How do you define a beautiful garden or landscape? Is it a perfectly manicured space, free of weeds with coordinated blocks of color? Perhaps it’s more relaxed and informal. In this episode, we focus our discussion around native plant design in a post-wild world with Thomas Rainer, author, teacher, and landscape architect. Thomas describes his vision for a garden that is a hybrid of both cultivated design and the wildness of nature. We talk about how we can create a natural garden design that meets our aesthetic requirements yet functions more like landscapes in the wild.
Thomas Rainer and Claudia West are the authors of Planting in a Post Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for a Resilient Landscape, a guide that describes how to design landscapes that thrive in cities and suburbs but look and function more like they do in the wild.
Growing up in the exurbs of Birmingham, Alabama, several miles of the Piedmont Forest were practically in Thomas’ back yard. He and other boys in the neighborhood ran and played freely in the forest catching crawdads in the woodland streams. He explains that by the time he was in high school the area had been converted into housing developments and big-box retail stores. The forest ridges were turned into valleys, and the crawdad streams now flowed through pipes underneath parking lots where woodland plants once grew.
Unfortunately, this story is not unique. Most of us can probably remember places from our childhood that were once wild which have disappeared under buildings and parking lots. As Thomas describes it in his book “the wild spaces we have left are but tiny islands surrounded by an ever-growing ocean of developed landscapes.”
This reality stuck with Thomas, and by the time he was in graduate school, he knew he wanted to be a landscape architect. He recognized that wildness is important to everyone, but particularly children. This led him to focus on creating designs made up of wild plant communities that thrive and look beautiful in towns and cities.
In our conversation, we talk about how humans have always designed landscapes inspired by nature, but that design has been more focused on the aesthetics of how plants look when grouped together in certain ways. Thomas looks at how plant communities in the wild function together, how they interact and how they are social all the way down to the herbaceous, ground cover level.
The High Line in New York is a good example of a new form of a functional urban park. I did an episode of Growing a Greener World there to illustrate how a highly curated garden in the heart of a bustling city can also give people access to a space that has that feel of wild nostalgia.
You’ve heard me talk a lot about the importance of adding native plants to a landscape, but you won’t see much about natives in Thomas’ book. We discussed that it’s important to not just place a native plant in the garden but to consider its companion plants and how it grows in the wild.
Thomas explains that everything about a plant’s reproduction, its shape, and its height is a reaction to growing amongst the social network. When we take plants out of these social relationships and then rearrange them in our gardens to serve our artistic design, in many ways we’re losing the power of the system.
One big AHA moment for me was when Thomas explained that if we look at what happens in the wild, it is not the abundance of resources that determines what grows in an area, but rather the lack of resources. Often, it’s the stress of a landscape that dictates what grows there. So a plant may grow in an area because only it can tolerate that condition.
Most typical landscapes that you see in America are extremely under-vegetated. One way we can make an impact in our gardens is to simply use more plants, especially ground cover. Instead of a few plants in a sea of mulch, take a look at how nature arranges plants in the wild. You will often see plants in layers with a “green mulch” made up of various ground covers. We can also think about our garden like decorating a house. Instead of a wall to wall carpet of lawn, we can design lawn spaces like area rugs in the middle of our landscapes.
The main takeaway from this episode is that gardens are so important. When we grow plants that bring us joy, when we experiment in our garden, do what we love, and learn along the way – that makes a difference. It’s essential to do all we can to preserve our wild spaces. As Thomas so eloquently puts it, this requires us to “garden the wild and to wild our gardens.”
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases, and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access! Watch for my new course on seed starting coming soon!
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