‘plants are the mulch’ and other nature-based design wisdoms, with claudia west
WHICH OF US doesn’t want to look out at a more resilient, manageable, and sustainable landscape–one that really works environmentally but also aesthetically, that’s not messy or chaotic?
Since the book “Planting in a Post-Wild World” came out in 2015, co-authored by Claudia West with Thomas Rainer, I’ve been gradually studying their ideas and starting to have some light bulbs go off, on how to be inspired to put plants together in the ways that nature does, in layered communities.
Claudia joined me on the July 17, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast to about some of the practical, tactical aspects of plant community-inspired designs that we can apply to our own gardens. About how to look at your landscape and read its structure and define its archetype—what kind of place it wants to be, and how to identify and then turn up the volume on the key seasonal “moments” you may already have. And most of all: we talked about covering more soil with plants—not wood mulch! (Above, Physostegia and late yellow foliage of Amsonia.)
‘I truly believe that wildness and nature is a renewable resource,’ Claudia West says, ‘and that every single plant we put in the ground can make a difference.’
Enter to win a copy of the book by commenting on this story, using the comment box at the very bottom of the page.)
my q&a with claudia west
Q. I’m so looking forward to your visit during my garden Open Day. I only wish I could not greet my visitors at the garden and come to your workshop myself [laughter].
A. I think we will have a lot of fun.
Q. I should start by saying congratulations on the new venture that you and Thomas Rainer and Melissa Rainer have recently begun called Phyto Studio. The banner on the PhytoStudio.com homepage speaks of “crafting artistic and technical solutions for the next revolution in planting design.” So that’s your mission, yes? [Above, Claudia, left, with Phtyo Studio’s Thomas and Melissa.]
A. Absolutely, and we are so excited to delve much deeper into the world of functional planting design as a team. We are extremely passionate about developing functional and ecological planting further to rebuild the foundation of life on the planet. [Laughter.]
Q. Just a small goal, yes, Claudia? [Laughter.]
A. Just a small goal, yes. It’s inspiring.
Q. To step back just a bit first: Give us a brief bio of how you got from your own beginnings on Earth, as you just mentioned, to sort of doing this. And especially your grasp of native plants in the U.S. I don’t think that’s the landscape you began with, was it?
A. That is so true. As you can hear from my accent, I am from Eastern Germany, and the landscapes of my childhood were a very dark and polluted place. My hometown was surrounded by soft coal mines that put incredible amounts of pollution into the air. Some of the mining fields they left behind looked like nature would never have a chance to return.
When I go back to exactly these same craters in our landscape now, they’re filled with crystal-clear water, and young forests are thriving right next to these lakes. So based on that experience, I have a deeply optimistic view of what we as gardeners and landscape professionals can achieve in really a very short lifetime.
I truly believe that wildness and nature is a renewable resource, and that every single plant we put in the ground can make a difference.
I can honestly say that like many other Europeans, I’ve always been in love with American native plants. We use them quite frequently in European landscapes, and that curiosity and the desire to learn more about these plants bought me my first ticket to the United States. And I was so shocked when I finally got here at age 18 to learn more about these incredible, beautiful plants that very few of them were actually used in the mainstream American landscape.
Q. Yes. I had friends who were German, and lived in Frankfurt at the time I visited them. And while they were at work during the days I would go around to various gardens—and I won’t remember because it was a long time ago, but they were public gardens. There were plantings that were in a naturalistic style, and they did include some American plants. It was just very interesting for me, because I was like, “Whoa, we don’t use those.” And again: this was decades ago. [Above, Chrysogonom and Solidago.]
A. It’s remarkable. You will find American phlox, and black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers in every German yard, to the point you think that they are European plants.
Q. [Laughter.] Something that you have said to me, and your colleague Thomas Rainer has said to me in similar words, that really sticks in my head is that “plants are the mulch.” Let’s start there, at that layer—because again, the concept in “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” and in the lecture and workshop you’re going to here, talks about planting in this community-inspired method. If that first layer is “plants are the mulch”…
A. I think every gardener intuitively knows that, because we gardeners and landscape professionals are inspired by natural plant communities that we may see out on a hike in a natural area, or on vacation. Very rarely do we see bare soil anywhere in natural, wild ecosystems.
