Thomas Rainer: Interpreting nature

This 500-year-old watercolor by Albrecht Durer is a masterpiece of realism, based on close observation of nature, but a nature interpreted and amplified.

I’m too close to the subject of this post, so it hasn’t come easily. My intent has been to write about Thomas Rainer’s lecture at New York Botanical Garden in March, but I’m in such complete agreement with him, I find it hard to distinguish my own thoughts from my memory of Thomas’s presentation. That said, I’ll give this a try. I do hope I don’t put any unattributable words in his mouth.

The native plant movement has produced some extraordinarily beautiful landscapes … and some appallingly ugly gardens. Many native-only gardens fail because they are created with too few plants, a lot of mulch, and abstract concepts of sustainability and conservation–all very unnatural conditions. Too often a native garden or a rain garden looks just the opposite of what it should be–a dry expanse of bark mulch punctuated by a few scattered plants struggling for life.

Why do so many of these gardens look like this? Usually because the garden maker is following a recipe, and has not observed how plants grow in nature. Plants live in nature, not as individuals surrounded by empty space, but in communities–in dense, diverse, interwoven, thriving systems of living organisms that bridge the divide between life above ground and the less well understood, but extraordinarily complex, life below ground. Such plant communities, when not made exclusively of locally native species, could be described as artificial ecosystems. One proof that an artificial ecosystem is really an ecosystem is demonstrated by sustainable life over time. It’s more successful if it provides other ecosystem services. If it, for example, attracts and satisfies bees and butterflies and other pollinators.

The native plant movement in the US unfortunately has become highly politicized, and many discussions of native plants versus non-native ornamentals quickly degenerate into argument or name calling. The native plant movement has gained a reputation for saying “No” to many of the choices available to gardeners. It seems to have taken on the persona of a nagging, finger-wagging scold. Without change, the native movement is likely to continue along this negative track, alienating more people than it can attract with its message. It’s too hard to do correctly, requires too much self-denial, and gives out personal rebuke to left and right. It says you are unethical, even immoral, if you don’t grow natives exclusively.

But there is another way. We can look at how plants actually grow in nature and adapt the natural growth patterns of plants, incorporating natives and non-natives into “natural” communities that grow like plants in the wild.

But these are my words.

Thomas Rainer addressed this subject much more systematically in his lecture–Designed Plant Communities–at the New York Botanical Garden last March. He spoke in NYBG’s prestigious winter lecture series, in which such eminent practitioners as Tom Stuart-Smith and Kim Wilke have preceded him.

Thomas gardening with his son.

His subject, as described by NYBG, was a critique of “native plant design approaches” and presentation of an alternative “bold, ecologically expressive design aesthetic that interprets rather than imitates nature.” Thomas proposes we refocus the native plant movement toward designed plant communities, and he predicts a paradigm shift in the next decade from its current emphasis simply on use of native plants, regardless of design, to how plants exist in communities. For example, wild plant communities are characterized by a number of characteristics that make them both more sustainable and more attractive to look at–and designed gardens should do the same, because no one will take time to care for a garden (native or otherwise) if it doesn’t stir the emotions, appeal in some way that moves the viewer. These characteristics are a balance of density and diversity, the ability to exist with little input, and a sense of harmony.

Taking lessons from nature has a long history, going back to William Robinson in 19th and early 20th century England and even earlier. One of the important 20th century sources of this approach, one cited by Thomas, is Richard Hansen’s and Fredrich Stahl’s Perennials and their Garden Habitats (in the original German, Die Stauden und ihre Lebensbereiche published in 1981 and translated into English in 1991). This book, which presents hundreds of perennial species grouped by preferred habitat, has been extremely influential in development of the concept of the naturalistic garden over the past several decades. Based on many years of field research, it identified the importance of matching perennials with their preferred habitats, and introduced the concept of plant sociability–which plants grow well with other plants–in effect, furthering understanding of the concept and some of the mechanisms by which plant communities form and are sustained in gardened spaces.

