This is probably the first time I have ever written a book review, being so compelled to recommend the recently published “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes” by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (Timber Press, 2015). As the book jacket suggests, this guide presents a powerful alternative to traditional horticulture: designed plantings that function like naturally occurring plant communities. Frequently, I am approached by homeowners who understand the benefits of creating habitat in their landscapes with native plants but have no idea how to begin. This book is the first I’ve come across that provides a straightforward approach to the design of a landscape that performs many of the ecological functions lost in the typical suburban and urban environment.
Finally, landscape design is presented using a “form ever follows function” approach first announced by Louis Sullivan, the father of modern architecture who similarly challenged the ornamentally-oriented approach to building design by stating that the form of the building should be in direct relation to its purpose. In the same way, we are encouraged to see that landscapes must perform functions other than to frame our houses and buildings—we must rebuild natural areas lost to development. As co-author Claudia West observes, “The front lines of the battle for nature are not in the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of our future won’t just be scientists and engineers, but gardeners, horticulturalists, land managers, landscape architects, transportation department staff, elementary school teaches, and community association board members.”
The authors begin by defining designed plant communities and then provide the structural principles. For many native plant gardeners, some of the functional aspects of these principles are familiar but we often find we are weak on the design aspect. For example, how often do we think about environmental stresses being an asset? All vascular plants require basic resources to live, but some plants are better adapted to dealing with shortages than others. We try to change the environment to suit the plant when we should be focusing on plants that suit that environment. It is these limiting environments that possess a “sense of place” that we often hear extolled as a reason to use native plants. If you have a dry, gravelly area, don’t try to change the soil---instead use plants found in naturally in those areas. Think of the “concrete jungle” as an environment and find plants that form communities in those harsh environments (other than exotic invasive pest plants).
Planting in a Post-Wild World provides a framework and inspiration by defining landscape archetypes such as grasslands, woodlands and shrublands, forests and edges and the components that make them legible as well as functional. For example, most suburban homeowners in the Southeast would find their archetype a forest edge while homeowners in the Midwest’s archetype might be grasslands especially if they live in a development carved out from farmland. Determining your archetype is an important first step and will help you create a coherent and true landscape.
The authors describe the importance of arranging plants in communities and echoes what naturalists like Doug Tallamy has been stating --- plant densely and in layers to create habitat and resiliency. Plants naturally occur in communities that work synergistically—roots touch roots and share nutrients; early blooming plants are shaded from hot sun by later leafing large trees, grasses, and shrubs. Tightly woven plants prevent soil erosion and help to retain moisture. This community concept has been lost in “modern” landscaping that has been driven solely by cost and aesthetic appeal. We must now return to the fact that landscapes must function – habitat restoration, urban cooling, storm water retention, erosion control, water quality enhancement, and so forth.
Native plant enthusiasts might be disappointed that the authors do not mandate a strictly native plant approach. As a practical matter, we probably cannot recreate the pristine native plant ecosystems in place before mankind disrupted the landscape, changing the soils and biota perhaps permanently. The book’s focus is on plants naturally adapted to their specific sites, with the emphasis on the relationship of plant to place. Native species and can and should be the starting point for developing high-quality designed communities.
The book can be found at Amazon and other booksellers, including the publisher’s website http://www.timberpress.com/books/planting_post_wild_world/rainer/9781604695533.