Re-imagining nature – a review of Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

(This review originally appeared on the Thinkingardens website.)

Planting in a Post-Wild World COVER 3D

“The founding fathers of modern environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, promised that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world.’ The presumption was that the wilderness was out there, somewhere … and that it would be the antidote for the poisons of industrial society. But of course the healing wilderness was as much the product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden… The wilderness, after all, does not locate itself, does not name itself… Nor could the wilderness venerate itself. It needed hallowing visitations from New England preachers…, photographers…, painters in oil…, and painters in prose… to represent it as … holy …”

–from Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory


Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes is an important book. It has potential to change the way we make gardens and landscapes. No more endless lawns running up to standard-issue foundation plantings around the suburban McMansion, no more rain gardens of native plants positioned exactly 18 inches apart with vast deserts of hardwood mulch between, no more barren public landscapes with acres of concrete and a smattering of anonymous green. Instead, plants growing in multilayered communities—as they do in nature—in a vast array of gardens and landscapes.

This is a “how-to” book that leaves other “how-to” books in the dust; I found it hard to put down. It has a strong narrative thrust, a good story line, and is written in a prose style that can be a delight of clarity, emotionally evocative, and hauntingly beautiful. Thomas Rainer’s and Claudia West’s accomplishment is an extraordinary work of research, organization, creative interpretation, and artful presentation of planting knowledge that has been studied and practiced by a select and relatively small group of researchers, garden makers and landscapers for decades, knowledge that has been available in only fragmented garden practice and scattered sources, but never before thought through with such rigorous detail and presented in a coherent work that shows a clear path forward.

This is a major accomplishment. The only other book I know similar in ambition was published in Germany over 30 years ago—Perennials and their Garden Habitats (originally as Die Stauden und Ihre Lebensbereich), written by Richard Hansen and Frederich Stahl. Hansen’s and Stahl’s book, which systematically identified plants appropriate to various habitats, based on decades of field trials and research, was groundbreaking in its time. It introduced a new way of thinking about planting in ecological communities, but it stopped far short of Rainer’s and West’s new book, offering no aesthetic or design guidance. Planting in a Post-Wild World takes this community-based planting approach to a new level with its profound concern for creation of beautiful, emotionally moving landscapes.

Emotion and Aesthetic Experience

In calling this a “how-to” book, I use the epithet with reservation. “How-to” usually implies a kind of recipe book approach, practical and superficial. But this characterization obscures a much more important goal of the authors. From the beginning, they declare their principal concern is with human emotion and aesthetic experience. They want to contextualize planting design in the human desire for contact with something we call “wildness,” with a kind of deep experience that human beings have sought in nature for millennia. They seek to create within our increasingly urban world of twenty-first century built environment—office towers, shiny new plazas, sidewalks and roadways, abandoned land and waste places—our “culture’s craving” for a “healing wilderness,” as Simon Schama has written in his seminal work, Landscape and Memory.

Even in ultra-urban New York City, the public craves the experience of wildness, making the High Line one of the most popular green spaces in the world.

“For us, the most compelling reason to consider designed plant communities is not ecological or functional, although those are valid and powerful reasons,” Rainer and West write. “The most persuasive argument is aesthetic and emotional… We no longer sleep under the stars, break the soil with our hands, or read the plants in the forest to find our way home. But a part of us still longs for that connection. It is only in the last hundred years or so of our species that we have become removed from our outdoor environments. It is not that we have lost the capacity to read and see landscapes, but we are out of practice and we are desperate for it…” (pp. 23-24)

Much of this craving is a cultural construct, an expression of our desire for experience of “wildness” in such mythic centers of the cultural imagination as Yosemite, Stonehenge, or even imaginary places in literature such as the nighttime lake in Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or the moors in Wuthering Heights. The new landscape we make, our new garden, will not be that “wildness” we imagine “out there.” It will be a new construction of the human imagination, modeled on natural processes to be sure, but it will not be a return to a nature of the past—though we hope it will feel like that.

The human imagination seeks wildness in such mythic centers of the cultural imagination as Yosemite and Stonehenge, and even in the landscapes of literature.