I think one of the core principles of the natural world is that plants cover soil. (If you are in a really arid climate, you would have a lot of desert-scape bare-soil landscape.)
I think that the same principle is extremely powerful in a garden setting, and it produces much, much more sustainable landscapes if we meet nature halfway and work around this concept that plants cover soil; that nature abhors a vacuum.
I think that instead of mulching with wood [laughter], working with plants like they are designed in evolutionary terms to grow on this planet is beneficial in many, many different ways. It doesn’t only look more inspiring and beautiful to create lush, dense planting that mimics how plants arrange themselves in the wild, it also provides a habitat for some of the beautiful wildlife we so enjoy in our gardens.
And it soaks up the rain. We talk about rain gardens or sponge gardens a lot, and the more biomass we can put into our gardens, the more rain gets absorbed—put back into the ground to recharge the aquifer.
So I think on many different layers, working with this natural principle is beneficial and just so fulfilling and so meaningful for gardeners and designers.
Q. So nature doesn’t go to the garden center and buy bagged mulch? Is that what you are saying? [Laughter.]
A. [Laughter.] That’s exactly what I am saying. I don’t know where this almost perverse tradition came from, but I am hoping that collectively the green industry and gardeners can move away from that again, and put what really belongs on the ground back into our landscapes, and that is thriving plants.
Q. So that we are not displaying mulch as our design element? [Laughter.]
Q. Even if we are using it in the beginning when we first plant something, as weed suppression and as mitigation for the pounding of rain and the baking of sun, we’re not planning on it being a permanent feature—to show off the mulched spaces.
A. I think that temporary mulches can be incredibly helpful. They can help you suppress weeds and kick-start the soil, especially after disturbance. But I think the problem starts as soon as mulch starts replacing plants, and that is problematic.
Q. It’s OK when the plants touch, isn’t it? [Laughter.] When they all connect, isn’t it?
A. Plants are social creatures.
Q. I know, “Plants are social creatures.” I love that. When Thomas Rainer, your colleague, and I did that “New York Times” article not long ago [above], it was one of the things we talked about and it was kind of funny, and adorable, and it sticks in people’s heads; it’s a great way to think about it.
You’re a landscape designer, and expert in many kinds of plants, and you get called upon to go to a prospective client’s site, and walk around with them. When you first go to a place that you might be hired to work at, with your expert eyes and your knowledge, what are you looking for as clues to what to do there, what to plant there? Where do you get your cues, and your clues—your inspiration?
A. This is something that can be extremely difficult if you walk through your own property…
A. …and try to see what inspires you, or try to read it more carefully. Sometimes emotions get in the way, and stories or connections we have with many of the individual plants that we love so much in our gardens.
So sometimes it’s a luxury as a designer to come on a site where you see it with very fresh eyes and you are able almost from a distance to judge the plantings, the existing conditions. It’s a privilege sometimes to be able to do that. Because of that looser emotional connection with new sites, it’s possibly easier to see the potential and sometimes the constraints of sites when it comes to elevating them emotionally and creating deeper spaces for our clients.
Very often when we talk to homeowners and other clients at the beginning, sometimes they can feel incredibly overwhelmed to look at the mass of plantings and see the bones if it. But it’s really not that difficult a task. You can almost take it in stages.
We often start by analyzing the structural items first. So sometimes you have existing trees, you have shrubs, you have infrastructure, you have fences, you have buildings—you have all these hard frames that create one layer of a planting.
They often indicate what kind of landscape archetype your site will be, wants to be, could be in the future. These archetypes can help create evocative planting, emotional planting and make the whole creation much more legible.
If a site, for example, has a beautiful array of mature trees, maybe it could be a woodland or forest archetype. However if your site is open, then maybe it could be something that reminds us of meadow conditions and could be incredibly beautiful.
