Sunday, October 18, 2015

Planting in a Post-Wild World (the book)

A new design book was published recently about landscape design for today’s world. As the title might imply, today’s world is one in which there is little wild space, especially in the spaces where we live. The premise of the book is that we should stop trying to recreate what no longer exists and embrace “a new way of thinking” about design.

I have heard both authors speak about this topic at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference (Thomas Rainer in 2014 and Claudia West in 2015) and both presentations were excellent. Claudia’s discussion on creating interlocking layers in the landscape to mimic the natural process was fresh in my mind as I opened the book.  It’s about time that someone helped us get away from meatball shrubs anchored in a sea of mulch and weeds.

While the authors advocate using native plants as part of the design, their approach is not about using only native plants. They recognize that what we’re dealing with are fragments and long-disturbed sites. There is no going back to original. Native plants can be part of the solution - and a lot of them are featured in the pictures and text - but they may share the space with well-behaved non-native plants.

The purpose of the book is to outline a method and a framework for “designing resilient plant communities.”  The authors encourage us to realize that, in urban and suburban spaces, humans are designing and managing these spaces. If considered properly, we can make choices that connect the plants to the place, the plants to people, and the plants to other plants in the space.

Four main chapters present the concepts in clear text, abundant photos as well as graphs and drawings. Chapter 1 presents the Principles of Designed Plant Communities.  This chapter presents their essential principles. Even those of us who are not designers can take away key points from this chapter such as cover the ground densely like nature does … or nature will do it for you (in the form of weeds).

An everyday example of a design which is not a community and which will be plagued by weeds.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Inspiration of the Wild,” and here we are encouraged to interpret nature rather than imitate it. Plant layers found in nature help us understand that we can design with layers in a way where plants are not in competition with each other but rather exist in a supportive way. I like how the book includes sections about problems to avoid and guidance on handling the edges of the space.

A nature-inspired sweep of dense native perennials

Chapter 3 presents the design process and three essential relationships: the plants to the site, to the humans that interact with it, and to the other plants in the site. These relationships are covered in great detail. Special areas for consideration are noted and the chapter is rich with design concepts. Echoes of Claudia’s talk at Cullowhee are in the overview of several tested plant strategy systems.

Creating and managing a plant community is covered in Chapter 4. There is an extensive section on site preparation, both for understanding the site and for making choices in order to be successful. Installation considerations include timing, choosing healthy plants, planting techniques and more. I particularly liked the details covered in Managing and Monitoring, including an extensive management outline as well as how to shift goals over the lifetime of the planting, an important consideration.

I liked this book because I think it presents concepts that allow us to create landscapes that are beautiful, functional, and long-lasting. Native plants should be a part of the design, but we must acknowledge that disturbance is here to stay. Design approaches can reflect that understanding so that we create a more successful mix of old and new, using beautiful native plants and functional exotic partners.

Ultimately it is up to each of us to decide how many native plants we use. Certainly we need enough native plants to support the ecological functions needed, but does that mean we have backyard habitats and front yard exotics? The ideological war of native vs. exotic plants needs a way to meet in the middle. This book offers that middle.

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