To achieve gardened landscapes that strike deeply into the human psyche, the book makes absolutely clear that a paradigm shift is needed—a break from the traditional habits of caring for prized plants, one by one, kneeling on kneepads to fret over a favorite peony, for example—to caring instead for the entire landscape, to managing large communities of plants, to bringing to the act of gardening and landscape design a will and vision that encompasses the whole.

Three Landscape Archetypes

The authors write in considerable depth about how to use the different aspects of nature as creative spurs to design. From the vast array of landscapes that exist in the world, they distill three major planting archetypes—grasslands, woodlands and shrublands, and forests—and a fourth, edges, if you see that rich mixing place as a major archetype (I do).

These archetypes are the key to emotional engagement with the landscape. “To elicit an emotional response with planting, we must create patterns that people recognize… In order to create plantings with emotional resonance, we must first start with a point of reference that has broad appeal… archetypal landscapes … a collectively inherited concept, a sort of universal prototype from which other, more specific models are derived… Our focus on archetypes as the inspiration for design is important because it describes the connection between a physical plant community and our feelings, memories, and associations.” (p. 69) In a detailed exposition of their approach to design, they explore possible forms of emotional engagement with each of the three landscape archetypes, walk the reader through the process of choosing an appropriate landscape type, give practical design advice, and note possible problems that may arise.

I’ve encountered some criticism of this book because of a perception that it does not promote use of native plants. This misreading is particularly prevalent in the U.S., where those in favor of using only native plants have become ideologically driven. Introducing their book at a time of highly polarized debate between native plant advocates and others who see a different ecological future, Rainer and West have chosen to focus not on conflict but on resolution; not on a plant’s place of origin, but on ecological function, on how plants grow in community, in nature.

This is their big picture approach. They focus on what works, they suggest garden makers use both natives and exotics, so long as they are appropriate to place, and—significantly—use more natives whenever possible. “By focusing on naturally occurring plant communities, as opposed to those that are purely native, the focus is shifted from a plant’s country of origin to its performance and adaptability. This shift is absolutely crucial… We firmly believe that designing with native plants still matters. In fact, it matters more than ever. But in order to be successful in establishing native communities in tough sites, both a new expression of nature and a deeper understanding of the dynamics of plant communities is required. It is our challenge to reimagine a new expression of nature—one that survives within our built landscapes, and at the same time performs vital ecosystem functions needed to ensure life.” (p. 23)

jones road-1
The Jones Road garden designed by Adam Woodruff in Missouri. “It is our challenge to reimagine a new expression of nature.”

Clearly, both Rainer and West believe native plants are very important to planting design, and they regret their popularity comes almost too late, at the moment of decisive decline of native plant populations in the wild. The problem in contemporary planting isn’t the failure to use native plants, so much as ignorance of the ways in which they should be integrated into interrelated communities in nature. Too often, they are treated as horticultural one-offs, with a few of one species here, a few there. Instead, Rainer and West suggest we use naturally occurring plants, both native and non-native, designing communities of compatible plants that can develop into largely self-sufficient systems. Emphasizing the importance they place on natives, they call for commercial growers to produce much greater numbers and varieties of natives, making it easier for designers to use them in large, multilayered plantings.

They recognize we live in a “nature” that has been changed permanently by the activities of human civilization (a “post-wild world”). But it is a nature that still functions, though not as it once did. We can still look to it as a model for planting design—not to create more nature, but to create landscapes and gardens that function much like natural ecosystems, though they are not “natural” in a literal sense. (But what plant community anywhere in the world today is completely “natural”?) They emulate the natural, they make a new nature capable of ecological function and of beauty.

