Planting in a Post-Wild World

Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes


By Thomas Rainer

By Claudia West

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“As practical as it is poetic. . . . an optimistic call to action.” —Chicago Tribune

Over time, with industrialization and urban sprawl, we have driven nature out of our neighborhoods and cities. But we can invite it back by designing landscapes that look and function more like they do in the wild: robust, diverse, and visually harmonious. Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West is an inspiring call to action dedicated to the idea of a new nature—a hybrid of both the wild and the cultivated—that can flourish in our cities and suburbs. This is both a post-wild manifesto and practical guide that describes how to incorporate and layer plants into plant communities to create an environment that is reflective of natural systems and thrives within our built world.


Introduction: Nature as It Was, Nature as It Could Be 
Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for the first European colonists arriving on the shores of America. The moment they first looked upon the vast, green breast of the continent, their heads full of new world dreams. By all accounts, the landscape they encountered was a place teeming with diversity, a place so resplendent and abundant with life that even our most cherished national parks pale in comparison. Hundreds of species of birds flew over the coastline; tens of thousands of different plants covered the forests, and billions of oysters and clams filled the estuaries. Botanical records and early diaries give us mere glimpses of the richness that once was. Just beyond the coastal plain, chestnut trees—some nine stories tall—accounted for fully half of the canopy of the Piedmont. These giants showered the ground with their mast, sustaining black bears, deer, turkey, and other creatures. Underneath the chestnuts, rivers of ferns, pools of ladies’ slippers and orchids, and sparkling stands of trout lily and false rue anemone—now rare collector’s specimens—covered the forest floor. It was a paradise of native species. But to the early colonists, it was a moral and physical wilderness which required great ingenuity and perseverance to tame.

And now we have tamed that landscape. This primal wilderness of our ancestors is utterly gone. Compared with the rich diversity of the past, the modern tableau is a tragedy. Through great engineering and skill, we have drained the Everglades, turned the great American prairie into grids of corn and soybean, and erected Manhattan out of the swamps of the Lenape. The splendor of what once was now exists in isolated fragments, a pale reflection of its former glory.

In this light, the recent rally around native plants bears a bit of irony. The belated rediscovery of the virtues of native plants comes at the moment of their definitive decline in the wild. Conservationists cling to the last slivers of wilderness in nature preserves and parklands. But even these places diminish, as invasive species and climate change alter ecosystems in the most remote corners of the world. To turn back the clock to the landscapes of 1600 is no longer possible. There is no going back.

Of course, there are some success stories of sites being restored to a more so-called native state. But even these successes must be understood in context. Removing invasive species can take years of heavy labor or herbicides. Once invasives are removed, sites must be covered with new native plants to keep the invasives at bay. Even then, they rarely stay away. So a site must be continually weeded and replanted, a process that research scientist Peter Del Tredici says “looks an awful lot like gardening.” Against the backdrop of species invasion and climate change, these restorations feel quite small—like making little sand castles. All the while, a hurricane gathers on the horizon.

For lovers of nature, this loss creates a deep, collectively shared wound. It fuels a kind of nostalgia for the past, a belief that we can put things back the way they were. In its uglier incarnations, this impulse creates an inflated moralism around the debate over native and exotic plants. What is worse, it makes an ideology out of localism, elevating a plant’s geographic origin over its performance.

However, this sense of loss can actually serve a useful purpose. Our mourning creates a craving for an encounter with the natural world. We long to feel small in the midst of an expansive meadow, to witness the miracle of a moth emerging from a cocoon, or to be filled with the glow of morning light on beech leaves. Our ancestors experienced these events as a regular part of their days, but now our children often learn these moments only through YouTube. We hunger for an authentic connection with the landscape that engages our senses and fills us with wonder.
A New Optimism: The Future of Planting Design
A new way of thinking is emerging. It does not seek nature in remote mountain tops, but finds it instead in the midst of our cities and suburbs. It looks at our degraded built landscapes with unjaded eyes, seeing the archipelago of leftover land—suburban yards, utility easements, parking lots, road right of ways, and municipal drainage channels—not as useless remnants, but as territories of vast potential. We pass them every day; their ordinariness is what makes them special. As such, they are embedded in the fabric of lives, shaping our most recurring image of nature. French landscape architect Gilles Clément calls these fragments the Third Landscape, the sum of all the human-disturbed land through which natural processes still occur.

