Anticipation was amped-up for the Thomas Rainer talk at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). He and co-author, Claudia West recently headlined at Metro Hort’s annual trade show and symposium: Plant-O-Rama. And frankly, I hadn’t heard this kind of frothy excitement for a speaker in I can’t remember when. Well, really I can. It was when Tracy DiSabato Aust launched her series of planting guide books, including or especially, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden
Rainer, landscape architect, teacher, and writer didn’t disappoint. He is authentic, experienced - as in he’s done this - not just come up with some ideas. And he is, understandably, more than inspiring. In a soft-spoken way. Not like the image of a firebrand "revolutionary." But make no mistake - Rainer is at the vanguard of a revolution: a "renaissance of horticulture."
I was lucky to have ridden the train back to Manhattan with Thomas so we got to chat a bit about the business vagaries of today’s horticulture, gardens, deer - they are destroying our understory and our gardens.. and why do we need to import New Zealand lamb when we are being overrun with bloody deer?! And tax credits for maintaining edible gardens (those last two, I confess, are my hot topics!) Not a surprise Thomas is just as delightfully professional one-on-one as he is in the lecture hall. I can more readily appreciate how he is a leading voice in ecological landscape design. And boy do we need this now.
Rainer and West’s book, Planting in a Post-Wild World has aroused garden designers and landscape professionals to a reverential state. The book claims no less than to be the “future of planting design.” By the end of the lecture, it was with a respectful awe that I rather came round to agree with this assertion. Like a force of nature, it took some time to understand it all. And while I haven’t read the entire book yet, my notes from the lecture and looking through my autographed Post-Wild book (lucky me!), I’ll share the top-line revelations as to why you must get this book and become a Wild advocate.
First, there is the concept of Plant Communities and their “relationships with the environment” not as types or categories but as a series of layers that are sequentially added to the site.” The book notes, “Understanding the distinction between design and functional layers is crucial to balancing beauty with function.”
Like any disciple of fashion knows, it’s all about the layering.
Think trees, shrubs, tall perennials and grasses. This layer, the authors assert, is the “design layer because its goal is to create visually pleasing horticultural effects.”
The next layer is the Functional Layer. Hey, not all plants are divas. This layer, the authors describe, as “the mix of low, ground-covering species.” They claim that “almost no one sees it.” I may not be totally on-board with this suggestion as I’m a meticulous, ie. obsessive garden designer and enthusiast. For me and my clients. But I understand the concept. Which is, according to Wild, “to hold the ground and fill any gaps to prevent weed invasion.” I Love this layer “nook and cranny” planting design. Plus, let’s not continue to think of mulch as the filler, Rainer suggests.
There is one more element to fostering the true plant community and that is the “Seasonal Theme Layer.” These are the companion plants or "friends" to the Structural Plants. This plant category represents from 25 to 40 percent of the planting and is dominated by the plants’ “filler” performances in terms of structure, and color balance.
What kind of Plants are in the Look-Book Layers?
As the backbone of the planting, Layer 1 or the Structural plants include: Andropogon gerardii, Sorghastrum nutans, or Miscanthus sinensis, as well as perennials such as Asclepias incarnata, in addition to the trees and shrubs. Key notes Wild is the structural frame species must be “long-lived.”
Layer 2 or the Seasonal Theme Plants include : Salvia nemorosa, Calamintha nepeta nepeta, or Mertensia virginica.
Layer 3 or the Ground-Covering Plants include those with “aggressive, clonal-spreading behavior (yikes!) such as ferns, sedges, (ahhh) and woody plants such as Vaccinium or Heath, Calluna vulgaris, or Origanum, Tiarella or Geum.
Rainer lamented the decline of natural wild spaces. There is no doubt that increasingly we live in urban-esque environments. He cites the “enchanting power” of wildness.
Planting is a Post-Wild World is truly a doable, revolutionary approach to landscape design.
Please get this book and come to a new place of garden design…
Plants naturally interact. Wild offers a place and mind-set to reflect on the marriage or intersection of horticulture and ecology. Oh, and one more design and fashion point here, Rainer admonishes a point so close to my garden design ethos: “Abandon the lawn.” Not entirely, mind you. He explains, it’s better as an “area rug vs. a carpet - a terrace when surrounded by plants.”
Published by Timber Press - every plant lover’s favorite - Post-Wild’s blurbs capture the celebrities of the horticulture world, including the cover page’s quote from Doug Tallamy and back-of-book quote from landscape architect, Larry Weaner. High praise from the best. We can all learn and enjoy the journey.
Let’s embrace this garden design “revolution.” No need to barricade the gates. After all, they are happy, garden gates - the entry to understanding a sustainable, ecological, landscape.
Rainer’s blog, grounded design by Thomas Rainer offers a potent credo. One of the more salient points is: "Nature should be interpreted not imitated in designed landscapes." Furthermore, the feedback from readers on Amazon delivers plenty of four-star accolades you’ll find inspiring, thought-provoking and well, revolutionary. A glamorous - and sustainable - road map to the future of garden design.