Essential Principals

Brilliantly distilling lessons learned over the past century, Rainer and West take a commonsense, yet astonishingly incisive, approach, which they summarize in five “essential principles” for planting design:

Principle 1: Related populations, not isolated individuals—this may be the most difficult concept for a reader encountering the concept of integrated communities of plants for the first time. Do not think about plants as collections of beautiful objects, as individual pieces of “plant” furniture placed to adorn your garden. Instead, imagine an integrated mass of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees arranged according to shared ecological needs. Traditional garden practice would place plants at substantial distance apart (to allow them growing room) and control weeds by laying mulch between them. The plant community approach covers the ground with plants—they are like “green mulch”—arranged in groupings according to ecological needs dictated by topography, soil and moisture conditions, light, plant sociability (ability to thrive near other plants), and other conditions relevant to the site. A meadow-like planting is one of the most common models of community-based planting, but meadow is by no means the only model. There are a multitude of such planting approaches.

A Sarah Price-designed planting emulates a natural meadow.

Principle 2: Stress as an asset—stress-inducing aspects of a site, resources it lacks, define its uniqueness and character, its sense of place (the genius loci), so take advantage of what makes your location different, its unique qualities, which may derive from soil type, moisture conditions, light, exposure, cultural surroundings. Don’t assume poor soil should be replaced; instead select plants appropriate to your environment, no matter how restrictive your conditions may be, and create a sense of place rooted in the site’s ecology.

Principle 3: Cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants—plant many compatible plants to cover the ground and create layered, interwoven communities of plants (practical benefits include weed control, water conservation, reduced maintenance labor, an ever-changing landscape as different layers take the design lead, an enhanced environment for insects, birds, amphibians, and other life forms, and the aesthetic and intellectual pleasure of watching the process of succession).

Principle 4: Make it attractive and legible – “select, distill, and simplify character-giving elements,” emphasize layers and patterns, even exaggerating some features to show intention and create aesthetically pleasing designs, or use “orderly frames” to contain wilder-looking plantings and avoid a sense of messiness or disorder (for example, mown lawn against the edge of a meadow, use of hedges, fences, paths, walls to frame naturalistic plantings).

Principle 5: Management, not maintenance—you are managing communities, populations of plants, not caring for specific individuals, so a more extensive approach, both spatially and over time, is needed, resulting in interventions that are in part determined by the growth rates and patterns of the plants—giving the plants a say in their destiny—and in part by the human responsible for management of the garden or landscape.

The Piet Oudolf-designed garden at Hauser & Wirth in Bruton, UK, must be managed extensively. There are far too many plants to care for as individuals.

Without becoming doctrinaire, the book presents a thorough, well thought through methodology for applying these principles in specific, practical ways while remaining open to creativity and inspiration: “The key is to abstract the visual essence of these landscapes… Painters understand that rendering a landscape does not mean replicating every detail. Instead, abstraction is often more about removing irrelevant details and focusing only on those essential patterns or colors that give the landscape its power. All art is a process of selection, distillation, and amplification. These three steps form the basis of abstracting a wild plant community.” (p. 147)

I’ve seen another potential troublesome misinterpretation of this book: that it’s about naturalistic gardening only, which isn’t true. Rainer and West take pains to make clear that a community-based planting approach has nothing to do with specific garden style. “Tomorrow’s designed landscape will be many things—more plant driven, site responsive, and interrelated—but one thing it will not be is stylistically the same as its predecessors. It is perhaps easy to assume that plantings layered with a diverse mix of species would be necessarily naturalistic in style. In many cases, this is true. But gardens of any style can benefit from applying natural principles. Whether the planting is formal or informal, classical or modern, highly stylized or naturalistic does not matter.” (p. 243)

While we have become inured to thinking of such plantings as abstract and informal, this approach can be equally at home in formal as well as informal surroundings. The authors use three actual gardens to show the versatility of their approach to community-based planting: a formal parterre garden by German designer Heiner Luz, my own garden (I mention it in the interest of full disclosure), and Prospect Cottage, Derrick Jarman’s much-loved garden on a harsh, rocky shingle in Kent, an extraordinary garden that has become a powerful symbol of endurance, surviving and returning every year since Jarman’s death. Of particular note here is the formal garden designed by Heiner Luz, which shows how gracefully community-based planting can be incorporated into a formal design.

p.245 bottom_Christa Brand-1
Heiner Luz-designed community-based plantings contained by formal box parterres at a historic residence in Munich.

