inspired by nature’s layers, but not hung up on natives-only
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT THOMAS RAINER doesn’t ask a plant for its passport before making space for it in a garden, but he does take inspiration from the layered structures of native and naturalistic plant communities to make designs that work visually and functionally. He helps us learn how to do that in our home landscapes (that’s part of his above)—and also how to make sense of the “native-or-not” debate.
Rainer, who teaches planting design at George Washington University, writes the award-winning blog called Grounded Design. He has designed landscapes for the U.S. Capitol grounds; the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial; and The New York Botanical Garden, as well as more than 100 private gardens–always advocating for an ecologically expressive aesthetic that interprets rather than imitates nature.
But he is also a keen—and daring–home gardener.
“It’s really the garden scale that to me is the most fascinating,” he says, despite his years of experience on the far grander scale.
We talked about garden design, and about the sometimes controversial and confusing debate around natives, on the latest edition of my weekly radio program.
my q&a with thomas rainer
A. Gardens are to landscape architecture what poetry is to prose—the more concentrated version.
Landscape architecture is about picturing land—it’s about an idea you impose on land—but the garden’s a relationship, really. One that’s endlessly captivating to me.
The two definitely inform each other, but they seem like different disciplines—the large-scale thinking about land and then the hands-in-the-dirt relationship with the land.
Q. Tell us about your home garden, in Arlington, Virginia, across the river from DC. [That's part of it below, and in the top photo.]
A. It’s a very unattractive 1950s ranch house, very ho-hum rambler along the bus route.
It’s a garden that is never going to be a masterpiece—it’s surrounded on three sides by road, and has the backdrop of a fixer-upper. So in a lot of ways there is a lot of freedom to be whimsical, and play, and do like every other gardener does—which is try one of everything, 100 experiments all at once—there’s no grand estate or pressure or historic architecture to really be tasteful about.
We can do what pleases us, and what seems to work.
[An article on his home garden, on Thomas's website.]
Q. An aside, hearing you talk about your house like that: A dear friend, Pam Kueber, has a website called Retro Renovation about houses like yours. But rather than describing them as you just did, or calling them “mid-century modern,” even—she says they’re “mid-century modest.” And, she proclaims: “Love the house you’re in.”
A. Yes—that’s exactly right. [Laughter.] We very much enjoy it. It’s just a very different context for gardening than some of my clients’.
Q. Do you have some particular passions in your home garden—among those “100 experiments”?
A. I have kind of two sides to the garden, each a buffer to one of the roads. One’s a border-style planting of herbaceous perennials, and very tall. I love Great Dixter in England—and it doesn’t look like that at all, but it’s that idea of playing with succession-style plantings.
My yard is so small that for it to look good all the time you really have to keep planting and planting. It’s sort of an over-the-top horticultural experiment to try to keep it blooming from May to November—challenging in the mid-Atlantic, and it requires annuals and perennials and tropical, and natives and shrubs and everything to make it look good and bloom all the time.
Q. What’s the other garden on the property, alongside the other road?
A. We’re experimenting there with something quieter—and more native. I call it my “native-ish” garden. It’s meant to be more evocative of a woodland edge, though there’s nothing woodland-like about my suburban-urban lot.
So one side of the place is more provocative, and one side’s more evocative.
Q. At New York Botanical Garden’s recently redone Native Plant Garden and elsewhere, you have a substantial track record professionally using native plants. So I was surprised to learn when we spoke recently, that you are not a zealot or purist.
A. I love native plants. I grew up at the edge of the woods in Birmingham, Alabama, and used to romp through those woods with a pack of feral boys, collecting crawdads and foraging dewberries—and evading enemies (unfortunately for us, who were usually younger sisters!).
I come to native not as an ideological point of view, but they were the backdrop of my childhood play spaces.
On a practical level as a landscape architect, I have to design plantings for all kinds of brutal sites: urban plazas, DOT right-of-ways, shopping malls [that's Rainer training the crew on one such urban installation, above]. I think that makes me more of a pragmatist, seeking plants I can source that perform with little maintenance.
