with natives, or put plants together. Tallamy is a scientist, not a designer or plantsman.

      Planting in a Post-Wild World is focused on HOW TO put plants together in ways that simulate the dynamics of naturally occurring plant communities. In my mind, it answers a lot of the questions that the other book does not address. It’s much more practical. Both books work well as a pair, but the focus is entirely different.

  7. Thanks! Sold: I’m getting the Post-Wild book, too. That said, I’d encourage people to check out Bringing Nature Home: It provides a fairly solid grounding in the philosophy and science of native plants as desirable in the backyard.

  8. Hey- Thinking about doing a “Planting For Pollinators w a Native Garden” workshop at our house w John Tikotsky. Think we could drum up any interest? Probably be good w 6-10 people.

  9. I ordered this when you posted it but just got to start reading it this weekend.

    I don’t think I’m the only one who has tried to put a tree guild together only to find it a bunch of separate plants with mulch in between. Now, that was a good starting place, but things weren’t getting to the “perma” part of “permaculture.”

    It is so refreshing to have a book JUST about making these spaces healthy and beautiful in a realistic way.

  10. Pingback: Our new front yard: history | Root Simple

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