In addition to the Luz example, it is rather easy to find other examples of similar use of naturalistic planting and formal design—such as Tom Stuart-Smith’s walled garden at Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire, the Garden at Trentham, designed by Stuart-Smith and by Piet Oudolf, as well as much of Dan Pearson’s work. This kind of fusion does seem to be more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.—perhaps because many more opportunities exist in Europe where a long garden history has left a profusion of formal gardens, though the principle applies anywhere.

Vertical yew spires and formal hornbeam topiary frame the wildness of the plantings at Broughton Grange, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith.

I mention this now only because I don’t want to put off potential home gardeners. Parts of Planting in a Post-Wild World are written more to the level of the professional designer than the amateur. I don’t see this as a fault, but rather an attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible. As a home gardener, I found no subject matter that was overly challenging or material not relevant to my own gardening aims. And if there be challenge, we probably need it.

I was aware of this book as it was being written, though I didn’t know the specifics of its content. I’m a bit astonished by the breadth and scope of the material contained within this rather slim volume. The quality of the writing and the superb organization make this concision possible. Get it. Read it. Ask questions of the authors if you want; they are making rounds of speaking engagements, so you have opportunities to ask, and challenge if you are so moved.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book as a gateway, for many, into a new kind of gardening and landscaping. It offers a clear, thought-provoking and pleasurable reading experience, and step-by-step advice to achieving a garden or landscape that may offer more than you ever thought possible.

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20 thoughts on “Re-imagining nature – a review of Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

  1. stress as an asset
    is what speaks to me. Neighbours are complaining bitterly about water restrictions. Whining about their lawn. Forgetting that our fynbos would give a sense of place, AND be happy with natural rainfall (after a couple of summers to get established)

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughtful review of this book, James. I’ve been pouring over it for the past month and my mind is boggling at the potential and the opportunities for gardening that Rainer and West present. This is a landmark book that will change the way that many of us garden.

  3. Really appreciated reading your views on this book, which, as you note, details an approach to planting that, in it’s adaptability and ecological groundedness, may herald an enlightened and sensitive new path for gardeners and designers. As usual you are able to describe, condense and offer the essence so artfully. I have had this book for a couple of months, but your post has inpired me to pick it up and thoroughly peruse post haste : )

    1. Thank you, Jo. If my review prompts you to read it, I feel it was successful. I hope this becomes a bestseller in the world of garden and landscape design. I think we will see much more from Thomas and Claudia in the future.

  4. This is at the top of my ‘must read’ list, though I’ll probably wait to get a copy at a symposium in a couple of months that features Claudia West. It’s puzzling that anyone would criticize it for not encouraging native plants enough, given that West works for a native plant nursery. I haven’t seen that criticism, in fact have seen remarkably little in the way of reviews of the book, given how important I think it is; grateful for yours.

    Is the picture of Broughton Grange from this year’s visit? I hope you’re going to post specifically about it at some point, but until then, what are some of your reactions? I’ve been drawn to every image I’ve seen of it, so was intrigued to see someone refer to it as a garden ‘with no overall concept’. I guess that’s not necessarily incompatible with containing many very appealing vignettes, even if true, but made me wonder all the more what you found most and least rewarding about Broughton Grange.

    1. Nell, I’ve heard comments to that effect from people who haven’t read the book. I’ve seen quite a few reviews, but we all know garden books rarely make it into the general press in America. As to Broughton Grange, yes, that photo was from my visit (I wish I had spent more time editing it). I absolutely loved Tom Stuart-Smith’s work there, and I thoroughly disagree with whoever referred to it as a garden with no overall concept. I think it is an extraordinarily beautiful garden, intelligently designed, thoroughly anchored in the British landscape garden tradition (not to say it’s an English landscape garden), with significant historical roots and powerful cultural references that give it meaning. Your comment makes me think I should get a planned Broughton Grange post done soon.

      1. :: I should get a planned Broughton Grange post done soon ::
        Eeeexcellent! My work here is done.