Thomas takes the “right plant, right place” advice of Hansen and Stahl, as elaborately extended into into detailed plant lists for specific plant habitats. They identify seven general habitats–woodland, woodland edge, open ground, rock garden, cultivated border, marshland and water’s edge, and plants that grow in water. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. They break down each category into multiple subcategories, such as low, shade-tolerant perennials; tall-growing shade-tolerant perennials; shade-tolerant grasses and sedges; and so on for well over 300 pages. They also address plant sociability in some detail, providing lists of plants and how they should be placed, singly, or in groups and, if in groups, of what size.

So “right plant, right place” is a gross oversimplification. The important point is that we should think of designing plant communities, not designing gardens of plants in isolation or grouped using only color or visual effect as the guide.

Moving toward a step-by-step design approach, in his lecture Thomas suggested three principles for creating designed plant communities:

  • Create a palette from habitats similar to your site, using that habitat as the model for your garden.
  • Vertically layer compatible species – The plants need to cover the ground. Except rarely, there will be no need for bark mulch, which inhibits the growth of plants, and prevents seeding and interweaving into viable communities. There should be a ground layer of long-lived, shade-tolerant species, a middle layer, and an upper layer, usually with transparent, leafless stems so plenty of light and air get through. The plants also must be compatible in terms of their environmental needs and sociability.
  • Interpret and amplify – abstract the visual essence of native plant communities and amplify effects to achieve aesthetic aims.

The result of this approach to design of plant communities will be a work of artifice, most definitely not environmental restoration, yet also a living, self-sustaining community of plants. Within this realm, many aesthetic design options are available to the gardener. For example, use of a single, or a few dominant plants can give a garden a powerful feeling of calmness.

To indicate designed intention in cities or suburban areas where the development of plant communities may violate planning or legal restrictions designed primarily to maintain neat lawns, a designer may also use orderly frames to contain wilder parts of the garden and to indicate design intent, much as mowing a simple path through a meadow can turn a “wild” meadow into a garden by redefining its conceptual framework.

Thomas has recently been experimenting with designed plant communities in a suburban setting, at his own “ugly” (as he describes it) house in Arlington, Virginia. In such a context, the concept of framing becomes extremely important.

Thomas was kind enough to send me some photos of the experimental plantings he’s working with. In addition to being in a city environment, the house is at the intersection of several streets and has traffic on three sides. It’s certainly a challenging site, one where you might think it would be very difficult to test out experimental planting communities.

“I’m sending you a handful of random images,” he writes. “This is my border garden showing a fairly vertically layered planting (Nasella, salvia, nepeta). I’m not sure I’d call that a designed plant community because it is really not self-sustaining, but even that more horticultural planting is influenced by vertically layered wild plantings.”

IMG_5694 thomas rainer
Though not a designed plant community, because not self-sustaining, even this horticultural planting of Nasella, salvia and nepeta is influenced by the vertical layering of wild plantings.

“The other set of images,” he continues, “show the experiment on the corner of my yard where I’m doing a mix of planting quarts/plugs and a custom seed mix.” Here is his design plan for the corner of the lot, right next to the sidewalk and street.


“The strategy is to create a ‘frame’ around the edge with low massed perennials so that it looks somewhat ordered, but within that frame, a seed mix of low woodland edge natives was spread.”

And here you see a photo showing the Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ …

Seeded Area with perennial frame2 (1)

… and the Sesleria indicated on the plan.

Seeded Area with perennial frame

“This spring you can see all the sprouts coexisting with the young transplants,” he explains. “It will take a few years to see how this turns out.”

seedlings + transplants

seedlings + plugs

“This planting really is a designed plant community. I’ll edit it, but essentially let it go to see what happens. The ‘frame’ and low height of all the species should help to make it more palatable in my urban/suburban context. Also I’ve been using bulbs (Narcissus ‘Thalia’, a glorious late blooming white daffodil, and Camassia quamash) and summer annuals to help this planting look a bit more ornamental until the seed mix fills in.”

