inspired by nature’s layers, but not hung up on natives-only

IMG_5694 thomas rainerLANDSCAPE 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. Read along as you listen to the April 14, 2014 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


my q&a with thomas rainer



Thomas RainerQ. You say you are “a landscape architect by profession and a gardener by obsession,” Thomas. Explain.

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.]

IMG_5944Q. 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.

Thomas Rainer training.jprOn 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.

andropogon-virginicus-var-glaucusQ. How can plant communities inform our gardens, as I have heard you say?

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

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 April 14, 2014 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Portrait of Thomas Rainer by Darren Higgins; other photos by Thomas Rainer, used with permission.)

  1. It’s very important that we mimic “wild” plant communities in our home gardens, and I agree, that’s something I hope we’ll see more of in the future — along with less mulch. Thomas brings up an important point: that for him and in his position he has to find plants that are low maintenance and tough, and that won’t have clients emailing months or years later. Of course, a hosta will appear perfect because not much if anything here can eat it — it’s not a host plant for any larvae since it’s not part of the native ecological community. That plastic or permanent perfection, like what we expect from a painting or sculpture, is how too many folks value the success of a garden and it being low maintenance or not. Any sign of leaf damage means pesticide sprays must be bought and the garden then becomes higher maintenance.

    Thomas knows I have an ideology, but I benefit from coming from outside the landscape design field, more from the humanities, which may afford me more philosophical leeway. I am a native plant purist and I believe our garden conversation in America lacks a deeper philosophical discussion more endemic in other countries, even other garden traditions over the centuries. I see native plants as a way to connect us to larger communities full of other species we depend on, communities like prairie here in Nebraska, and communities that we are eradicating (monarch butterflies need northern Plains prairie if they are ever to make a comeback, but every farm bill promotes more plowing). There is something ethically wrong when we proclaim we know better than evolution and replace what’s here with what we think should be here instead. Maybe that’s human nature. Amidst the 6th great mass extinction and the climate change that’s causing it, it sure seems like an understanding of native plant communities might wake us up to how we can and should be better stewards of the world that sustains us.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Benjamin. Here at my place just slugs and snails (and rabbits and woodchucks) eat hostas. :) As you know I don’t spray to stop it. Thanks for sharing your point of view. I don’t pretend to know what’s right, wrong, or in between, but just go about it asking a lot of questions and listening to all the answers, including yours!

    2. graham says:

      bravo, Benjamin. I wholeheartedly agree. It is imperative that we forgo passe horticultural vanity in favor of conserving the diversity of the local ecotypes that remain. I am a big fan of Mr. Rainer and Grounded Design, but the content/tone of this interview is suspect and the title, especially in light of his upcoming book effort with Claudia West, frankly, irresponsible.

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Graham. You can listen to the whole interview on the podcast to confirm that I did not edit to steer it in any direction or leave out any key points to suit some desired end I had in mind, if that is what you are implying by the use of the words “suspect” and “irresponsible.”

        Like he says more than once in the conversation (and on his website, and when he lectures): He considers himself an advocate of the native plant movement, but is also pragmatic (his word) about the need for plants that function/perform (some of which are natives in his designs, and some of which are not). His own garden, which we talked a lot about in the interview, also reflects his two interests: natives/naturalistic, on the one hand (and one side of his property) and the other for horticulture/garden design in the border where he credits inspiration from Great Dixter, for instance.

    3. Linda says:

      I’d love to see/hear you interview Doug Tallamy, Margaret. That would likely be enlightening to many of your readers. My garden is filled with natives though I do have many non-natives too. I am definitely moving in the direction of more natives and hopefully one day, exclusively natives. If I could afford to, I’d get ‘er done in one season. As it is my garden is evolving in the direction that makes sense to me ethically and practically. “Bringing Nature Home” is an excellent read, and for those interested in exploring and understanding the topic of natives in our gardens, this video may prove enlightening. I’m not a fanatic on any subject (other than gardening in general ;) ) but Tallamy is hard to argue with. It’s an important subject for all lovers of nature to approach with an open mind, and to understand in greater depth.

  2. pam kueber says:

    Here here for the “ho-hum rambler”! No need to apologize — long live the beloved American mid-century modest house! Thanks, Margaret, for spreading the love!

  3. Michelle says:

    Thank you Margaret, Thomas, and Pam!
    I have long had a bit of an inferiority complex over our “mid-century modest” home. This has been inspiring for me. I love Thomas’ attitude about the freedom it brings to garden on a suburban-urban lot. Also went to visit Pam’s site and enjoyed the refreshing attitude towards post-war homes. I will see my home and little 1/2 acre lot with new eyes now.

    1. margaret says:

      This really made me smile, Michelle. Glad you can look at your home with a new eye (and with some of Thomas’s ideas in mind, too). See you soon again!

  4. Hello!

    I really enjoyed reading your blog.