        One reason I may not wait long to get Planting in a Post-Wild World is that I’m trying to figure out how much of a real gulf there is (in non-woodland settings) between highly stuffed horticultural borders and the Rainer-West approach. David Culp and Ann Lovejoy are two writers I can think of who’ve shown gardeners how and why to use all the layers in designing — but neither were really using natural plant associations to model them.

        The distinction between maintenance and management is another case where I hope the book will shed light. It’s easy to understand at one end of the spectrum, in cases where there really is little to no deadheading, cutting-back, etc. during the season other than the annual mow or burn, but once a gardener starts adding new plants, digging out too-spready plants, and re/moving things to make them more attractive/legible… At the other end of the spectrum, I suppose staking is one of those tasks that takes a layered border out of the naturalistic box, along with the addition and removal of tender “plop-in” plants (a la Great Dixter and Gravetye).

        My garden’s something of a hybrid. Twenty years ago I converted a long wide border that my father had planted entirely with daffodils and daylilies (inspired by White Flower Farm) to a mixed border. I bought Perennials and Their Garden Habitats and used it along with several other plant references in making choices. One goal was to minimize heavy maintenance (digging, division, and replanting), so I prioritized plants that stay in their places and perform for more than a few years. I allowed for and don’t mind a certain amount of regular in-season maintenance like cutting back, deadheading, grooming, or weeding (minimized by dense planting and some mulching). Feeding was done primarily by generous enrichment when planting, with only casual occasional fertilizing. Likewise, there was no plan for regular watering, only during establishment and severe drought. For certain favored flowering plants, I was quite willing to feed and water at the times that would make the most difference to their display.

        After several years of stuffing the border, I turned away from the garden for most of a decade. When I re-engaged a few years ago, the extent of survival of the plantings was impressive, and I fully appreciated the wisdom of Hansen & Stahl and Graham Stuart Thomas. In the language of Rainer & West, I’d used the stress of neglect and local conditions as an asset. One of the other effects of neglect and mulchlessness was a substantial amount of self-seeding, both of woody plants (this ecosystem really wants to be a woodland) and of annuals and biennials. After removal of the invasive and unwanted, this left quite a few elements I’d never have added on my own but now value hugely. Many of them turn out to be native to the area.

        But this season I plan to start treating another section of the garden as a mini-meadow, with a minimum of in-season maintenance, and am very much looking forward to using Planting in a Post-Wild World as a guide. Plugs of sideoats grama from Claudia West’s nursery are the first step…

        1. Nell, I just happen to have heard both Claudia and Thomas speak at Plant-o-Rama at Brooklyn Botanic Garden yesterday. In addition to layering, which you’re familiar with, Claudia placed great emphasis on plant sociology, how plants grow singly, and in groups of various sizes. It’s such an abstract concept, and, to me, hard to see in nature or a garden, that it tends to be overlooked. Hansen and Stahl give a lot of space to explanation of plant sociology, and I’d recommend rereading it in the context of what you wrote above. Some plants want to grow in ones or twos, some in threes or fives, and some in larger groups. It’s a subject not often touched on, but one that seems very important to community-based planting.

  5. James,

    A wonderful review of a wonderful book! I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on Thomas and Claudia’s book. You’ve manged to expertly capture it’s message, and at the same time add your experience as example. I especially like the fact that you’ve asked home gardeners, as well as professionals, to accept the challenge that this book offers.



    1. Thanks, Scott. I’m pleased that you think I did not misrepresent the book. The review took me a long time to wrote because I felt so close to the arguments being made that I felt in danger of presenting my own thoughts rather than those in the book. Yes, I think there’s a lot here for the home gardener and, of course, professionals.

  6. :: I’m a bit astonished by the breadth and scope of the material contained within this rather slim volume. The quality of the writing and the superb organization make this concision possible. ::

    Even more of an achievement when you realize that the two authors got most of the way through a book together before realizing they needed to start again from the beginning, so that they essentially had to get a new proposal agreed to and write another book. It can’t have been easy, so I hope that they take heart from praise like yours (and that brisk word-of-mouth-fueled sales also result).

