Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes
I picked up Rainer and West's book at the library recently, having read some favorable reviews here and on Garden Rant and elsewhere. I have a somewhat different take on it. I thought it's evangelism for an ecologically-focused gardening was, in general, a welcome antidote to the horticultural industry's single-minded focus (responding, in all fairness, to client desires) to promote "Flower Power" by marketing the most highly ornamental, often new and unproven hybrids, without consideration of their adaptability locally, and frequently requiring extensive use of need to pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. I think the book should be read with great caution, however, because its prescriptions for planting and maintenance require a wealth of experience and a detailed knowledge of plant husbandry very rare among self-taught gardeners and even uncommon among professional garden designers.
There are also a number of what, to me, seemed peculiar assertions in the book about the natural world. "In nature, plants have an order and visual harmony," where traditional gardens are "arbitrary assortments" of plants chosen for "personal preference." To anyone who has grappled with a laurel-infested swamp, or cut a path through second growth mix of hardwoods, or fought with the woody invasives in an abandoned meadow, or a setting overtaken by highly aggressive honeysuckle, such broad statements about the harmony, balance, and inherent beauty of the natural world seem romantic in the extreme. And as for "personal preference," what is a garden after all other than a place that gives the gardener great joy. A knowledgeable gardener may well chose to temper his passions with an eye toward environmental sustainability (which is undoubtedly a good thing), but it is not the only thing.
Of greatest concern, perhaps, is the intimation (often stated forthrightly) that the design of plant communities can be achieved, practically, with modest help. One of the most enthusiastic proponents of ecological gardening, Larry Weaner, was recently quoted in the Washington Post stating "It is difficult, if not impossible, for gardeners who want to move away from traditional garden models to find the labor and advice geared to ecological gardening." Many of the design goals promoted by Rainer are identical to those of the great plantsman, William Robinson, who in The Wild Garden, set forth many of the same principles -- naturalized plantings, using plants from the same climates (if not the same habitat), layered, with a focus on clear, defined edges to minimize chaos and impose some measure of structure. Gertrude Jekyll, although a fan of Robinson, cautioned that his designs, if they could be achieved at all, required much "coaxing and persuading." The garden writer C.W. Earle was even more critical, noting that wild gardening is an illusion and a snare, "requiring the most judicious planting with consummate knowledge and experience of plants."
Rainer and West do acknowledge, at times, the resource and maintenance demands presented by their approach. They concede that choosing regionally appropriate plants "takes a high degree of plant knowledge." In portions of the book where they provide specific advice (in contrast to those in which they rhapsodize about the natural world), they do caution that ecological gardening "requires a rich collaboration with contractors and garden staff" and "complex plant communities only persist if designers and land managers collaborate," and strongly recommend ongoing "consulting with soil scientists to read and interpret soil tests," and the use of plant designers (like Rainer and West) as part "of a plantings life as regular and ongoing consultants." Basically, it seems to me, they are talking about New York's High Line, or the Longwood Meadow Garden, or other institutional or municipal gardens with a staff of volunteers and long-term consulting contracts with a "garden design firm."
Recognizing the difficulties inherent in ecological gardening given the diversity of natural communities, they also try to provide some practical design guidelines. They walk the reader through various models and taxonomies used to organize and design plant communities worldwide and propose an alternative approach based on what they call "archetypal landscapes" -- grasslands, woodlands and scrublands, forests, and edges, together with some design concepts (functional, seasonal, structural layers) to apply to various settings. These are helpful, on balance, but also fairly vague. The archetypes seem to revere a pre-Colombian world, not the suburban or highly urban world many of us live in. The authors correctly say that plants should enhance a sense of place and memory, but that often means -- to many gardeners -- the peonies of their grandmother, or the favorite Southern camellia, or even the highly drought-sensitive magenta azalea -- not the remnants of a midwestern Great Plain. When the authors talk about exploring a site for its emotional resonance and directing one's attention to where a "dense thicket of existing shrubs may be used to line a path that opens into a sunny, low meadows" they seem to be talking about design advice for the high net-worth hedge fund manager wondering hot to best disguise his helicopter pad at this house in the Hamptons. They're not talking about the middle class 100' foot lot with the neighbor's propane tank in the background, and the circle of earth left by the old above-ground swimming pool in the foreground..
I tend to think that their goal is worthwhile. Maybe this book will be the progenitor for others for "the rest of us" -- who wish to make our backyard gardening more sustainable and beautiful, at reasonable cost.