Big Ahas from Planting in a Post-Wild World


Their primary audience may be other designers, but Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2016) offers many take-aways for regular gardeners too. The book outlines how to design and maintain an ecological landscape, and does so in beautifully clear, fluid language that is easy to read and absorb.

The first few pages had me reaching for my notebook to jot down phrases from the book and ideas it sparked for my own garden. Even better, Rainer and West pointed out gaps in my own way of designing. My biggest aha was their concept of “design layers.”

“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.” — page 17

I was used to thinking in terms of vertical layers of plants that physically occupy different niches; this frankly produces landscapes that are ecologically functional and diverse but not necessarily beautiful to those who don’t understand ecology. What makes them beautiful is their robust health and the life they support; visual impact is strictly a secondary consideration.

But Rainer and West present a powerful set of tools for adding aesthetic oomph while maximizing ecological function. They advise viewing a landscape in terms of four different layers (really, roles) that can be focused on individually while designing, and also while determining ongoing maintenance strategies.

Structural Layer: most powerful year-round key parts of a design. These should be retained through the years, replaced if needed, and kept clearly defined as they form the backbone on which the rest of the design hangs.

Seasonal Layer: waves of color and/or texture provided by each season’s visually dominant “design” plants. These are maintained by treating them en masse, thinning or spreading as necessary.

Groundcover Layer: provides the main diversity of the planting and therefore most of the ecological function. This layer does not contribute noticeably to the aesthetic design, except as a living mulch. Manage it by retaining and augmenting diversity as much as possible to maximize its functionality and the health of all the plants in the landscape.

Gap Fillers: self-sowing plants distributed regularly through the planting and encouraged to set seed. This builds up a seed bank of desirable plants which will ideally sprout to fill any gaps that occur.

I love how the authors separate the main aesthetic contributors (the first two layers) from the main ecological contributors (the last two). That makes it much easier to create a landscape that is strong in both beauty and functionality.

For a gardener unfamiliar with ecology (the science of how nature works), this book is a great primer. Sample insights include:

  • Plants fare better in communities.

    “When plants are paired with compatible species, the aesthetic and functional benefits are multiplied, and plants are overall healthier.” — page 47

  • Rational guidelines for moving past the natives-only debate.

    “… place the emphasis on a plant’s ecological performance, not its country of origin… The combination of adapted exotics and regionally native species can expand the designer’s options and even expand ecological function.” — page 42

  • Work with each unique site.

    “For designers interested in creating communities with a rich sense of place, the first step is simple: accept the environmental constraints of a site. Do not go to great effort and cost to make soil richer, eliminate shade, or provide irrigation. Instead, embrace a more limited palette of plants that will tolerate and thrive in these conditions.” — page 47

  • Rather than creating generic “ideal conditions” (by bringing in soil or amendments), rely on plants to gradually improve a site.

    “Hundreds of thousands of root channels will heal and rebuild even highly disturbed and compacted soils over time, and enrich low-lying soil horizons with organic matter. The more roots, the more quickly a soil is restored. In order to get as many roots in the ground as possible, plant as densely as possible and use a diversity of root morphologies to interact with the soil at different levels.” — page 194

  • Cover the ground with plants.

    “Plant ground covers wherever there is space for them: under trees, shrubs, and taller perennials. Fill all gaps between taller plants… Use them like you would mulch.” — page 180

The authors move from details to big-picture with ease. They advise starting each design with a “vision” patterned after a natural landscape (or archetype) such as woodland or meadow. This concept is dear to my heart, and I would like to see it treated in more detail  beyond the few basic archetypes mentioned in this guide. Some of the most affecting landscapes I’ve encountered were created by designers who were intimately familiar with regional ecosystems in their many variations, and were able to use them as inspiration.

Another important point brought home by the book is that a designed landscape — to stay functional and beautiful — needs thoughtful management as well as ongoing attention to its design. An installation followed by generic maintenance strategies will not preserve aesthetics or ecology. This aha combines that beloved old adage “a garden is never finished” with Abraham Maslow’s astute observation that “if you only have a hammer, it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail.”

“Because communities are dynamic, managing them is a creative process… Designers must be part of a planting’s life as regular and ongoing consultants.” — p. 221

Let us hope the well-defined and highly desirable steps laid out by Rainer and West help to hasten the end of the modern “mow-and-blow” approach to landscape management, in which we routinely cut down, poison, or prune plants without regard for their growth habits or their web of connections, applaud sterility and unpalatability, and kill off the majority while pampering the chosen few. Let us follow Planting in a Post-Wild World into a future where humans respectfully manage landscapes for our comfort, our quality of life, and our very existence, while acknowledging (in our treatment of them) the inherent value of these living communities.

