No plant is an is­land: Think of plant groups, not spec­i­mens

The Hamilton Spectator - - STYLE - KATHER­INE ROTH

Are your plants look­ing lonely, sur­rounded by small patches of high-main­te­nance bare soil? If they look like they’re 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, 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 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,” says Rainer. He re­minds home gar­den­ers that “there’s a huge range of self-spread­ing, less­sexy plants that cre­ate the con­di­tions for sta­bil­ity for the up­right plants, and re­quire al­most no main­te­nance.”

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.”

NEW YORK BOTAN­I­CAL GAR­DEN VIA AP

Pad­dle cac­tus, but­ter­fly milk­weed, and lit­tle blue stem grass grow to­gether in this out­crop of the NYBG’s Na­tive Plant Gar­den.

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