The Durer water color that opened this post has long been my favorite botanical image. I thought it appropriate that Thomas used the same image to open his presentation. Durer’s close observation of the vegetation growing on a clump of earth illustrates so well how plants grow in nature and, simultaneously, interpretes nature through artistic recreation.

Thomas spoke for a solid two hours (with lots of visuals). Rarely have I sat through a lecture that long without finding my mind wandering, fidgeting, or myself wondering if I couldn’t sneak out for a break. But this lecture was so filled with information and creative ideas, with humor, forthrightness, and a palpable honesty, he had my attention all the way. Thomas Rainer’s well known blog is Grounded Design.

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18 thoughts on “Thomas Rainer: Interpreting nature

  1. Thank you James for summing up what must have been a very inspiring lecture.
    You have been mentioning a couple of times the importance of layers in planting.
    Here in Germany (at least that is what I think) we use more the kind of layers that are not one at top of the other but one after the other. Time layers. We use geophytes more then anything else as a first layer.
    For example the ground from late winter, spring and early summer is covered by Galanthus, Muscari, Tulips, Camassia, Alliums etc.and by the time they are in bloom other perennials (or the next generation of geophytes) will have grown so much the – receeding – leaves of (the alliums for example) will have become covered.
    I think the Hansen and Stahl idea is very much: one after the other the whole year long.
    This way you move from one time layer to the next all year long.
    Perhaps that is what you have talked about after all and I just wasn’t able to catch it.

    1. Rainer,

      Thank you for commenting, and making such an important point. I think the time layers you write about are implied in the post on Thomas Rainer, and even shown to some extent in the alliums jutting above the other plants in his first “horticultural” planting image. But frankly, you bring up a very important component of layering that is not explicitly addressed in my post. I would also say I didn’t mention horizontal layering, from near to far, which is very important, as one example, in my own garden. How fortunate you are, being German, to be able to read Hansen and Stahl in the original German. The English translation seems very good, but one never knows what subtleties might be left out.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting summary. Are there any books out yet teaching this design approach, or is it too new? I’d be interested to learn more if you can recommend other resources.

    By the way, I really like the Durer painting. I was never a fan of Durer before, but apparently my opinion changes when the subject is botanical. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Leah,

      Thomas Rainer and Claudia West are writing a book, which you might want to get when it’s published. In the meantime, any of several books by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf might be of interest to you–Planting: A New Perspective, or Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space. Glad you like the Durer.

      1. Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll check out the books you mention. The photos in the Amazon previews of them are inspiring–natural looking but more visually striking than one usually sees in untended nature.

  3. Thanks for the report on this interesting lecture. Thomas’s ideas about making a naturalist/designed plant community/wild planting/artificial ecosystem/… (whatever label you like) garden are so important because he is applying them to an “ordinary” relatively small, suburban property.

    1. Cindy, I’m happy to hear Thomas’ lecture is of interest to you. From your language, I can see I’ve presented him through the filter of my own mind and conflated his and my own opinions to some extent. So I do recommend you read the book he and Claudia West are working on. I don’t know when it will be published, but I’ll post when it comes out.

  4. James: You’re right – that was a special lecture that Thomas gave this past winter at the New York Botanical Garden, signaling a kind of turning point for native and naturalistic design. Thank you for reigniting it.

    You may also be right that the corner Thomas is turning is the idea of creating integrated plant communities, which he inherits from the initial wave of ecologically sustainable design – Lang, Clayton, Jensen, Dunnett, Hitchmough, Morrison and others. That lineage tended toward native species, it is true, and Thomas has gone public with it into a broader, more populist palette. But I think we owe the essence of plant community to the nativists, even if only because they were also the definers of ecological design. Mind you, I have never had the opportunity to talk with Thomas about his sources, so I feel free to speculate here, unencumbered by facts.

