133-Native Plant Design in a Post-Wild World, With Thomas Rainer

| Plant, Podcast

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. 


Border Plants in Thomas Rainer's Garden

A beautiful mixture of Mexican feather grass, catmint, meadow sage and alliums in Thomas Rainer’s garden. (photo: Thomas Rainer)


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. 


Rain Garden

A view of a rain garden in bloom with pollinator visitors. (photo: Courtesy of Thomas Rainer)


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.


Perennial Plants

A patchwork of forest floor perennials creates a wild ground cover. (photo: Thomas Rainer)


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.


Dense planting of flowers

Instead of covering bare soil with mulch, try dense plantings instead to create a “green mulch.” (photo: Courtesy of Thomas Rainer)


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

Episode 012: Bring Nature Home with Doug Tallamy

Episode 077: The Beauty and Importance of Native Plants: The Ethos of Mt. Cuba Center

joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases, and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access! Watch for my new course on seed starting coming soon!

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Twitter

GGW Episode 620: Bringing Nature Home with Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke

Episode 906: Mt. Cuba Center: A Native Plant Public Garden Like None Other

GGW Episode 907: New York’s High Line: A Thriving Diversity of Plants and People

Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design

Planting in a Post-Wild World book by Thomas Rainer

New York Times – He’ll Try Anything

Corona® Tools – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of

Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs – Podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of

*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools. These companies are either Brand Partners of and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

0 Responses to “133-Native Plant Design in a Post-Wild World, With Thomas Rainer”

  • John Longard says:

    Interesting. So now I’m going to sow white clover in the middle of my 10X10 plots where I’m planning on planting flowers. Listening to podcasts is dangerous to my budget. LOL!!!Shalom,
    John Longard

  • Forrest Jones says:

    Joe, I love the concept! However unless you are planting in the inner city, the deer are a real problem in many ares for municipalities and home owners to invest in time and expense of plants and seed mixes. Everywhere from the suburbs to rural areas they are a growing problem in Pennsylvania. I live adjacent to thousands of acres of State Game Lands. The deer have plenty of native plant life for forage. But they have learned that there is easier picking in the yards. It seems like the only plants and ground cover they don’t prefer are non native. The wild type flowers are eaten before they bloom and don’t get a chance to reseed. And once winter and snow arrive anything green is on their menu. So it is very difficult to establish those beautiful beneficial plant beds in many areas without the added cost of fencing. And if those plots áre planted close to streets, roads and highways they are an attractive danger to deer and motorists.I had to convert some of my beds inside the garden fence to flower beds so that my wife can enjoy her favorite cutting flowers. Don’t take me wrong, I love to see those beautiful planted areas but they are a challenge to establish in many locals.

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    Good to hear and sorry about that, John. But glad you are a faithful podcast listener! Thanks for that.

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    I hear you about the deer. Just today I was going down my driveway and noticed a buck had rutted off ALL the bark around one of my new and very special japanese maples. My fault I suppose because I didn’t protect the bark with a cover as I did last year. Now it’s too late. He went all the way around.
    And them I’m sure he helped himself to my native plant plantings no doubt! Thanks for checking in, Forrest.

  • Forrest Jones says:

    Joe, that has happened to a few of my free native woodland trees and one Chinese chestnut that I was nurturing. The chestnut survived and I have been protecting it since. I would be really upset if that happened to my nicest of two Japanese maples, so I should protect it. The deer have been feeding on everything around it. My second one is coming back up from the base after the top died and I have been nurturing it. Its like a 2 foot tall bonsai now. Joe, could you graft a shoot to the base of yours?

  • Kate Lincourt says:

    Forrest, you might see if your local library has a copy of Larry Weaner’s book, “Garden Revolution.” If memory serves he’s had some luck protecting the plants deer like by interplanting them with plants they dislike.

  • Kate Lincourt says:

    People who are interested in the idea of using low-growing, interlocking perennials may also want to check out Roy Diblik’s book, “The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden.” It’s a very practical approach to planting with specific plant recommendations and plans appropriate for much of the eastern US (and it also includes a good percentage of natives).Re the podcast: I appreciate the ideas Thomas put out there (and I thought you did a great job with the interview, Joe). But imo he should change some of his pitch for home gardeners! Talking smack about rain gardens planted by well-meaning Mom’s really made my heart hurt. ;(

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