Everything changes. Change on all fronts is inescapable, unstoppable and inevitable. No one knows this more than a gardener who watches her garden change over the years.
In 2016 I will be gardening in a new garden, a smaller garden, a garden that will not require as much maintenance as the Heath garden. It is also a garden with very different features. The soil is heavy clay. The soil is very wet and drains slowly. There is a lot of shade.
With the help of noted landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy’s Home Outside Palette app my husband and I began to layout and plant garden beds, concentrating on water loving, or water tolerant native shrubs. My desire was to have a kind of woodland garden instead of perennial beds .
Over the years I have become more and more interested in native plants, and more and more aware of their value in maintaining the health of our ecosystems. Certain books have led me along this path including Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Douglas Tallamy. Tallamy also collaborated with Rick Darke on The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden. Darke is a landscape lecturer and photographer who proves that a biodiverse garden can be beautiful.
Most recently Timber Press sent me a copy of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.
One of their goals is to help gardeners create beautiful gardens that more closely replicate the ways plants grow in the wild even in urban and suburban situations. “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.”
While Rainer and West value native species, they call their philosophy “a middle way” in which layered plantings mean more room for compatible non-natives (never invasives) and a greater diversity of beneficial plants. They want to focus on naturally occurring plant communities which means paying less attention to purely native plantings and concentrating on performance and adaptability. Their idea is to make our relationship to nature a collaborative one.
I should mention here that the book is lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs that give an explicit view of what they are talking about. Photographs show the differences in landscapes from the humble hellstrip along a sidewalk to flowery meadows, droughty hillsides and woodlands.
Rainer and West lay out five basic principles. The first is to concentrate on related populations, not isolated indivduals. This means not planting the Echinacea next to the sedum next to the hellebore. It means letting plants self-seed and intermingle, as they do in nature. My own Heath lawn, or flowery mead as I called it, is a case in point.
Principle two: Stress can be an asset. This is often how we get to naturally occurring plant communities.
Principle three: Cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants. This is a reminder that bare soil does not exist in nature and we can find plants to fill every niche of space and soil type and let nature do some of that filling in.
Principle four: Make it attractive and legible. This principle will calm those who wonder if all Rainer and West desire is messy, weedy woodland. They are realists they say, and “designed plant communities can be patterned and stylized in a way that makes them understandable, ordered and attractive. They need not replicate nature in order to capture its spirit.” They suggest ‘frames’ which can be pathways or other hardscape elements like fences or walls.
Principle five: Management, not maintenance. Gardeners know you cannot plant a garden and then sit back and admire it indefinitely. But with good management you can eliminate many chores, weeding, watering, spraying, etc. This is possibly my favorite principle.
The penultimate chapter gives specific instruction on planting and maintaining a plant community.
Planting in a Post-Wild World is a dense, but readable book. Not all the ideas are brand new but they are presented in new ways, broadening their applicability, and showing how we can adapt them to our own situation. Rainer and West believe the time is right for a horticultural renaissance where plantings will be ecologically diverse, functional and sound, but will also be beautiful, understandable and appealing to the gardener and her friends.
I made a start on a new and different garden this past summer, but there is a lot of work to do in 2016 to make it functional in the ways I first imagined, and in new ways as well. I am now dreaming of a hugelkulture project. Stay tuned. I am also thinking of how I can expand on the plans I made for covering the ground in my new, and soon to be enlarged beds. I think I can be bolder about letting plants intermingle. I want to work towards the plateau of management.
How will you and your garden change in 2016?
Between the Rows January 2, 2016