MAYBE SEVEN or eight years ago, in a conversation with Landscape Designer Claudia West, she said a sentence that has really stuck with me as she explained her approach to selecting and combining plants.
“Plants are the mulch,” Claudia said then about making immersive landscapes that engage humans as much as they do pollinators and other beneficial wildlife. Though it’s tempting to choose the plants we buy for our gardens based on their looks alone, Claudia and her colleague, Thomas Rainer, of Phyto Studio, who are co-authors of the groundbreaking 2015 book “Planting in a Post-Wild World” (affiliate link), have tougher criteria for which plants earn a spot in their designs.
Claudia is here today to talk about how the Phyto Studio team figures out what makes the cut, and more.
Plus: Comment in the box near the bottom of the page for a chance to win a copy of “Planting in a Post-Wild World.”
Read along as you listen to the Aug. 21, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
immersive landscapes with claudia west
Margaret Roach: We’ve been having fun talking lately because we just did a “New York Times” garden column together which got a very passionate response, which was wonderful. I was so happy to see that.
Claudia West: We were honored. Thank you.
Margaret: Oh, well, I always learn so much in our conversations; in my conversations with you and with Thomas. As I said, you brought up so many new things. Even though I know your work, I always hear new things. And so you talked about immersive landscapes, as I said in the introduction, and then versus under-vegetated plantings. So paint the picture of what you do and don’t want, immersive versus under-vegetated.
Claudia: That sounds great. I think maybe I’ll start by saying that it’s not new at all. I think every gardener for many, many generations has always intuitively known that more plants is always better. That weeds are really not a problem, they are a symptom of a much bigger problem. They usually point to the areas in a garden or a commercial landscape where we simply don’t have enough plants. Because many weeds, not all of them, but many love open soil, and mulch is considered open soil. So this is where they normally pop up because we’re leaving spaces for them. And open spaces, when you look at the natural world, they’re very rare. They’re usually limited to extreme environments or to areas that have recently been disturbed.
But as every gardener knows, plants quickly come back in and fill the gaps. And it’s really that simple, unbelievably powerful and an unchangeable principle of nature that gardeners as well as planting designers and plant managers have to accept. None of us is big enough to change that [laughter]. So the sooner we accept that and see our gardens and designs through that lens, the easier it’ll be or the sooner we will be able to break this vicious cycle of weeding, opening up more gaps, having to weed again, and doing this until it exhausts us.
And I’m a lazy gardener, and I know many of our clients are as well, so many of our projects and our work really aims to break this cycle and fill these gaps in designed or cultural plants communities with adaptable species, to just make the garden more beautiful, to make it less work, to add more biodiversity and more biomass there. So all of these good reasons, so it’s-
Margaret: And not fill it with lifeless mulch, as you…[laughter].
Claudia: Exactly, yes. Well, there are different types of mulch. And in Europe, for example, gravel mulches are very popular right now so there’s certainly a benefit to that. When you get into much more arid regions, it’s almost impossible to create the kind of lush groundcover that we have here on the East Coast and Central United States. So it’s very much a regional approach as well.
Claudia: But whenever you can, it can never hurt to plant more.
Margaret: I think it was Thomas who brought this up when we talked for the Times story, and he was saying we could flip our mindset, think almost the inverse of the way we usually do as we imagine the design of our landscapes. And he was saying visualize it as if it were 100 percent covered with plants, and then your job was carving out some mown spots to make a bed or some mown paths, in other words, but some moan paths through versus how we think now. Which is that it’s already all lawn and all paving, and we’re going to put these objects in at one little island bed over here and one little foundation bed over there, or a patio over there, all these objects as opposed to this big life-filled wall-to-wall life stuff of plants. And so it’s really a different way of thinking, I guess.
Claudia: Well, I think many designers, including us use this approach to creating immersive planting. Unfortunately, there’s a very strong industry, not just in the United States, but pretty much international, that benefits from selling mulch and a big show plants that usually are not designed or selected to last very long. So they are part of the reason why, especially here in the United States, planting is often limited to this little kidney-shaped thing that sits in this ocean of lawn, with lawn still being the default. And I kind of understand how homeowners could really struggle with this, because the way more traditional plantings are managed requires an enormous amount of money and resources, and yes, sometimes even herbicide application in the way this industry is often still trying to sell us good horticulture.
