No plant is an is­land

Think of plant groups, not spec­i­mens

Cape Breton Post - - Perspectives - BY KATHER­INE ROTH

Are your plants look­ing lonely, sur­rounded by small patches of high-main­te­nance bare soil? If they look like they’re suf­fer­ing in soli­tary con­fine­ment, maybe they are.

Many plant and land­scape ex­perts have be­gun think­ing of plants in terms of com­mu­ni­ties, in­stead of as in­di­vid­ual spec­i­mens. They rec­om­mend that home gar­den­ers look to the wild for in­spi­ra­tion.

“Think­ing of plants in terms of masses and group­ings, as op­posed to ob­jects to be placed in­di­vid­u­ally in a sort of spec­i­men gar­den, is what most young peo­ple are re­ally re­spond­ing to now,” says Brian Sul­li­van, vice-pres­i­dent for land­scape, gar­dens, and out­door col­lec­tions at the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den.

The shift in land­scap­ing to­ward look­ing at plants as in­ter­re­lated species gained promi­nence al­most a decade ago with the open­ing of the High Line, a pub­lic park built along an old el­e­vated rail line in New York City, Sul­li­van says. In a move con­sid­ered rad­i­cal at the time — but repli­cated in parks and gar­dens across the coun­try since then — the de­sign­ers of the High Line went with a wilder look, with plant­ings re­sem­bling road­side grasses and wild­flow­ers more than a tra­di­tional gar­den.

Many hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ists and land­scap­ers say such gar­dens — with con­sid­er­a­tion of how plants ben­e­fit each other, and

birds, in­sects and other wildlife — look bet­ter for more of the year, and are more func­tional and self-sus­tain­ing.

For land­scape de­signer Thomas Rainer, co-au­thor of “Plant­ing for a Post-Wild World: De­sign­ing Plant Com­mu­ni­ties for Re­silient Land­scapes” with Clau­dia West (Timber Press, 2015), his epiphany be­gan when he pulled over to the side of a road one day and re­ally looked at what was grow­ing nat­u­rally there.

“I’d been puz­zling over how we can reach this holy trin­ity of beauty, low main­te­nance and func­tion­al­ity in land­scap­ing. Look­ing more care­fully at this weedy ne­glected patch at the side of road, I saw that it was way more bio­di­verse than I’d ever dreamed. I counted 23

species in just one tiny sec­tion. It was kicking my gar­den’s butt in terms of bio­di­ver­sity,” says Rainer, who has de­signed land­scapes for the U.S. Capi­tol grounds, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memo­rial and the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den, as well as gar­dens from Maine to Florida.

“If you look at the way plants grow nat­u­rally, it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the way they grow in most parks and gar­dens,” he says. “If you look at func­tion­ing com­mu­ni­ties of plants, they re­ally main­tain them­selves.”

“We have this pe­cu­liarly Amer­i­can habit of adding 2 or 3 inches of mulch a cou­ple times a year, but green mulch — ground cover — hap­pens nat­u­rally if we let it,” he says.

He re­minds home gar­den­ers

that “there’s a huge range of self-spread­ing, less-sexy plants that cre­ate the con­di­tions for sta­bil­ity for the up­right plants, and re­quire al­most no main­te­nance what­so­ever.”

es­thet­i­cally, too, the right ground cover adds di­men­sion to the more dra­matic plants around it, making a land­scape vis­ually in­ter­est­ing through­out the year, he points out.

Those in­ter­ested in adopt­ing this ap­proach can start by see­ing bare soil as the enemy.

“There isn’t much bare soil at all in the wild,” Rainer points out. “Ev­ery inch is cov­ered and there are var­i­ous lev­els of plants all packed in to­gether.”

He rec­om­mends get­ting on your knees and ex­am­in­ing your gar­den from a rab­bit’s per­spec­tive, then plant­ing the bare patches with ground­cover, ide­ally na­tive, like sedges or even low peren­ni­als, many of which do well in the kind of dry, shaded ar­eas that tend to be where the bare patches are found.

“There’s been a huge rise in pop­u­lar­ity of sedges, which come in a range of colours like

icy blues or ap­ple greens that can re­ally set off the bright pinks of an aza­lea,” he says.

Sul­li­van, at the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den, says that “with the style we’re talk­ing about, the plants are in in­ter­con­nected masses, so they are func­tion­ing com­mu­ni­ties shar­ing the same space.”

“One could be a tril­lium, a spring flower that some­body might see in March or April. When that fin­ishes, some­body might see a fern or a carex,” he says. “Each plant takes the place of an­other dur­ing dif­fer­ent sea­sons, so there’s never an empty mo­ment. When the ephemer­als fin­ish, the peren­ni­als start to come up, the grasses, the sedges. And some­thing else might come up in the late part of the sea­son. So there’s a se­quence. The gar­den changes but the gar­dener only does the job once, by the plant­ing.”

An­other fun thing to do is to step back and let the plants seed them­selves for a sea­son, Sul­li­van says. “Just watch and see what pops up, as op­posed to plant­ing ev­ery sea­son.”


Pedes­tri­ans stroll be­tween lux­ury apart­ment build­ings along the High Line in New York. Many plant and land­scape ex­perts have be­gun think­ing of plants in terms of com­mu­ni­ties, in­stead of as in­di­vid­ual spec­i­mens.


This un­dated photo pro­vided by the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den shows large in­ter­mix­ing masses of pur­ple-flow­er­ing monarda mix with palm sedge and gar­den phlox along the sunny edge of a gen­tle slope planted with actea, which thrives in the drier and shadier con­di­tions un­der a ma­ture pin oak in NYBG’s Na­tive Plant Gar­den in New York.


This un­dated photo cour­tesy of Tom Pot­ter­field shows the “rab­bit’s eye point of view” of a plant that looks full from above, but ac­tu­ally has bare soil un­der­neath where weeds are start­ing to grow. The pho­to­graph is fea­tured in the book “Plant­ing in a Post-Wild World,” by Thomas Rainer and Clau­dia West.


This un­dated photo pro­vided by the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den shows pad­dle cac­tus, but­ter­fly milk­weed, and lit­tle blue stem grass grow to­gether in this sun drenched out­crop of the NYBG’s Na­tive Plant Gar­den in New York.


An area of ex­posed rail pokes through the fo­liage af­ter on the High Line, an in­dus­trial era el­e­vated rail­way con­verted into a city park in New York.

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