For designers, the loss of nature is a starting point. It helps us to look at our cities with fresh eyes, giving us a sort of x-ray vision that cuts through the layers of concrete and asphalt to see new hybrids—of natural and man-made, of horticulture and ecology, of plant roots and computer chips. It allows us to imagine meadows growing on skyscrapers, elevated roads covered with connected forests, and vast constructed wetlands that purify our drinking water. But this future will not be driven by the assumption that what is natural is only that which is separate from human activity. Instead, it begins with the conviction that all naturalism is really humanism. Only when we clear our heads of the rose-tinted idealism of the past can we really embrace the full potential of the future.

The truth is, we simply cannot replicate the complexity of prairies or forests in our small urban landscapes. We need a way to translate native communities into ornamental forms more appealing to people. We must assert that a more ecological style of planting does not mean one has to sacrifice beauty, formality, or order.

To get to that future requires serious work, serious engineering, and serious science. But it does not require our plantings to be so serious. In an era of climate change and species invasions, the only certainty is a whole lot more uncertainty. The high-maintenance lawns and clipped shrubbery of office parks and suburban yards will seem increasingly odd with every large-scale natural disaster or water shortage. Since we will not have absolute control, planting in the future will become more playful. More whimsical. Faced with a landscape of increasing instability, planting no longer has to be so solemn. It can loosen up. Be more frivolous. The uncertainty of the future will provide an incredible gift: it will liberate planting from all those forces that try to tame it—the real estate industry, “good taste,” designers’ egos, eco-evangelism, and the horticultural industry. It frees us to take risks, act foolishly, and embrace failure. After all, no designed planting ever lasts. Its main purpose is not to endure but to enchant.

So what exactly is the planting of the future? Look no farther than just outside your front door. Go find a patch of weeds in your neighborhood. Notice the variety of species and how they interweave to form a dense carpet. Or better yet, take a hike in a nearby natural area. Look closely at how plants grow in a meadow or a forest’s edge. Observe the lack of bare soil and the variety of ways plants adapt to their site. Then when you get back to your neighborhood, compare those wild communities to the plantings in landscape or garden beds. There is a difference between the way plants grow in the wild and the way they grow in our gardens. Understanding this difference is the key to transforming your planting.

The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious, with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.
Bridging the Gap between Nature and Our Gardens
The way plants grow in the wild and the way they grow in our gardens is starkly different. In nature, there are plants that thrive in inhospitable environments; in our gardens, plants often lack the vigor of their wild counterparts, even when we lavish them with rich soils and frequent water. In nature, plants richly cover the ground; in too many of our gardens, plants are placed far apart and mulched heavily to keep out weeds. In nature, plants have an order and visual harmony resulting from their adaptation to a site; our gardens are often arbitrary assortments from various habitats, related only by our personal preferences.
For too long, planting design has treated plants as individual objects placed in the garden for decoration. Unrelated plants are arranged in ways that are intended to appear coherent and beautiful. To assist designers and gardeners with this difficult task, there are endless books on plant combinations, perennial borders, and color harmonies. The heaving bookshelf of garden books leaves us with endless tips and information, but very little real understanding of the dynamic way plants grow together.

Not surprisingly, this individualistic approach is also high maintenance. Each plant has different needs: some need staking, others need more water, yet others need soil additives. In fact, the very activities that define gardening—weeding, watering, fertilizing, and mulching—all imply a dependency of plants on the gardener for survival. Gardeners are often frustrated when some plants spread beyond their predetermined location and surprised when others struggle to get established. Many come to believe that successful gardening is only for those with a magical touch, a green thumb, or some other mystical insight bestowed upon the chosen few.

A further complication is the availability of plants from every corner of the globe. Plant selection is often overwhelming, providing infinite choice but little real sense of how to create stable and harmonious planting.