So I think when we’re asking our clients or even our own gardens to flip that, it requires a different approach to planting. Because if you approach planting in this traditional way, where you furnish a bed with plants like if they were art objects in space [laughter], you would never be able to manage your acre or however big that lawn area was in a traditional way as a garden. It’s just overwhelming.
So I think with this flipping comes the need to design plant things that require less human input, and that are more self-sustaining, and just don’t require that constant life support that many more traditional approaches of planting can require.
Margaret: I think on your website and when we’ve conversed, you’ve said that you seek to make landscapes that are both ecological and biophilic. Now tell us what biophilic designs are.
Claudia: Biophilia is, right now or has been for many years now, a common term, essentially describing this ancient relationship that people have with natural things including plants. And it simply points to the fact that nature is our home. This is where we all come from. No matter if we’ve lived in cities for the last couple of hundred years or not, this does not go away. And as a result of that evolutionary history in a natural environment, we respond well to things natural, especially to things green. And plants, for example, have an incredibly healing effect on our psyche and our physiology. And this has been proven with so many studies. I don’t think any of us can deny this anymore.
So in our work, we try to carve out as many opportunities as possible, even if it’s in a tiny urban project, to bring as much of these natural elements back into build environments where we live, work, relax, play. And many designers do that. We’re not alone. We’re part of this international army of folks who are trying to do this. And who are trying to do this in a meaningful way where plants are not just, like I said earlier, decorative objects and we would furnish a space, but where plants work together and together create a much more evocative, powerful experience, something that kind of reminds us of something that was and is long gone, fantasy of nature, fantasy of a meadow or deep forest. These things still resonates so deeply within us. And the more urban you get, the more people seem to have this longing towards these meaningful, deeply emotional interactions with planting.
And that’s exactly, I think, where opportunities lie, and especially in urban place-making, to create plantings that go under your skin and remind you of something much, much bigger.
Margaret: So immersive on many levels, immersive-
Claudia: That’s right.
Margaret: … on every level, not just visually and not just full of life, but drawing us in that profound, that intimate, core kind of way.
Claudia: That’s right. Exactly.
Margaret: So you’ve done private gardens and you’re doing something at the U.S. National Arboretum and you’re doing something at Penn State’s arboretum, a pollinator garden there [below], and large and smaller projects and so forth. But to figure out your planting plans, what plants you’re going to use, it’s not just based on looks alone: “Oh, this is going to look great with this and then this is going to be pretty with that.” And so there’s a lot more and more over these recent years, more science and more research information, more data kind of goes into choices as well, doesn’t it?
Claudia: It does. And we’re lucky that we garden and design, planting and manage landscape now because we are building on many, many decades and many careers of all the people who came before us and have not only made it possible to purchase so many different plants that we can use in our gardens and projects. But they’ve also created scientific thinking models that can predict a little bit, not 100 percent, that never happens, but can help us predict how planting may react to make it just a tiny bit more stable and be able to allocate resources smartly towards the making and management of planting.
So it’s definitely part of my German upbringing and [having studied horticulture at the university in Weihenstephan, Germany] that the art of planting has always had a very scientific foundation under it for me. In all the challenges and design exercises, it’s not just about color and texture, it’s very much about putting the right kind of plant behaviors together, looking at longevity, how old plants get, some of them get as old as trees. Others, no matter how much you pamper them, will never get beyond Year 5. That is key. Understanding how social they are, how they interact with one another. And this may sound like we know all that, but I can guarantee and every gardener again knows this, it’s the most humbling profession in the world, and will always tell you how right or wrong we were.
It’s not something that the science alone can explain. A lot of it is going back to projects and staring at them to understand what they’re telling us, to learn lessons that you can’t read in a book, but you have to observe and open your mind to how plants work and their logic and their timescale, which is very different from human timescale and try to figure out things that could help us do better the next time. So this attitude and constant thirst for getting “into their heads” and understanding more about that. I think that’s what drives us, and it keeps us moving, and looking for people all over the world who are working on the same challenges, to build bridges, to cross-pollinate and learn from each other, so that hopefully as a community of innovative planting designers, we can create the kind of planting systems that our world so desperately needs, and there’s still so much to learn.
