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.
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.
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.
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.