‘what makes plants happy:’ my new york times q&a with thomas rainer

WHAT MAKES me happy is talking to landscape architect Thomas Rainer about what makes plants happy. I did just that in a Q&A in “The New York Times,” a story headlined “Understanding What Makes Plants Happy” that’s online now and will appear in print in Thursday’s Design Special Section.

You may recall my previous conversations with Thomas, the co-author with Claudia West of the provocative 2015 book “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.” Even though we both have worked around plants for many years, it’s as if Thomas sees them differently from the way I do, in a sort of super-savvy botanical 3-D. He doesn’t see them as mere decorative objects, but astutely reads their body language for clues to who they want to grow with (or not) and how to put them all together successfully.

I love how he sees, and thinks, as you can glean from our lively Q&A, where he says things like this:

‘First, we have to understand that plants are social creatures. Our garden plants evolved as members of diverse social networks.’

And this:

‘The big shift in horticulture in the next decade will be a shift from thinking about plants as individual objects to communities of interrelated species.’

Though not intentionally so, the Times article turns out to be especially timely—and not just because it’s early spring, and we gardeners need to make smarter choices of plants to add and what to combine them with in our beds and borders. Claudia and Thomas and fellow landscape architect Melissa Rainer (who is also married to Thomas) have just announced they are leaving their current positions and forming a new collaboration. I expect many big things from this exciting new trio–and many more happy plants.

my happy conversations with thomas rainer

  1. Tim says:

    I’m in the middle of reading “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” and that was a great interview, because it clarified some of the concepts in the book for me. I’m really interested in trying to apply the ideas of the 1-5 scale for sociability, but the book by Hansen and Stahl that’s linked is out of print and used copies are hundreds of dollars. I tried googling around to find more about what plants fall where on the scale, but haven’t found much. Any further reading or resources to suggest?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know, Tim, and want a copy, too! I think we should all ask Timber Press if they are re-releasing it perhaps.

      1. Nell says:

        I wish they would, but Timber Press and the perennial gardening market have changed quite a bit since the early 90s. They’d almost certainly need to re-acquire the rights, which could be harder and/or much more expensive now.

        The Hansen & Stahl book was hugely useful 20-plus years ago for plant selection on my windswept, clay-soil site. [The evidence is the high survival rate for those plants, especially given a period of years of neglect a while ago.] Sadly, I gave away Perennials and Their Garden Habitats — but it may have been to a local professional gardener who’ll lend it back to me if I’m remembering right. Fingers crossed!

  2. Nell says:

    Garden phlox here have failed to read Hansen & Stahl’s excellent book, and self-seed in every available crevice in a shady border. The phlox in full sun behave as Rainer says, though, so I guess this is my cue to begin to sharply reduce the number of clumps in the shady area.

    Butterflies are too fond of them for me to go overboard with that idea, but it will certainly be easier to edit them knowing that they shouldn’t be close neighbors. Particularly the screaming-magenta and cold lavender-pink ones…

  3. JE Scalf says:

    Excellent interview and piece in the NY Times. Congratulations and Thank You!

    For the past several years, I’ve been engrossed with the ideas and work of William Robinson, Sylvia Crowe, Piet Oudolf and others who’ve explored and championed the naturalistic, perennial plant aesthetic and it’s importance to integrated landscape design and perhaps a more sustainable future. I now include Thomas Rainer in their company.

    As a professional gardener and designer who specializes in Eastern U.S. native perennials, I wholeheartedly agree with what Mr. Rainer is saying and practicing and I feel like there are more and more of us joining the party every day.

    Ultimately though and unfortunately, many of my installations end up mulch heavy because of misconceptions of proper design and bottom line. I would love to load every site with Carexes, etc… but the price per square foot would double or triple.

    Hopefully, as this movement gains steam, more of our clients will read Thomas’ work and be inspired too.

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