Margaret: Well, and I was fascinated that you and Thomas both talked with me recently about how I think one of you said, maybe you said it, “We design from a maintenance perspective up.” And you were kind of alluding to that a minute ago, but if it’s not going to succeed, if the plants aren’t going to work together, you have to do all that homework and then you have to, as you say, sometimes do sort of a postmortem and figure out what did and didn’t work. But you’re looking to choose things that can survive not just whether it’s sun or shade or something or what zone it’s in, but a lot more complexities than that. A lot more challenges. And I loved… You were talking about if you know a site has deer, you have to face that reality before you choose a single plant, right?
Claudia: Well, absolutely. I think that’s so important. We can build all kinds of botanical sand castles [laughter], and the second they get installed, they just disappear and decline, and that cannot be, we can no longer afford that kind of luxury thinking. I think what we are really passionate about, and that’s all four of us here at Phyto—Thomas, Melissa and Emily as well—are very practical, and believe that this solution that we are developing are especially needed in the most difficult kind of site conditions.
We’re working on a project, for example, in Manhattan right now that will receive very little maintenance resources from the parks department. But this is where planting and innovative solutions that stand the test of time are needed the most. So the main filter for all of us is what kind of resources and skill levels does a client have, and this becomes the filter for every single design move we make later.
We are all, four of us, seasoned gardeners and after office hours, we’re out there learning in our own gardens. So we have lots of experience that we bring to this work that helps filter out what will really hold up and what may only be suitable if we do, for example, a public garden project, where we have the luxury of having a highly trained team who can stay on top of that. But I can honestly say the majority of our plant projects do not have that luxury. The majority of them just need something that sticks, despite the challenges that we throw at them.
Margaret: And I loved, and I know readers and listeners also love, just hearing that—and then looking at the pictures that you shared with me, and we’ll put some of those to illustrate this transcript of this show. But to see this beautiful portion of a landscape in an image, and yet to know that you’ve made plant choices again that could, again for instance, resist deer pressure. I think you were talking about the mountain mints and what is it, golden Alexanders?
Margaret: Just some of these… One of the Monarda is the Eastern beebalm, Monarda bradburiana. That we needn’t give up— there are incredible plants, including natives and some very high performing non-natives, ecologically high performing non-natives, and you use both—that can stand up to these pressures. And it’s our job to find them as gardeners so that we can succeed, and make these thriving, immersive living landscapes.
Claudia: That’s exactly right. And the higher the deer pressure is, and whatever else it is, for some people it’s rabbits or geese—every day we deal with that—the more creative one has to be figure out how to outsmart the beasts and still be able to have the highest possible level of diversity in the design without having to go out there every month or so, or sometimes every couple of weeks to spray things with deer repel. That just can’t be it.
Margaret: No, that’s not the answer. I totally agree that it’s impossible.
Claudia: And luckily there are so many plants, like I said earlier, that we as gardeners and as designers can get our hands on, that usually even with the layers of stresses or challenges layered on top of one another, we can find a pretty good palette of species that can still create a really lush, diverse and ecologically intense design.
Margaret: I see the word a lot of times in designs that like yours—or that to me visually look similar—I see the word “matrix” a lot of times, and I am not even really sure I understand it. And it seems to me that in your designs I see these moments of color and flowering and so forth. And then beneath those, but then showing more fully at other times when there’s not one of those little performances going on, one of those high point color performances… Well, “plants are the mulch,” there’s all this great stuff living together, this community. And it’s green a lot of the time, but it’s thick and it’s rich and it’s full of life. What’s the matrix? Because it seems like sometimes there are grasses, sometimes there are ferns in with the flowering perennials, and… What’s a matrix [laughter]?
Claudia: So it’s a term that is being used a lot these days, and a lot of designers are creating different variations of matrix plantings. But essentially it means that you are not arranging plants in these big single-species blocks, but you mix and mingle them more with one another.
Claudia: And there are different versions of that. Matrix can still be very horticultural driven or it can be more population driven and stylized metals, for example, it’s not about having so many individual plants in these types of meadows. It’s more about having a certain percentage of plant populations that make a matrix. So there are varying typologies of matrices. And as a firm, and personally, we use all different types of planting-design strategies. We’re even using the traditional block-planting strategy all the way to highly complex matrix plantings and everything in between.
