A Community of Plants and People

Book Review: Planting for a Post-Wild World, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.

Both absorbing and challenging, Planting for a Post-Wild World is dense with both ideas and inspiration for gardeners who want to mix ecology into their horticulture.


For Rainer and West, the starting point is a world in which nature is shrinking, as are the percentage of people who have easy access to wild lands. One solution, they say, is to bring qualities of nature into our gardens and landscapes: “Gardens were once a refuge from the wild, but now we turn to them for an experience of the natural world.”


The times that we live in require us to do this, and not just for emotional and aesthetic gratification. The authors point out that landscapes will fail on all fronts if they don’t make people happy. But our landscapes need to be functional, too: they should help preserve biological diversity, manage stormwater, even sequester carbon.

Thomas Rainer

According to the authors, designing with plant communities is key to this pursuit. These communities consist of plants that knit together to meet ecological as well as horticultural goals. This does not mean necessarily that they are associated together in nature. Rather, they are plants that hail from similar environments and collectively inhabit every niche connected to a patch of ground.

To achieve this botanical community, Rainer and West advise us to design in layers. They begin with “structural plants” – trees, shrubs, tall perennials and grasses that are the “visual essence” of the plant community.

Claudia head shot_1_JW
Claudia West

They then then move on to “seasonal theme plants”, medium height plants that can visually dominate during their season of bloom.

Ground covering plants come next. The authors state repeatedly that bare ground is “the single biggest factor for instability in landscape.” Essentially, Rauner and West believe that bare ground is the Devil’s workshop. It is an invitation to weeds, erosion, dehydration, and soil temperature swings, all of which trigger the need for more resource-intensive maintenance.

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White wild indigo and the Chicago skyline: experiencing nature in the city at Lurie Garden.

This discussion of bare ground made me realize that my own garden is not covered as thoroughly as I thought. When the summer plants mature, their leaves hide almost all the soil, and yet much of the soil is still unoccupied. Intrepid weeds can and do still germinate, then pop through the foliage into the light.

Now I’m thinking of mixing some Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) into some of my beds so that the ground is more thoroughly covered.

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Prairie Smoke can be an effective ground cover.

To create a plant community, gardeners need to think about how growth habits fit together – above and below ground. Can a ground covering plant tolerate shade from its taller neighbors? Can a planting be made to include a variety of root depths and types that could co-exist more easily? etc.

Rainer and West use native plants extensively, but more for inspiring a “sense of authenticity” than out of a belief that a plant community must consist entirely of natives. What matters most, says Rainer and West, is “a plant’s ecological performance, not its country of origin.”

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Pale Purple Coneflower, a seasonal theme plant, at Lurie Garden.

This book discusses how to make designed plant communities satisfying for people. The key, the authors feel, lies in producing an emotional response, a “moment of engagement”.

I agree with this, but it is something so intuitive and subjective that it is difficult to describe in a systematic way. In attempting to do so, the authors should spark many useful conversations.

DSC_0518 cup plant joe pye weed driveway border front island bed
Rainer and West discourage towering plant in the home garden. On this point I’m afraid we part ways. This is our front garden in summer.

For Rainer and West, design should evoke an “archetypal” landscape: grasslands, woodland, forest, etc. Not through a literal restoration, but through combining a limited number of essential elements. I found this part of the book intriguing, but it left me with a great many questions.

I found Planting for a Post-Wild World to be a surprisingly quick read. The writing is clear and the pages are full of striking photographs that effectively illustrate the points made in the text. All in all, this is a valuable book for anyone interested in how gardens relate to people and nature in the modern world.


37 Comments on “A Community of Plants and People”

  1. I follow Thomas Rainer’s blog and I knew this book has been published, thanks for your thoughts on it as I think maybe the ideas are larger than the book can properly cover. I agree with you that using tall or large plants in a small garden is a good thing to do, otherwise things can all become rather twee. I’m not sure they have a really new concept if you already know the work of Piet Oudolf.

  2. Perhaps it is my great age, but seeing their photographs, I can’ t help thinking that gardening books are being written by children now. But I do agree about bare ground. It is an open invitation for weeds and it doesn’ t look good.

  3. I attended one of Thomas’ lectures. He was entertaining, thoughtful, informative and very entertaining. I love the book and the ideas. My biggest take-away from both lecture and book was to look at ground cover and mulches differently. I’ve just put in a new bed that I planted with a mix of ornamentals and natives and I’m using white clover as a ground cover/mulch. It’s a natural nitrogen fixer. It’s looking pretty good so far. Can’t wait to see how it matures next year.

  4. What an interesting book. I found this very poignant. “Gardens were once a refuge from the wild, but now we turn to them for an experience of the natural world.”
    I’m with you on towering plants, yours are fanbloomingtastic!xxx

  5. Sounds like a great book to have on hand–for reference and for inspiration. I think I will always be questioning what is “best” and “appropriate” and even “affordable” no matter where I live. It gets a little complicated when the budget is tight and the garden is over-run by rabbits. But we do our best. 😉

  6. Heard him speak in Madison in April. Great ideas and inspiration. I just planted two Thalictrums that should get to be 5-7 ft. tall. I want some plants to tower over me and not just trees. The mere fact that we garden our front “lawns” should be a lesson to passersby.

  7. Jason, I loved this book and found its ideas intriguing. Now I’m trying to figure out how to implement its ideas within my design aesthetic. This spring, I noticed that a little clump of bluets (Houstonia caerulea) had seeded itself into one of my flower beds. As an experiment, I moved some more clumps of this shallow-rooted native plant into that flower bed and one other flower bed to see if I could establish them as a ground-cover layer. We’ll see how it works out.

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