No plant is an island: Think of plant groups, not specimens
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.”
Paddle cactus, butterfly milkweed, and little blue stem grass grow together in this outcrop of the NYBG’s Native Plant Garden.