Margaret: I didn’t understand.
Claudia: What’s different is that even in block plantings, we still find opportunities to nestle groundcovers underneath individual plants. And depending on the context of a planting, these groundcovers can be highly visible or not visible at all, if visual clarity is very important for the client.
Instead of sitting in this ocean of mulch, even if we have, let’s just say, a single-species block of something like Amsonia hubrichtii, we still would layer something like a sedge or a golden groundsel [Packera aurea, below] underneath that to be that green mulch under these taller species, and fill every opportunity we have with ecologically functional plants and reduce weed pressure by covering all that ground.
So groundcover doesn’t mean looking at this planting like a bird from above down and seeing everything covered. Groundcover really means more like if you cut a section through it and you are looking at the planting, we look straight at it, you shouldn’t see any bare soil right there at this top area where your plants come out of the soil. That’s where the groundcover really matters.
Margaret: So you said sedges, for instance, the Carex could be one.
Margaret: So let’s talk more about some of the other groundcovers that you find yourself using as that base layer, so to speak. So they’re not the big show-offs at all, right?
Claudia: They can have their moments. Sometimes in the spring they really show off.
Margaret: But they’re doing this-
Claudia: They’re more functional, usually.
Margaret: … really important job.
Claudia: They are. And depending on what they’re combined with, they have to either be super sun-tolerant, for example, if what they’re combined with is not a good groundcover and allows a lot of sunlight to get through to these lower species. Then we really want extremely tough full-sun plants like Antennaria for example, and many of them have a really nice semi-evergreen basal leaf. So they even provide a pretty good erosion control and weed-suppression function in the winter season, unless you’re covered in a lot of snow, of course [laughter], so many sedges and even the Packera, they at least for us here, almost completely green in the winter, which is fantastic for the suppression of weeds.
Margaret: The Antennaria, is that pussytoes?
Claudia: That’s right. Yes, that is the common name.
Margaret: Good. I’m just trying to get a visual or mental image of some examples.
Claudia: And then we have denser planting where there’s actually a lot of shade in the summer under these taller perennials or shrubs or trees, then clearly we need groundcovers that come from more of a forest or woodland-edge ecosystem. And this is where, like you said, the stages are really important, or violets come in.
So if your planting is much denser and there’s not a whole lot of sunlight reaching the ground in the summer, if you are planting under dense perennials or shrubs or trees, then groundcovers that come from more of a forest or woodland edge ecosystem are usually doing a lot better. And here it’s very important to select the right kind of behavior as you know some of them can be really aggressive, so use them with caution. And sometimes the ones that are slightly better behaved can pair better with perennials and other things that would emerge in your garden, probably April, May-ish. So they allow a certain level of diversity.
So here again, behavior and understanding how they spread, when they’re green, all of these things are really important to put all the pieces together in a nice, crisp and well-knitted plant community. (Below, Packera aurea and the emerging dark foliage of Monarda branburiana.)
Margaret: And so in this last minute, and that’s just to double back, that’s where the research comes in, even for someone with your expertise. And for instance, in this collaboration with Penn State and with their arboretum, and they have a whole research institute about this, even you are learning and asking more questions and seeking better choices and so forth. So I think University of Minnesota has a lot of information about this. Any other sources where we can look, and I can give some links for people?
Claudia: Yes. I think every public garden is a fantastic way of learning. Going to Longwood or Chanticleer or Mt. Cuba Center and going there in the winter, or going there at a time of year that is not high summer or May. Every garden looks great in May, but often if you have a weed problem in let’s say August, because many of your early season perennials have gone dormant or melted in the heat, then go to one of these gardens in high summer and see what is at the top of its performance then. And then take that and put that in your problem area to fill that gap at this time of year. That’s how we operate a lot. We go out there into all kinds of environments to solve very specific problems and get inspiration at the problem time of year [laughter]. It’s a fun thing to do.
Margaret: Yes, it is. And it’s so educational and so essential because it’s a little bit of brave new world. We’re learning a lot and we’re using new-to-us plants and so forth. So well Claudia West from Phyto Studio, thank you so much for making time.
(All photos of Phyto’s work by Rob Cardillo Photography.)
more from claudia west and phyto studio
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