This structural analysis is a very good start. Once we get past that, we often look at seasonal events on-site—meaning are there any plants, either trees or perennials, existing already that when they are in flower, they create a moment in your garden that knocks your socks off…
Q. [Laughter.] [A butterfly weed seasonal moment, above, by Harold Davis.]
A. … that is just incredibly beautiful, and emotionally very strong and resonant? If we have beginnings of these seasonal themes, or seasonal events, then in our designs we often try, as Thomas likes to say, to “turn up the volume” and make them even stronger, so it looks dazzling at a certain time, almost like an art installation.
Q. That’s so important to say, because when people ask me—and I don’t have your expertise, but I have been gardening a long time—and when people come to visit they’ll say, “How do I do this?” And I say, “I don’t know.” [Laughter.]
But I say one thing: “Go inside your house and look out the window, and see what you want to look out at 365 days a year, first of all, because most of us gardeners don’t view the place from outside but more from inside-out.
And second I always say, do you have any of those sort of ephemeral “moments” like you just described? And if so, and you love them, repeat them and bulk them up like you are saying—bolster them, make them a signature, yes?
A. It’s such a great tool, and if anything, it’s a wonderful excuse to go plant shopping. [Laughter.]
Q. Or divide, which is the harder work.
A. Or barter with your friends.
Q. Dig them up and divide them.
So we have that layer—the moments—and we have the architectural, structural layer.
A. And then the last thing we really look at is how well does your garden, your landscape, really cover soil? And here again, we don’t mean the wood mulch, unless it’s temporary. But we look at groundcovers, and not only groundcovers in shade under deciduous trees, but also groundcovers in full-sun conditions, because the more we have there in terms of plants covering soil very densely, the less weed pressure we usually experience, because we are already covering soil with the desirable plants. [Above, Packera aurea and Eutrochium, or Joe-Pye weed, as green mulch in May; below, the same spot in December, with the plants still hard at work, if different-looking.]
So that is the last and more detailed piece that we analyze to see how else we could add more green into that landscape to reduce maintenance and increase biodiversity and the functional quality of the planting.
Often gardens have an extreme lack of groundcovers; that is something that is quite common, and not only in American but also in European gardens. Many plantings are just chronically under-vegetated, and that leads to the maintenance elephant, and we spend so much time battling weeds because we provide the ideal conditions for them: bare soil.
Q. So we might have said, “Oh, I love this particular lily,” and have a bed with them, but there’s nothing else beneath, or just mulch. We might have those taller showoff plants, but they’re just there—and they don’t have the underpinnings either structurally or again to provide that living mulch.
A. That’s so true; that green mulch layer is so often the one that is missing. Many times clients express concerns that if for example we added a groundcover to a bed of beautiful lilies, wouldn’t these groundcovers actually compete with the taller plants—even trees and shrubs?
That concern we actually hear quite often. But when you actually zoom into the above- and below-ground morphological structure of plants, you will notice that they have different morphological expressions. Some plants have very delicate, fibrous root systems that grow in mainly the first 2 or 5 feet of soil. Other plants, if the soil is deep enough, can go down to 15 or 20 feet.
A. Because of this incredible diversity of morphologies, plants are able to share limited resources within different genera or species by occupying different horizons above and below ground, so they don’t actually compete with one another.
Not that all plants are good companions to one another; some are real bullies [laughter] that don’t pair well with lilies, but in general it’s possible to find just the right companion that will share resources and not be a threat to your most beautiful, beloved plants.
Q. So we’ve analyzed these three dimensions, so to speak. But then when you go to suggest a design to this client, are all of the gardens modern, or cottagey? Can they fit into any style, this theory of layered design that’s inspired by plant communities, where plants are the mulch and so on—can this be in any style: I want it romantic, I want it old-fashioned, I want it modern and sleek? Can it be anything?