  • “This is the universal how-to guide to sustainable landscaping we have all been waiting for. A masterful accomplishment!” —Doug Tallamy, award-winning author of The Living Landscape and Bringing Nature Home

    “A real-world guide for creating beautiful, ecologically connected landscapes. There is not a designer or property owner that would not benefit from this approach.” —Larry Weaner, APLD, founder of New Directions in the American Landscape

    “A groundbreaking guide that lays out an alternative to traditional horticulture: designed plantings that function like naturally occurring plant communities. As practical as it is poetic, theirs is an optimistic call to action.” —Chicago Tribune

    “Sometimes one comes across a landscape design book that simply demands to be read from cover to cover without pause. Planting in a Post-Wild World is one such book. Part ecological manifesto, part how-to planting guide, and part artistic statement, Post-Wild is a wonderful and refreshing addition to the world of landscape and planting design literature.” —NYBG's Plant Talk

    “We have driven nature out of our cities—but this need not be a one-way ticket. Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, two leading voices in ecological landscape design, present an optimistic call-to-action dedicated to the idea of a new nature—a hybrid of the wild and the cultivated that can flourish in cities and suburbs. The authors speak with conviction and authority, and offer a practical blueprint for the future.” —The English Garden

    “In this award-winning book, landscape architect Thomas Rainer and landscape consultant Claudia West present a groundbreaking new philosophy of planting design inspired by the way plants work together in the wild.” —American Gardener

    “The book outlines how to design and maintain an ecological landscape, and does so in beautifully clear, fluid language that is easy to read and absorb. . . . Let us follow Planting in a Post-Wild World into a future where humans respectfully manage landscapes for our comfort, our quality of life, and our very existence, while acknowledging (in our treatment of them) the inherent value of these living communities.” —Garden Rant

    “Every once in a while a book comes along that can truly be called a ‘game-changer’ and sets people buzzing. This book fits the bill…this is an important book capturing the spirit of the time, and injects new energy into the field of nature-inspired design with plants. It will become indispensable for all garden designers and landscape architects, as well as enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardeners and horticulturalists who wish to extend the creative potential of planting design.” —The Garden 

    “Most garden books simply confirm or amplify what we already know and like about horticulture, but this intelligent and thought-provoking book by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West is the rare exception. Other writers have suggested basing garden designs on the plant communities that thrive in the wild, but this may be the first time the theory and execution of this idea has been laid out so neatly.” —Country Gardens

    “An excellently written, wonderfully illustrated guide to designing, planting, and managing plant installations…The book will interest landscape architects and horticulturalists as well as more casual home gardeners.” —Choice

    “This lavishly illustrated manifesto applies broadly, to everything from water features to rooftops and vast acreages to urban backyards. Using detailed examples and simple graphics, Rainer and West make a convincing case for rethinking our relationship to plant design.” —Architectural Digest Online

    “Two of the leading voices in ecological landscape design set out to celebrate and explain how planting design that recreates and reworks natural plant communities can create landscapes that are resilient. beautiful and diverse. The concepts are explained clearly with well-illustrated examples. Rainer's lyrical, passionate, and persuasive writing could convince even the most skeptical that It’s the right thing to.” —Gardens Illustrated best book of the year

On Sale
Oct 7, 2015
Page Count
272 pages
Timber Press

Thomas Rainer

About the Author

Thomas Rainer is a registered landscape architect, teacher, and writer. He has designed landscapes for the U.S. Capitol grounds, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and The New York Botanical Garden. His work has been featured in the the New York Times, Landscape Architecture Magazine, and Home + Design. He is a principal for the landscape architectural firm Rhodeside and Harwell, teaches planting design for the George Washington University, and writer at the award-winning site Grounded Design.

Claudia West is the ecological sales manager at North Creek Nurseries, a wholesale perennial grower in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. She holds a master’s degree of landscape architecture and regional planning from the Technical University of Munich, Germany. West is a sought after speaker on topics such as plant community based design and the application of natural color theories to planting design. 

Learn more about this author