    What Thomas is doing for students like me is taking those principles of basic, good horticulture that lie at the heart of the plant communities approach, and return to them a sense of joy, extroverted and inviting of many different styles. Like the nativists, his writing and design implicitly bears a challenge, a call to action. But

    Thomas’ challenge focuses on the creativity, and offers the method as a footnote. Nativism seems to insist on the method first, and creativity is parenthetical.
    Thomas, perhaps the first theoretical horticulturalist of the social media generation, has a true blogger’s ease with the first person voice. His NYBG lecture was casual, driven by his own taste and personality, yet with a grounding in facts and basic humility that invited others to make a likewise personal connection – an “open source” invitation to rediscover the endless opportunities of good horticulture.

    My favorite moment in that lecture of Thomas’ was when he showed a few photos of a specific garden in rapid succession. The auditorium, very full of very serious gardeners and landscape designers, literally gasped with surprise and…delight, I think. It was as if Gertrude Jekyll had just entered the room.

    It may have been the atmosphere that Thomas created with his lecture that allowed such a happy reaction, but those gasp-inspiring photos were of Federal Twist – a garden that may well embody the methodology of created plant communities, but more innovatively, creates joy again.

    Thanks to both Thomas and you for that.

    Harry Wade

    1. Harry,

      Thank you for your insightful and balanced perspective on Thomas’ talk. I agree with you, and I greatly value reading about your take on the event. It certainly was special. You raise the question of Thomas’ sources; I would be curious to know them myself. Lacking that, I “read” him using my own sources, which I think are certainly not his, so I have to admit I heard, to some extent, what I wanted to hear. You’ve made important points about Thomas’ work and its significance in the big picture. I also appreciate your bringing out the importance of the sense of joy in Thomas’ message. It’s something I feel strongly about my own garden, and I think I lost connection with that joy in writing this post (by getting a little too buried in the details of plant communities). Your comments are like a good tonic, a jolt of fresh air.

      1. James,
        I agree with Harry’s take on your summation of Thomas’ lecture. For me, it was a turning point for the next generation of garden designers that take into consideration both the art and ecology of great garden making. Thomas has a new contemporary voice. I was pleased that so see many ears and eyes were listening and seeing so attentively. I certainly was.

  5. You knew I’d key on this: “The native plant movement has gained a reputation for saying “No” to many of the choices available to gardeners. It seems to have taken on the persona of a nagging, finger-wagging scold. Without change, the native movement is likely to continue along this negative track, alienating more people than it can attract with its message. It’s too hard to do correctly, requires too much self-denial, and gives out personal rebuke to left and right. It says you are unethical, even immoral, if you don’t grow natives exclusively.”

    Maybe we need a little but more self denial, if by that you mean self control or awareness or connectivity. We’re still looking at the surface issue here — me me me and my garden, what I want, and darn what anyone else says or thinks because I’m a free American. Native plants are an ethical imperative precisely because we project our desire on landscapes. I understand we’ll do this anyway, and most certainly in a garden, but we are grossly out of sync with most any environmental function. Climate change. 6th mass extinction event. 5,000 acres converted to lawn daily. 2% of tallgrass prairie left (our Amazon no one ever talks about). Monarchs. Prairie chickens. Fringed orchids. Soil bacteria. It’s not finger wagging, James, it’s a grabbing of the shoulders and a good hard cry as we collapse in front of you. Garden design inspired by local nature is what gardening is (or should be) — garden design as inspired by nature but not thinking about local plant and animal communities is almost as destructive as paving it all over.

