(This review originally appeared on the Thinkingardens website.)
“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.
“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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.