A. This is a really good question. The wonderful thing is that working with layers and designed plant communities in general is not a style at all. It is a method; sometimes we even call it a technology that is deeply rooted in science and can really be applied to all kinds of design expressions, from very formal to very naturalistic and anything in between, to make sure it matches the right level of wild versus neat, depending on your preference or depending on what’s required according to the visibility of a planting area.
So layered planting systems don’t necessarily mean high biodiversity and complexity. They can sometimes be as simple as maybe three or four species, one on top of the other, and maybe some bulbs in between. They can also mean 35 to 40 different species in more complex plantings.
Q. So it’s not a style, it’s a technology. [Laughter.] Most people listening today probably already have gardens. We just talked about walking through a prospective client’s garden, and when I walk through my own garden—I’ve got lots of stuff. What am I looking for? Can I retrofit some of this system, this technology, into an existing garden?
A. Absolutely. I think every existing garden can be massaged into the planting that you envision, that resonates personally and creates a wonderful outdoor space that enriches our lives. It helps breaking up the different tasks into individual, achievable steps there.
Sometimes the best time to analyze your own garden is to wait until winter, when you can see trees and shrubs more clearly, and some of the ground vegetation has died back just a little bit to give you a little more clarity over the framework of the design.
That sometimes allows you to edit a little bit—to either insert more trees if you would prefer a more shaded, sheltered landscape. Or if you prefer a little bit more open space and room to see, and maybe putting up a wonderful birdfeeder and enjoy them in an open clearing on your property, then that is a good time to edit away some of the obstructions there.
So that is something that could be done in the time of year when we tend to do a little less gardening—some editing. And then other times of year, I think a wonderful exercise is to analyze your events, your seasonal themes in the garden, to see what you have blooming at certain times of year and how you could enhance these events strategically by placing either more of the same plants in there, or more of a similar color to strengthen these themes even more.
So by breaking this big task up into smaller goals and actions, it often becomes a lot more clear and achievable to edit an existing garden. But by no means do you have to start over, or start from scratch.
Q. [Laughter.] Thank goodness, Claudia, because I’d be up the creek if I had to start over.
A. Sometimes it’s as simple as maybe adding a little groundcover under your other perennials, your shrubs and your trees. Maybe that’s all your garden needs.
Q. You have worked for the noted wholesale plant producer North Creek Nurseries– with their amazing plants–so you are a real plant geek, I know. Are there Claudia West “signature plants” that always appear in your designs? Any favorites?
A. This is the most difficult question to ask a plant nerd.
Q. I am obsessed with Aralia, for instance, I will confess.
A. I absolutely adore sedges. It’s a genus that I am currently doing a lot of research and experimentation on. It has thousands of different species, and very few of them have been discovered for ornamental and functional horticulture, so I am currently experimenting with adding them to both my rain gardens, to rooftop gardens, container gardens, meadows and meadow gardens, and all kinds of woodland landscapes.
I find that incredibly exciting at the moment, but after this I’m sure there will be other plants that capture my attention.
Q. So you’re a Carex-lover.
A. Absolutely; they’re adorable and so functional.
Q. That’s interesting. I was just walking along the perimeter of my property, the woodland edge, and I noticed that nature has grown a lot of Carex there. I was thinking I wish I knew what species they were—they were so beautiful, and linear in a way but curvaceous at the same time. They had movement to them, and the way they picked up the light. I thought, “I should get to know these better,” so funny you should say sedges. [Laughter.]
enter to win ‘planting in a post-wild world’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West for a lucky reader. All you have to do to enter: Comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment, answering this question:
How’s it going at your place on the “plant are the mulch” score? Is there a lot of bare mulch showing, or are your beds mostly living “green” mulch, a.k.a. plants?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but an answer is better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. Good luck to all.
more from claudia west
- Video interview with Claudia on functional planting above, by Corine Holtmaan
- Join Claudia during my August 19, 2017 Open Day in Copake Falls, NY, for a special lecture and workshop. Details on the events.
- Claudia’s Phyto Studio website
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 17, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos by Claudia West except as noted. Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)