Book Review: Planting in a Post-Wild World

Authors: Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (Timber Press, 2015)

Planting in a Post-Wild World: designing plant communities for resilient landscapes is easily the most relevant, practical, inspiring, and beautiful book on planting published in recent memory. At once a manifesto and a guidebook, co-authors Thomas Rainer and Claudia West strike a harmonious balance between the whys and the hows of creating resilient and beautiful plant communities. Rainer and West lead us through the goals and principles of designed plant communities through the entire design process from finding inspiration, to representing planting, to specification writing and maintaining plant communities after establishment.

Amply augmented with vibrant photography of natural and designed spaces, the easy to read, and enjoyable text periodically injected with more technical terminology and genus recommendations will appeal to anyone interested in the role of plants in designed environments.  Household gardeners, landscape architects, students, naturalists, and horticulturalists should consider this book mandatory reading, and anyone who cares about public space, especially in a lushly planted locale such as Vancouver, can benefit from Rainer and West’s observations.

Walking along residential streets and public parks in Vancouver, one encounters a richness of planting year-round. This annual show of greenness is often enough for newcomers to appreciate plant design on a new level. However, when one looks closer, it can also be problematic. Take a walk down your block and make note of the sheer amount of mulch, pebble, and bare soil in the planting beds around you. If there is one principle to be taken away from this book, it is the idea that no soil should be left behind. Take a walk in your favourite forest or grassland (what the authors dub “archetypal landscapes”), and notice that nature follows this rule. A layered and covered planting with no bare soil is the sign of a healthy and thriving plant community that is more functional, stable, and often times lower maintenance than their mulched counterparts.

Rainer and West provide us with basic information from their respective fields of design and horticulture to create a well-rounded guide of useful facts to inform better planting decisions. Root competition, vertical layering of plants, and the value of stress in plant communities are fundamental concepts that present a refreshing approach to design, which traditionally favours ornamental or aesthetic choices over ecologically successful plantings. This planting approach shows we can do both simultaneously. In light of the City of Vancouver’s new Biodiversity Strategy, with thoughtfully designed plant communities, natural areas can be everywhere, not just within traditional definitions.

Equally refreshing is West and Rainer’s firm stance that ‘ecological’ does not necessarily mean native. An exciting tenet of planting in this so-called “post-wild” world is the ability to actively create new plant combinations based on plant attribute and their functions in communities: structurally, ecologically, aesthetically, or all of the above. The blessing and curse of Vancouver’s rainy and moderate climate is that almost anything can grow here. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everything should. As our climates change, plants well-suited to warmer parts of the world can succeed in altitudes north of their origins.

Likewise, many gardeners in Vancouver know that the constantly wet, moderate winters and relatively dry and hot summers here mean plants from the sub-tropical regions of the world with a Mediterranean climate are also well suited to our climate. Using exotics is not a new concept, but using them in ways that consider their role in a hybrid plant community, with specific root length, competitive behaviour, height and structure, etc. instead of purely aesthetically, is.

Armed with this universal tool for designing resilient and aesthetically accepted plant communities, designers can apply these techniques locally to educate public and clientele about the importance of well-designed plant communities. Planting in a Post-Wild World provides us with both the theoretical founding and practical components of an exciting contemporary movement in planting, that challenges the status quo of how we view plants and put them in the ground.

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If you want more information on Planting in a Post-Wild World, visit the Timber Press website.

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Shelley Long is a landscape designer interested in cross-disciplinary collaboration in environmental design, Canadiana, and placemaking through spacemaking.