The last decade, though, as we learn more about the ecological benefits of plants, we are expecting more out of them than ever before:
We want them to look beautiful in four seasons, and decorate our landscapes, plus clean our storm water and remove pollutants from our soil; to cool our cities and sequester carbon.
So in my job I have a hard time being too ideological about plants. If it doesn’t work, if it isn’t pretty and it doesn’t function—I’m going to hear about it from a client.
That really grounds me in the understanding that there are some great exotic plants out there, too.
Plus: I love traditional gardens. Even my garden at home is feeling like I straddle two traditions.
On the one hand I am really enthralled with the potential of native and naturalistic plantings. We’ve barely scratched the surface of some of the great plants that exist in the wild and should be cultivated.
On the other hand I really feel immersed and indebted to the great tradition of horticulture and gardens. We’ve got 4,000 years of garden-design history. I just think it’s terribly unfortunate that right now, in our country, the two traditions—the native and naturalistic ones, and the traditional horticulture one—are a source of conflict. It seems silly when I stumble on some social media site into a raging, polarized debate on natives versus exotics.
[More on choosing exceptional plants, native or not, from his website.]
Q. For me—and I expect I’ll get backlash on this—if an exotic plant isn’t invasive, meaning if it’s a Hosta, for instance (which is after all an alien)—then it’s fine. That’s where I draw the line: Can I manage this plant in an ethical way in my garden?
A. The focus of the native-plant movement—and I feel like part of it, and an advocate for it—is that it has been so much focused on where the plants come from, and not how they perform.
You get these endless chicken-and-egg questions about where the plant comes from, and what is native, native-ness, and these endlessly tiring debates.
For gardeners who are just trying to have beautiful spaces that are of benefit to wildlife, that’s really hard to understand pragmatically—to figure out what works in my garden.
A. Even weeds are fascinating to me. I spend so much effort in my garden trying to make it look natural, and layered, and then I can look across the street at this untended weed patch–and you get this great diversity of textures, and they come up without any help at all.
Whether it’s a wild plant community like weeds, or even a native plant community—plant communities have a higher level of beauty and harmony. The way that plants work together seems to offer the kind of answers we’re really looking for native plants to provide.
I think when the native plant movement focuses just on the plants themselves as individual horticultural objects—and then we just bring the plants into our garden–sometimes it fails to perform like they’re performing in nature. Because we fail to bring them with their companions, or understand how they work together in nature, it fails.
I think this will be a big shift in horticulture in the next 10 years: moving from plants as individual objects to communities that work together–and they might be natives, or natives and exotics together.
Their functionality—and their beauty, their harmony: It’s something nature always seems to do better than even the best designers.
[A community of Andropogon and other herbaceous plants, above.]
Q. Let’s talk about the layering: I think that’s one of the missing links in a lot of problems we all experience in our home-garden designs, especially with the bottom layer.
A. I find inspiration in wild plant communities, which are essentially layered. They usually include a ground-covering layer, a functional layer that serves to resist weed invasion, and hold the ground.
In nature you rarely see bare soil at all. In our gardens, we use endless mulch. By continuing to add mulch in our gardens, we’re effectively preventing the plants from establishing a real community there.
Once you establish this ground-plane layer, you can really have the flexibility to have the next layer—which is really the design layer. The ground layer holds it together.
Q. In the springtime when we’re taking a critical eye to our gardens, what are the things we should on the lookout for?
A. We tend to have too much lawn—we can often change it from wall-to-wall carpeting to more like area rugs.
In the places we take out, sometimes adding a low, herbaceous layer between our foundation plantings and the remaining lawn–a little layer–softens a garden so much and helps transition things.
You don’t even have to rip out your foundation plantings, but just planting a transition layer maybe 3 or 4 feet in front of them can really help.
I also think we don’t use enough plants: Plant more–plant small, and in abundance. Get a tray of 50 of something. More lushness, less mulch.
more from thomas rainer
- Visit his website, Grounded Design
- A great essay on the month of April, by Thomas Rainer
- Thomas Rainer’s home garden, on his website
- A profile of Rainer and his home garden, in “The New York Times”
prefer the podcast
THOMAS RAINER and I talked about all this and more on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 14, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
(Portrait of Thomas Rainer by Darren Higgins; other photos by Thomas Rainer, used with permission.)