‘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.’

Read along as you listen to the July 17, 2107 program using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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 Phyto 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.]

A. Exactly.

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…

Q. [Laughter.]

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.

Q. Wow.

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’

Post-Wild_CoverI’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

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.)

  1. Allison Boucher says:

    We bought a house last year and tore out all the over-grown clipped shrubs. We are planting a variety of bee and butterfly plants. At this point they look stuck in bark dust. I can hardly wait for them to grown together and cover the soil.

  2. Laura says:

    Only green mulch here. Working on getting rid of more lawn still, so good ground covers are on the wish list. Thanks for the story! Would love to see Eastern Germany now – with the lakes and young forest, fresh new life; loved hearing such an optimistic view. Also loved “plants are social creatures”! It was interesting, on visits to Europe, to see wildflowers and herbs featured in home and public gardens. Plants that people in New England considered weeds were being showcased for their flowers or foliage, their natural beauty.

  3. Susan Ward says:

    I’m about 3/4 of the way there. According to what I’ve read here, it’s ground covers under mid-height and tall plants that I need & I’d love to learn more about them.

  4. Pam Phillips says:

    Thinking about my garden based on the view from the window is something I’ve done all along. But it never occurred to me to “Turn up the volume” on seasonal moments. I love it so much, I just got some coreopsis to plant amid some yellow daylilies that are especially beautiful right now.

  5. Kathy says:

    I am just beginning a couple new beds and am totally guilty of the bare mulch syndrome but plan to evolve them to the type of gardens discussed here. With this year’s almost daily rain ( in the upper Midwest) the conditions for growing weeds couldn’t be better, so mulch is supressing them and keeping me sane. However, as time and budget permit I fully hope to have a nature inspired landscape and I love the idea of plants supporting each other as social creatures. Great podcast, again.

  6. Lisa says:

    I have been working for years to use more and more natives in my garde, including using “living mulch”. Sure I could learn much from Claudia’s book.

  7. Peggy says:

    I do have several “living mulch” plants and enjoy the fact that they are there in spring when I begin again to plant and work my soil. These living mulch plants often need to make room for other plants I want to put in, so there is opportunity root more of them and to plant in my gardens or to share. I hit upon this as an accident but a lovely one.

    I’d love to win this book! I need it.

  8. Judy Judd says:

    My garden is very full.. in fact, I think I need to edit some plants. I’ve always liked more natural looking gardens… ones where the colors of flowers and the textures of foliage mesh well. A field full of flowers and pretty weeds (ha) is always beautiful. Please count me in. Thank you.

  9. Jackie SanGregory says:

    The transitioning to living mulch began when I began raising butterflies.The plants they need fill my gardens. Add some beautiful ground covers and no wood chips needed.

  10. Susan McNally says:

    This podcast was so interesting. I am probably about 50 percent there when it comes to green mulching. As I keep expanding beds, or creating new ones, those younger bedding plants have more mulch around them, as they continue to mature, but my established beds are in pretty good shape – and always enjoyable to look at, work in, and dream continually about new additions to them.Susan

  11. Janine says:

    I have terrible bare spot under my rose bushes, especially after they finish blooming and finally decided to plant something underneath them. I transplanted catmint, yarrow, dianthus and a ground cover, my Mum called” worm-grass”.I will see what takes and go from there, as I always do! I love the ground covers because they are so textured and fun to touch and look at. They look great in all seasons. My front garden gradually evolved over the years to need very little mulch because I have used this technique of filling in with plants and ground cover to avoid weeds. It was a process.

  12. Matthew says:

    Could definitely take some cues from this article at our house. We’re in our first growing season at a new home, and there’s certainly a lot of mulch still showing, unfortunately. Little by little!

  13. Lynn Owen says:

    I need to do less and less mulch each year, as plants fill in; thank goodness, less work! I love Claudia’s ideas and her book sounds like it would be very helpful.