    Right now, I’m in the midst of redoing my landscaping, trying to create a beautiful space that is low maintenance.

    I totally agree that one never uses enough plants! For my window boxes, I tend to just stuff them, but they end up being so beautiful by the end of the summer that it’s worth a few loses (a few always die on me =)

    My biggest challenge is staggering the blooming time of each plant. I want a garden that is in bloom all summer. All times….I just have that pause…when nothing is blooming. And I want big, bold color in every corner of the garden.

    I bring my exotic plants outside for the added punch of color, and it helps, but need to focus I guess on finding plants that bloom continuously.


    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Laura. A long season of bloom and lower maintenance can be conflicting goals — yet I know that they are ones we all dream of! :) Nice to hear from you.

  5. Michelle says:

    I plant what the birds, bees and butterflies love and they keep coming back to my garden. Native and non-native. I also appreciate the wild and beautiful natives growing in the fields, woods and even the road sides in New Hampshire and understand Mr. Rainer’s perspective totally how nature creates the most beautiful combinations if you really look. Nothing we humans can ever possibly duplicate.

  6. heidih says:

    Well – I felt that soul-mate/like-thinking immediate aha. Thanks you both for the interview. I garden and consult in Southern California which is plagued by a horrid drought that the experts I trust see as our new reality. I battle the “oh I only want natives” that over a short time morphs into “well I tried natives but they just did not work for us”. Yes because they often look “weedy” – but – there are lots of water-wise and drought tolerant plants that mimic our natives with a bit of contrast and lusher perhaps look. Disease resistant, water-wise, pollinator friendly, and disease resistant work together in my book and for my clients. I like the “no passport required” phrase. BTW whoever invented that rubber tire “mulch” deserves a highly painful and slow death – I encountered it a while ago an it took us forever handpicking it out of what was lovely soil!

  7. Sharon Gorbacz says:

    I’m currently working with filling in the bottom layer of my beds, it’s a work in progress and I’m constantly on the lookout for ground covers that will meet the conditions in my beds.

    I’ve got a slightly sloped sunny bed on the southwestern side of the property which needs full sun drought tolerant ground covers. Then I’ve got an eastern exposure bed against the house shaded by my neighbor’s oaks for which I’ve found many great ground covers but not a lot of shrubs. There’s shady beds on the north side too, and partial shade on the south side – the neighbor across the street also has oaks.

    I’m also still working on underplanting my ornamental cherry and dogwood. There’s still a lot of wood mulch visible, but I’ve finally got a ton of spring ephemerals coming up, so now I just have to find some ground covers that tolerate dry shade.

    I think he’s on to something with saying that we don’t put enough plants in. Maybe a flat of babies is better than one big gallon pot, at that. I may have to adopt that mentality.

  8. Dahlink says:

    Loved this, Margaret. I have been avoiding mulch as much as possible in favor of establishing a variety of ground covers instead. Our neighbors eliminated their lawn in back of the house, but they replaced it with what looks like a sea of mulch–not my idea of a garden. And my head says to use natives, but I have also found some of them dull much of the time. Let’s hear it for common sense gardening!

  9. Mary Ellen says:

    My greatest success story in my haphazard first-time gardener garden is when I let the Aster divaricatus (not called that anymore!) seed in freely under a cherry I inherited. I snuck in some reblooming irises, crazy spreading mums, and liatris and coneflowers, plus of course some early spring bulbs. The result is a year-round delight that bees, birds, and butterflies seem to appreciate too. It’s easy-care – just a haircut in late winter, “mulched” with compost or shredded leaves, and nary a weed in sight.

    My biggest mistake is right next to this high achiever: planting running liriope (thought it clumped!), which is now threatening to take over my lawn but – strangely? happily! – cannot seem to elbow out the naturalistic planting it shares a bed with. Weeds somehow still manage to gain a foothold despite the web of roots that I can’t get a spade through…

    If anyone can share other good groundcovers – for sun and shade – I would love to hear them. I am in Philly area, zone 7a/b.

    Thanks, Margaret, for introducing me to two great new sources of information. Here’s to gardens that celebrate diversity in all its forms, just like the amazing melting pot we live in.

      1. Mary Ellen says:

        Thank you! I have some hakonechloa that is doing sorta meh. I hope it settles in. I may do a mix of that and a chartreuse hosta for my front bed. I love the ferns but they are so expensive. Maybe I’ll find some plugs somewheres….. happy gardening! –mew

  10. paul says:

    Inspiring article and person. We dearly love native plants and natural communities are a great inspiration for our nursery’s plant palette. Unfortunately, natives that are used most commonly in our climate are the same 10 species over and over again. It results in LESS diversity and what we call native ghettos. We are trying to offer the less well known- but still easy to grow varieties to correct this. Plants that mix with exotic in a harmonious way. Again, nice article and interview.

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