    Rainer wrote about their writing process here:

    1. Wasn’t that a rather amazing post Thomas wrote, Nell? He tells the story of the joint work on the book so well. I remember talking to you, but I can’t remember where your garden is. I think west or northwest of Philadelphia. I’d love to visit it sometime.

  7. No, I’m down in western Virginia (though I went to school near Philadelphia and have visited quite a few Pennsylvania gardens). But if you’re ever headed down I-81, please stop in!

    You might be thinking of a garden we talked about, Bill Frederick’s Ashland Hollow (he wrote The Exuberant Gardener and the Controlling Hand). Now *there’s* a garden (and house) to experience. I only know it from his book (and appearances in Rick Darke’s books).

  8. Got the book last week. I’ve gotten a lot from it, but one real frustration is the skimpiness of the bibliography, or at least the lack of pointers to further reading and resources.

    In particular, the amount of plant knowledge necessary for successful installation of a diverse, complex ground layer well suited to a specific site/ecosystem/region is just way beyond most plant professionals and gardeners — and the book does not offer enough help on where to start to gather that knowledge. There’s relatively much more understanding among the kinds of designers and gardeners who might use Planting in a Post-Wild World of the possibilities for the structural and seasonal display layers, as that’s the focus of most people’s gardening experience, and of horticultural writing and nursery information.

    It’s *WAY* overdue for Timber Press or somebody to re-issue the Hansen & Stahl book (I’ve found, to my sorrow, that I gave it to a landscaper friend a year or so after my intensive use, and now have to hope she held on to it so I can borrow it back for a while).

    PIAPWW’s greatest practical help with my meadow-ette project is to make me realize that the structural plants are pretty much already in place, that I should figure on adding maybe a couple of kinds of seasonal display plants, and that the ground layer is what I need to populate. Currently steeling myself to find out more than I really want to know about Carex species, in hopes of avoiding the dart-board method of picking a couple to start with in my meadow-ette, (The Flora of Virginia lists seventy species as native here; I know maybe three by sight.)

  9. I think that, other than Hansen and Stahl, there isn’t much that exists as a guide for your real and practical questions. Even then, that book was researched in Germany, and written a long time ago. I agree it’s helpful as a guide, and you can fairly easily “translate” its plant recommendations into an American plant palette. I loaned mine to a garden designer who lives in The Netherlands and don’t know when I’ll get it back. (I have several of her books on Mien Ruys). I’ve spent years searching for ground layer plants that will work in my conditions, and it’s been a slow process. One I’m very happy with is Packera aurea, but some may consider it too vigorous, or not want it for other reasons. Ajuga, Sweet Woodruff, various Pulmonarias, carex, some ferns also work for me. I’ve discovered some of my structural plants, such as miscanthus, also serve as ground cover plants–they perform the same function because nothing can grow beneath them. I haven’t yet read Roy Diblik’s book The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, but I imagine he has some suggestions. I’d also contact nurseries that grow carex and other native plants, such as Diblik’s Northwind Perennial Farm, North Creek Nurseries, New Moon Nursery in southern NJ, Prairie Nursery, and many others. Many of these provide good cultural information on line.

  10. Good suggestions, James. Also, I’ve found a surprising amount of help in the charts at the back of The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy. They have a whole section on grasses and sedges in addition to ground-layer perennials, which I’d overlooked in my absorption in the shrub listings.

    Elsewhere in the book, Darke has useful comments based in his own experience about some ground layer plants for woodland settings (which ones make for equal competitors if left alone, which ones will need intervention by the gardener). But for a full-sun “meadow”, I’m still rolling my own…

  11. :: I’ve spent years searching for ground layer plants that will work in my conditions, and it’s been a slow process. One I’m very happy with is Packera aurea ::

    I’ve gotten interested in that (though it took a while for it to sink in that it’s the new name for Senecio aureus), particularly because it flowers so early in the season. I can well imagine the spring bloom makes it valuable in your garden, when so many of your plants that peak in high summer and fall are still small-scale and all green. Also it seems to like moist conditions.

    Maybe eventually PIAPWW will spawn a book or several, that provide useful ground-layer lists for different sites and regions.

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