  14. Claire pluecker says:

    Wonderful ideas. I have long believed that “plants as mulch” is the solution but need this help book to move me along. Thanks

  15. Cathy Larson says:

    I’ve been working on the concept of “plants as mulch” since seeing Thomas Rainer at a native plant conference a year (or two by now?) ago. I’ve been a huge fan of Doug Tallamy and Roy Diblik and how they are working to boost the ecological value of our plantings while creating lower maintenance and overall beautiful spaces. I’m looking forward to reading this book for more design insight on how to achieve these goals while avoiding the “messy” look!

  16. Sally Rowe says:

    Maybe a little bit too much ground cover ecstasy going on in my garden? Some intentional, like Vinca, and others just purchased as specimen plants that revealed themselves to be creepers and crawlers. Have got Sweet Woodruff bumping into Vinca colliding with Snow-in-Summer merging with poppy mallow wrapping around daylily intertwining with Turtlehead closing in on hardy biokovo geranium. Plus: wild ginger, Epimedium, Evening Primrose, etc. My question is, is there anything that isn’t a ground cover? Yikes! One possible drawback: snails love these ground cover habitats. P.S. I do also have mulch in places……

  17. Molly says:

    Love the concept of “plants as mulch!” I thought I planted too densely in year 1 , but now I don’t have to mulch that bed this year because it’s mostly covered. I definitely need some lessons in how to layer things seasonally to avoid having to weed before the mid-summer perennials fill in. Is more bulbs the answer? Or more groundcovers?

  18. Missy Fabel says:

    I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Claudia speak a couple of times and one thing she has said that always resonated with me was “If you do nothing, something will grow.” Then, why not a native groundcover? That’s my take…if there’s something already there, like violets, I leave them, plant around them and edit as other groundcovers and plants take hold. I confess I used to love mulching…the smell, the warm feel of the mulch pile on a cold spring morning, the way the dark mulch highlighted emerging plants, but now I prefer to edit instead, plant and encourage native ground covers that layer and complement the plant’s natural morphology. This kind of thinking saves time, money and lets me spend more time enjoying the plants in my garden rather than the mulch surrounding them. Go Claudia!

  19. Tim says:

    Great show! I’m totally on board with the idea of using plants as a living mulch…which can save time and money as compared to putting down wood mulch or compost.
    Presently, I’m filling in the existing garden beds around the house and property I bought a couple of years ago. One of the many things slowing the process is plant selection. I also have to get up the courage to remove less desirable and overgrown plants. :-)

  20. Justine Beaudoin says:

    What a wonderful idea. I have a raised bed garden with mulch between the beds. I hate the mulch. I have been adding lemon creeping time between them and it is doing well. I’ve also let moneywart cover the ground under my blueberries. It’s lovely. I’m inspired to figure out some other ground covers I can walk on.

  21. Terry says:

    We have a mix of green mulch, wood mulch, sheet mulch and bare as I am installing a totally new garden/farm here at the North Coast Pollinator Refuge and no one way does it all. The more established areas have groundcover of some sort, mostly perennial, but some just have a cover crop of lush billowy legumes that will shortly be cut and left to become straw-like over the winter before other things are planted there. Have done extensive sheet-mulching with cardboard, manure and straw to change lawn over into perennial bearing understory in the orchard. The mycorrhizal-based orchard trees have never looked so good with the elimination of the bacterial-based grasses and the addition of large amounts of carbon. Then the outer perimeters along the entry have had deep layers of local sourced wood chips placed for weed suppression and soil building for a bit of tidying while the lavender and other herbs get established. Unfortunately, the moles and raccoons love all the worms attracted to the mulches, but that’s a small price to pay for letting the worms do the brunt of the soil building while I sit back and take the credit! The only weeds that don’t seem to be shut out by the mulches are bindweed and sorrel, so they have to be managed by hand when they appear for awhile, several years, but it eventually does become more manageable, and after 2-4yrs I beat the bindweed. Still working on sorrel, but just a few in as many acres.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.