    1. Benjamin, I admit I did push to make a point, but I don’t think we’re that far apart. I’d guess about 70% of my garden is natives, and I do pay attention to layering of the environment to provide lots of habitat for many different kinds of life. I do believe native plants are important, but I also believe it’s okay to mix in exotics with natives in our gardens, and to have emotional and aesthetic goals apart from planting native plants to feed more wildlife. I believe in your goal of trying to save our world, but I think it would be much more effective to do things that affect the environment on the large scale. For example, getting the majority of Americans to greatly diminish the areas of their lawns, plant hedgerows as wildlife corridors, plant with much greater diversity–including lots of native plants–and plant in vertical layers, more shrubs, more long grass areas, more trees–and probably much more important, to change our industrial agricultural system to be much, much more environmentally friendly. It’s all fine and well if a few gardeners plant all native gardens, but I believe that is unlikely to make much difference in the large scheme. We need to change a way of life (e.g., the American lawn and industrialized agriculture) to really make a difference. I’m reading Rick Darke’s and Doug Tallamy’s new book, The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden, and I think their book is preaching a good message, but the scale of the change required is far, far beyond what they, or you, or I can do. We need a few billionaires who want to put up the money for lobbying and public relations efforts that might begin to make large-scale change. We live in a political world and a culture that doesn’t care much about the 6th great extinction, and probably, won’t until it’s far too late. Yes, I do agree telling people to plant more native plants will help raise consciousness, but we also need to teach them about how those plants grow in nature, how to make communities of plants that are largely self-sustaining, and how to make gardens that are beautiful, thrilling, and joyful to be in.

      1. I know we’re not far apart, and yes, the problem is so massive and beyond our gardens that it is, well, depressing and nearly a lost cause. The garden is a gateway to caring about the larger spaces, right? We’re so disconnected from most anything having to do with nature that a garden is the first step. I feel heaps and heaps of emotional and aesthetic connection to native plants — precisely because I know what’s been awakened in me by working with them (it feeds my prairie dreams and work with a local nonprofit). The loss of the prairie kills me. The anger and despair I feel about lawns and bare foundation plantings and mulch volcanoes can be all consuming. Yes, communities of plants. Yes communities of people among those plants. Yes to us understanding how intertwined and alike those two communities are. The language of plants is our language, we’ve just forgotten the words.

  6. “because no one will take time to care for a garden (native or otherwise) if it doesn’t stir the emotions, appeal in some way that moves the viewer.”

    Yes, let’s start with acknowledging the built-in limitations of human nature. And I like Benjamin’s phrase “The garden is a gateway to caring about larger spaces.” Many issues are resolving themselves out here in SoCal due to forces beyond our control. Due to persistent drought, it’s now illegal for an HOA to cite a homeowner for a brown, nonirrigated lawn, as they have been doing, fines as high as $500. That’s a big breakthrough. As far as including exotics, I’ve always felt that castigating enthusiastic home gardeners over plant choices is a misguided approach. Optimal basics to encourage would be to forego pesticides, treat water as the precious resource it is. Here we have 5 mediterranean regions to draw on for nonthirsty plant choices. Some nativists would rather we replicate our mostly summer-dormant landscape. I doubt I could keep up interest in such a scheme. In any case, will it all be too little, too late? Very possibly. But we probably won’t know that answer in our lifetimes, so there’s nothing to do but soldier on. Just random thoughts in response to your excellent post.

    1. I’m reminded of the plants I saw at Wigandia in a hot, dry area of Australia last February at the height of their summer. It was planted with some Australians, but also many plants from Mexico and Central America, South America, and South Africa. Wigandia it was named, after the Wigandia that grows in Mexico, I believe, and after months of drought absolutely beautiful. I don’t really know how southern Cal. differs from southern Australia in terms of climate cycle, but I wonder what could be done with little to no water. I’ve recently heard that you suffer not only from lack of surface water and rainfall, but of recently discovered highly depleted groundwater aquifers. If it weren’t too late for me to pull up roots, I’d love the challenge of gardening in your climate. I predict more desalination plants and very high water bills in your future.

  7. I heartily disagree on the description of Thomas’ house.
    It is NOT ugly; it’s a ranch. Ranches are cool.
    They sit low on their sites, letting their surroundings become the focus. More often than not, they hug the ground, providing an easy sense of indoor/outdoor connection.

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