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Favorite Garden Books: Planting in a Post-Wild World

March 9, 2016

I am a long-time fan of Thomas Rainer’s garden design blog, Grounded Design (see Garden Blogs of the Month: May 2010), so when I learned that he had a book coming out, I was eager to read it. Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (Timber Press, 2015) did not disappoint.

The book begins with the idea that modern humans feel that nature has been lost to urban and suburban development. In the Introduction, Rainer and West move from that first premise to a kind of design manifesto or statement of purpose:

For designers, the loss of nature is a starting point. It helps us to look at our cities with fresh eyes, giving us a sort of x-ray vision that cuts through the layers of concrete and asphalt to see new hybrids – of natural and man-made, of horticulture and ecology, of plant roots and computer chips. It allows us to imagine meadows growing on skyscrapers, elevated roads covered with connected forests, and vast constructed wetlands that purify our drinking water. But this future will not be driven by the assumption that what is natural is only that which is separate from human activity. Instead, it begins with the conviction that all naturalism is really humanism….

The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers. (pp. 16-17)

In order to achieve this vision, Rainer and West argue, we need to move away from thinking about garden design as a process of creating compositions with individual plants and instead design communities of compatible plants. They have organized their book to work from the big-picture principles of designing plant communities through the design process to the details of planting and managing such landscapes.

Rainer and West use plant ecology as a framework for thinking about garden design, with a focus on layers of different plants and on covering every inch of ground with plants (including groundcovers under taller plants). I was particularly intrigued by the idea that we need to think about plant layers below the ground as well as above; in order to insure that plants are compatible rather than competing, we need to create plant communities that combine plants with shallower and deeper roots that take their nutrition from different soil layers.

The authors focus on three ecological plant community archetypes as models for garden design. These are grasslands, woodlands, and forests. They examine the kinds of plant layers that are found in each of these archetypes and the plants that are typically found in such communities. They argue that, in order to keep our smaller-scale garden plantings attractive and legible, we need to exaggerate the key elements of the archetype we are modeling, and they provide very helpful lists of common design mistakes to avoid.

My favorite chapter of Planting in a Post-Wild World focuses on “The Design Process.” Rainer and West begin this chapter by examining three essential relationships that must be honored in designing plant communities: the relationship of plants to place, the relationship of plants to people, and the relationship of plants to other plants. They then apply this understanding through a process of designing in vertical layers (from the top down). The first design layer consists of structural and framework plants that form the bones of a planting. Next comes a layer of “seasonal theme plants,” companions to structural plants “that visually dominate the planting for a period of time during the year.” (p. 177) Before reading this book, I would have considered the design process done at this point, but Rainer and West go on to focus on a critical third layer, the ground cover layer. They describe the importance of this layer as follows:

The ground cover layer is the essence of a plant community – primarily a functional layer. Once the design has been created with the first two layers, one now fills in between with ground-covering plants. These species may not have the striking forms or pretty flowers of the design layers, but they literally and figuratively hold the community together. (p. 179)

Because it can take several years for the plants in the first three layers to mature into a functioning plant community, the authors add a fourth layer of temporary filler plants, short-lived plants that can cover the soil and provide visual interest until plants in the first three layers mature and crowd them out.

Rainer and West’s chapter on “Creating and Managing a Plant Community” is written primarily for an audience of professional landscape designers working on big projects, but it includes practical advice  of interest for home gardeners, too. Most useful for me were the instructions to plant layers in the same order that you design them, putting in the structural plants first, then seasonal theme plants, then groundcover plants, and finally spring ephemeral bulbs and short-lived filler species, and the rule that a steep slope should be planted from the top down.

The concluding chapter of Planting in a Post-Wild World focuses on three very different gardens that  illustrate the principles of creating functioning plant communities that are also beautiful gardens.

This book challenged the way I have thought about garden design, and at  times I found myself resisting. In the end, though, it also changed the way I think about garden design. I am now considering how best to include groundcover plants and filler species in my new front garden, and I am also planning to go back to the mature plantings in my back garden and add groundcovers there. Planting in a Post-Wild World is a fascinating re-thinking of garden design and definitely worth reading.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2016 12:53 pm

    A very well written review, Jean, it made me want to read the book. Very applicable in SE PA where there is no natural landscape left. It is so depressing though that we have admitted defeat in the area of untouched natural landscapes and retreated to designed natural landscapes. I know this may be true but part of me still resists and is going to go down fighting and part of me thinks it is just an attempt to put a positive spin on the situation and not do the hard work of trying to preserve and protect what is actually left.

    • March 12, 2016 10:05 pm

      Carolyn, When I first started reading this book, I thought, “Well, this doesn’t apply to me; there’s lots of wild landscape where I live.” Although my local landscapes, while not designed, are certainly not untouched; they have been reclaimed by nature, but the history of human management is everywhere to be seen. I see the premise of this book as very much like Doug Tallamy’s argument in Bringing Nature Home, that we can have gardens that function more like natural landscapes and, in doing so, we can replace some of what has been lost with development.

  2. March 9, 2016 4:54 pm

    it feels a bit like a decorative garden interpretation of permaculture.

    I can do the bones and the repetition.
    Perhaps my groundcover in the gaps will get sorted as we get our hoped for rain?
    I’d like my garden to look a little more deliberate, structured.
    Less of the I haz a confuz, as it is now in large patches.

    • March 12, 2016 10:07 pm

      Diana, I think “a decorative garden interpretation of permaculture” is a good description of the approach of these authors. In terms of having a less confusing landscape, you might find their chapter on archetypes helpful, with its tips for how to identify the key elements of an archetypical landscape and then simplify and exaggerate these to make them legible in our gardens.

  3. March 9, 2016 11:47 pm

    This book popped up in one of the notices I regularly receive from a certain on-line book (and everything) seller and it grabbed my attention immediately. I haven’t read the book yet but the basic message is compelling. How to sell the idea on a broad-scale is a whole separate question.

    • March 12, 2016 10:09 pm

      Kris, My first reaction to their ideas was resistance to changing the way I think about garden design. I sold it to myself by realizing I could take an incremental approach to incorporating their ideas about designing plant communities, that it didn’t have to be all or nothing.

  4. March 12, 2016 11:46 am

    I have wanted to read this book, but found other reviews lacking in depth of what the premise was…..your in depth review really has me desiring to read this book before I begin redesigning anything. I am particularly intrigued by the plant layers below the soil, something I had not considered. Thanks Jean for this great review.

    • March 12, 2016 10:11 pm

      Donna, I too was intrigued by the idea of root layers below the soil, and also by the idea that the groundcover layer is the most important to creating a functional plant community.

  5. March 13, 2016 4:09 pm

    This sounds like a must-read book!

  6. March 14, 2016 1:03 pm

    I bought this book after I thought I’d missed my chance to meet Mr. Rainer in person when he came ‘up north’ to Ontario for a couple of speaking engagements two weeks ago. But at the last minute I scored a ticket to his lecture at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Hearing about his background–how he got into this kind of landscaping and his inspirations–helped me to understand his gardening process and get excited about it. He’s also a very entertaining guy. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, I recommend you jump at it. Now I can’t wait to add more ground covers and fillers to my garden using his resourceful book for ideas. Great review, Jean!

  7. March 16, 2016 10:10 am

    Jean, it seems our minds are on parallel tracks. I’ve been reading a lot recently about ground covers and am committed to using them, rather than mulch, to keep the ground moist and weed-free.


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