Posted by on July 20, 2016 at 1:27 pm, in the category Books, CRRRITIC.
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14 responses to “Big Ahas from Planting in a Post-Wild World”

  1. Nell says:

    Those of you gardening in the challenging conditions of California might be interested in the upcoming Pacific Horticulture symposium Oct. 15-16 in Santa Rosa, CA that Loree Bohl recently posted about:

    These two talks in particular sound extremely useful [from PH press release]:
    >> Phil Van Soelen, co-owner of California Flora Nursery… photo presentation will show how to effectively use native and summer-dry plants for year-round interest. As president of Urban Water Group, the final speaker, Marilee Kuhlmann, is committed to designing and creating water-conserving landscapes in Southern California. She will discuss the methods and benefits of rainwater harvesting and how to create a watershed-sensitive garden. <<

    Also, Western Hills will be open, which is almost by itself worth the ticket. And, to make this even more relevant to the original post, Thomas Rainer leads off the speakers on Saturday and will be part of a panel later that day.

  2. […] readers know that we love Thomas Rainer’s work and his book Planting in a Post-Wild World (here’s Evelyn’s describing the aha’s she got from it), but there’s another game-changing […]

  3. Nell says:

    Evelyn, this is a great summary; thanks!

    @Thomas Ranier:

    Planting in a Post-Wild World is one of the most important and useful books to come along in a long while. I’ve learned tons, keep it at hand beside my bed for re-reading, and have gotten our local library and several gardening friends to acquire it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Because of the need to keep the book to a manageable size, I’m sure there were a lot of things you and Claudia West would have liked to include but couldn’t. To me, the greatest need it creates (an opportunity for writers familiar with specific eco-regions) to do follow-up books that offer plant lists and information that would help gardeners and designers apply the principles for their specific region, soils, and growing conditions.

    For example: Even very experienced and plant-knowledgeable gardeners are challenged by a recommendation, to combine plants with different root morphologies. We need a book with lists/diagrams that show the different types of root systems of plants suited to our regions. Likewise, lists that group potential ground-layer plants by rampancy/competitiveness.

    The top two layers are well known to seasoned gardeners, but we all need help with the ground layer, and the seasonal ephemerals and short-lived perennials that are particularly suitable to the conditions on offer in our gardens. Claudia’s in an especially good position to do this for eastern native plants, but may be understandably off book-writing for a while. Hope you both are encouraging some of the people you see at conferences etc. to share experiences for their areas.

  4. Grace Silva-Santella says:

    I like the comments from the California readers. I garden in
    Marina not far from Ed’s town of Carmel Valley. The drought and my sandy soil require extensive soil amending if I hope to reduce my water usage.

    I also enjoy the native versus exotic discussion. I believe the primary emphasis needs to be ‘invasives’.

    There’s an ornamental grass that reseeds with a vengeance, Nassella/Stippa tenuissima, Mexican Feather Grass. Because it’s low water, wispy and beautiful movement in the wind it is very poplar with home owners and landscape professionals. But it can cause havoc as it spreads, and spreads, and spreads!

  5. Ed Morrow says:

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Yes, you are right, the big ideas – and there are plenty in this book – are very relevant. As you lay them out in the book, the concepts of planting in communities, making stress into an asset, organizing plants in vertical layers, and emphasizing legibility and maintenance are valid in any environment. It is the particular challenge of those of us who garden in the California Floristic Province to adapt these ideas to our own, often peculiar, climate.

    I should add that there are few books that can change one’s ideas on how a garden should look. This book certainly changed mine.

    I just noticed in Summer issue of Pacific Horticulture that you will be speaking at the PHS Summit 2016 in Santa Rosa, CA this October. I am planning to attend, and look forward to hearing your talk. I hope you will expand on some of the topics from the book in the context of the western landscape.

    Ed Morrow
    Carmel Valley, CA

  6. JodiepCook says:

    Great post and summary, Evelyn, of a really fantastic book.

    I, too, found a number of ‘aha’s’ in the book. I loved it and found it fresh, timely, beautifully designed and a go-to reference as I work. It also had the perfect blend of text, diagrams and images.

    The only minor quibble I would make is related to comments made by both Ed Morrow and Thomas Rainer. For West Coast-based designers, many of us working with what is left after removing lawns in order to create more ecologically based, climate-resilient gardens, the rules are somewhat different. Thus, I found myself mentally modifying sections of the book to reflect this fact.

    For example, a niche service we provide in partnership with a local native plant nursery here in Southern California is to transform small, front yard tract-home lawns into native gardens, ideally regenerative ecosystems in their own right…with emphasis on curb appeal. These are front yards, after all, they aren’t restoration sites. Many of the ideas about layering work perfectly for us.

    The ideas on non-native plants within a native landscape – well, clients are going to do add them, so we ask them to keep the ratio low so the system can work and to be careful about what they add and where.

    The other part of the text I would say we modify, one that Evelyn brings up above, is that while we map the ecosystem to the place (for us it’s usually coastal sage scrub and southern oak woodland) we do amend and contour soil to hold rain. Most of the sites we work with are graded for drainage to the street. Very different from parts of the east coast, where codes often dictate that any drainage must stay on the property, captured by dry wells!

    Since, here in CA we are beginning with highly unnatural, compacted, non-native soils (really just ‘fill’) most of the time we counter this by contouring the land for rain, amending with quality organic compost to jump-start soil biology and improving soil structure and, after planting, we mulch with bark. We do this once, at the beginning of the project, then after a short establishment period, we recommend the client allow nature to take over with some benevolent oversight by them.

    Reading this wonderful book and the fantastic books by Doug Tallamy I find myself wishing for California equivalents that take into account our unique climate, insect/bird communities and soil ecosystem.

  7. Thomas Rainer says:

    Hi Ed,

    I wanted to thank you for this thoughtful review. One of the central challenges of this book was trying to write about plant communities from an international perspective. I think you rightly highlight where we missed the boat. We wrote about what we knew, and that biased east coast ecologies.

    But that being said, I wrote whole sections of this while sitting in a cabin in Colorado’s high desert. I would take walks several times a day through those Juniper scrublands and look at those layers. Even though the idea of covering ground is different in density and pattern in drier ecosystems, the ideas apply in those regions. Grasses, penstemons, and annuals filled gaps underneath sagebrush and junipers.

    I don’t think our images and illustrations look enough like western landscapes (though we have several in there), so that fuels the argument that the book is biased. If I could do one thing over, it would be to show how the layering systems work in western landscapes. The same principles, just different densities and seasonal dynamics. For me, the big ideas are totally relevant.

    Finally, on the issue of native plants, our goal was not to suggest that native plants don’t matter. In fact, we think native plants matter more than ever before. But we were just trying to be realistic the future landscapes will be impure, mongrel, and hybrid. So we wanted to create a framework that works in these hybrid environments using native plants as a base. The whole point of the book was about developing symbiotic relationships of plants to place. We just had a slightly different nuanced approach that embraced native plants, but dropped some of the ideology.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful review. It is very helpful in developing these ideas going forward.

  8. Interesting points, Ed. Thank you for adding a western perspective.

  9. Laura, it sounds like you have made a great start on designing and managing a nature-friendly garden; I bet you would get a lot from this book.

  10. Ed Morrow says:

    This is an important book. It is the best, most lucid explanation of the New Perennial planting style and how to achieve it. I’ve read it twice, and will probably read it through again. It is cogently organized, well written, and has enough detail so you know exactly what to do. If you want plant in the New Perennial style, this is the book to have.

    It does how ever have some drawbacks.

    The book is focused on mesic woodlands and dry-mesic prairies. If you live east of the Rocky Mountains, this book will work for you. If, however, you live, as I do, west of the Rockies, the book comes up short. The plant pallet discussed in the book is not suited to areas with long dry summers and mild wet winters. Another issue is the minor tenet of the New Perennial style to closely space plants for weed suppression. I (along with a majority California’s population- think L.A.) live a coastal-sage-scrub ecosystem where this doesn’t work. Here, plants have extensive root systems to suck up the meager moisture. Plant too close, the roots will fight, and things will die. Some natives, allelopathic sages for example, secrete oils to keep other plants out of their turf. The West Coast requires a different approach; just imagine how dissimilar a High Line in Los Angles would look from the one in New York.

    A second concern is were the authors come down on the issue of native versus exotic plants. The authors decry the “…ideology of localism, elevating a plant’s geographic origin over its performance” (p.15). For those of us who put a priority on creating a working ecosystem, choosing plants that perform – grow well, have long bloom times, etc – but fail to develop a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding environment misses the potential of what plants can do.

    The authors should not, however, be taken to task for not writing a book they didn’t intend to write. This will most likely be the definitive book on creating a New Perennial landscapes for a particular environment. Those of us who get all our rain in the winter months, and tough it out for the rest of the year will have to wait for some other book.

    Ed Morrow
    Carmel Valley, CA

  11. Laura Munoz says:

    For me, the lowly home gardener, this post was exciting. I’d heard about this book, but now that I’m reading these excerpts I want it.

    I especially like the idea of “accepting the environmental constraints of a site.” Since buying my 1935 house last year, I’m creating a new garden but have been going about it differently than I did previously. For example, I did not cut down existing trees although I did have an arborist assess them for dead limbs/diseases. The light shade I originally hated is now a God-send.–I can’t imagine the yard without it, and the plants like it too. (I’m in Texas where the sun roasts everything like peanuts.)

    The backyard came with woodland violets and oxalis so I”m using them. As I put in a pathway, I dig them up and re-locate them. The birds planted lantana, redbud, wild grape, Virginia creeper, red salvia, and yaupon holly (all natives). Instead of throwing them out, I’m moving them to where I want them. If they ultimately don’t work, I’ve not lost much, and I already know they like the soil conditions.

    I wanted to plant densely, and the book also supports this idea. I think this book is a “need” and not a “want”!

  12. […] Big Ahas from Planting in a Post-Wild World originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 20, 2016. […]

  13. Jason says:

    Terrific summary! This book should be required reading for hobbyists and professionals alike.