A “Post Wild World”?

July 27, 2015 Parkway 029

Jamestown Island, July 2015

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Are we gardening in a ‘Post Wild World’? 

Friends invited me to a gathering of area gardeners today. We enjoyed hearing a presentation by landscape architect and newly published author Thomas Rainer,  who shared his philosophy of garden design while promoting his new bookPlanting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, published by Timber Press this past October.

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This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden.

This is one of the many Crepe Myrtle trees growing around our garden, with the native trees of our ‘forest’ all around it.

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Yes, urban and suburban development claims ever more of our planet each passing year, with devastating consequences for the environment.  This has been true through my entire life, and probably yours, too.

I jumped on this bandwagon back in the 1970’s, and read any number of excellent books about designing gardens based on nature and using native plants, published by Rodale Press back in the 1980’s.  I internalized these principles long ago.  And still, it pleased me to hear a young landscape architect presenting these well worn principles with a certain freshness and flair.

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Native Hibiscus fill our garden this week. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month each summer.

Native Hibiscus fill our garden each summer. Deer never touch them, and they bloom for more than a month.

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Rainer summarized his concept as integrating ornamental horticulture with greater use of native North American plants.  He showed many examples of integrated plantings of grasses, perennials and woody plants contained within formal landscape frameworks, such as hardscape, hedges, lawns and permeable pathways.  So far, so good.

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Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

Volunteer Black Eyed Susans have colonized the sunny edge of this clump of Colocasia.

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With skillful use of photos, Rainer demonstrated to us “The irrepressible spirit of plants.” 

Or, as all true gardeners know, wild plants (including what we label weeds) want to grow, with tenacious enthusiasm, everywhere there is a bare patch of Earth.  We examined diversity of species, layering, inter-cropping, and succession in various wild settings; including his neighbor’s ‘hellstrip’ between his unkempt yard and the street.

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Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densly matted ground cover.

Creeping Jenny, easy to divide and transplant, grows quickly into a densely matted ground cover; here with Sedum angelina.

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With much laughter, we also examined photos of various urban and suburban garden installations dotted with puny plants separated by feet of thick mulch.  The point being, that plants tend to grow better in dense communities, as opposed to widely spaced apart in poorly prepared and deeply mulched beds.

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September 30, 2015 Parkway 079

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Rainer discussed the relative amount of care required by these plantings, and made his point that much of the lushest growth in nature is actually self-sown and grown in what we would agree are stressful conditions.  Crowding, temperature extremes, dry climate and thin soil don’t deter plants growing in the environment to which they are adapted.

It is when we, as gardeners decide to create a generic planting bed, and plant without regard to a plant’s specific requirements, that the results are less than plush.

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Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon

The Connie Hansen Garden, Lincoln City Oregon, April 2015

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If you’ve been gardening for more than a few years, you’ve likely experienced these truths yourself; the hard way.

Rainer’s book is lovely and filled with inspiring photos.  You might want to add it to your library, particularly if you are a beginning gardener or one trying to break out of the suburban mold of,  “Wall to wall carpet lawn and meatball shrub foundation plantings.”  It is all in one’s aesthetic and level of ecological awareness, of course.

Many of our neighbors at today’s presentation live in communities with strict rules about which plants one may or may not plant in one’s garden.  Several of our more regulated neighborhoods in Williamsburg enforce the well groomed lawn and evergreen shrub scheme to achieve a look of refined uniformity.  I heard these ladies murmuring to one another from time to time…..

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Our front garden in mid-April

Our front garden in mid-April

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And Rainer’s advice on planning ‘layers’ of plants and covering the ground with living ‘green mulch’ to smother weeds was all sound.  He showed numerous examples of working with ground cover plants and colorful native perennials.  I wish he had also mentioned some of the marvelous native shrubs and small trees which add color and  life to the landscape.   These good ‘bones’ give the landscape character while providing food and habitat for the birds and pollinators who animate a native landscape.

Although he showed us a few of his suburban projects, most of Rainer’s work appears to have been designs for public spaces.  He showed us beautiful installations; in city median strips, parks, and around public buildings.  And so when he finished to genuinely enthusiastic applause and invited questions, the trouble began.

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There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

There is no boundary between the Colonial Parkway, here, and our community.

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And the trouble began because he was speaking to an embattled group of Williamsburg gardeners who manage gardens amidst the realities of a ‘wild world’, which comes right up to our doorsteps.  We aren’t gardening in a safe and sanitized city.  We garden in the woods, backed up to National Park lands, marshes, rivers, creeks, and open fields full of real wild life.

And like so many newbie ‘experts,’ Rainer wasn’t prepared with the answers his audience needed to translate his theoretical ideas into practical reality.

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Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won't be nibbled by deer.... although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week....

Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, won’t be nibbled by deer…. although they may have eaten some of its flowers last week….

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“We have a lot of deer.  Will the plants you’ve described survive deer?” ….. This question, followed by a beat of embarrassed silence, and a generality leaning towards, ‘probably not.’  Rainer sympathized by admitting he had lost a newly planted perennial bed to voles and rabbits colonizing his own Northern Virginia suburban garden.  But he wasn’t prepared to discuss the common plants impervious to deer. 

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May apples with Vinca cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

May apples with ivy and  Vinca minor cover the ground beneath native trees and shrubs.

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“We have a lot of trees.  How do we plant these dense plantings of perennials and ground cover under mature trees?”  Rainer’s answer about purchasing plugs and small potted perennials was spot on.  But when he described boring holes with an auger for said plugs, he lost much of his audience.

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Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators.

Native Echinacea attracts many pollinators in bloom, and birds feast on the seed heads weeks later.

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He also said little about restoring the ecological balance and supporting birds and pollinator species through plant choices.  Perhaps this message was implied;  but not emphasized nearly enough.

There were lots of nice photos of nectar rich Echinacea, Salvia and Liatris throughout his slides; but not enough discussion of habitat creation and planting for a succession of nectar rich bloom.

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Herbs mixed with perennials help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

Herbs, mixed with perennials, help keep harmful insects, like chiggers and ticks, away from garden beds.

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Someone touched on this, but from the ‘dark side.’   Her question was about chiggers, those terrible tiny insects which attack one’s skin beginning here each May.  She wanted to know whether these densely planted, diverse natural plantings would harbor insects.  Well, of course they might.  Chiggers, and ticks, too.

Sadly, Rainer’s best answer was to keep the plantings beds some distance away from the house…..  He never mentioned using herbs to repel insects from our planting beds and from around our homes.  Doesn’t everyone keep a pot of scented Pelargoniums near their porch?

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This variegated geranium is also worth saving. It has bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

This variegated Pelargonium bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

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I left unsatisfied, and without an autographed copy of Rainer’s book under my arm.  I suspect I could find much of his message in those good old Rodale Press books I studied when I was young, and still turn to today.

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October in our garden and the butterflies cover our Lantana.

October in our garden, when the butterflies cover the Lantana.

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My gardening sister and I went for a coffee after the talk, and realized we had much the same impression of Rainer and his presentation.  She reminisced about the gardens her father planted full of strawberries and flowers, fruit trees and tomatoes.  But that was half a century and half a world away now….

Hers is a family of gardeners.  Her sister is currently installing Xeriscapes for clients in California and working with several schools to manage their teaching gardens.

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Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia 'China Pink' grow in front of our Edgeworthia in part shade.

Voodoo lily and a division of Colocasia ‘China Pink’ grow in front of our Edgeworthia in partial shade.  Black Eyed Susans will bloom later in the summer.  Here, Creeping Jenny grows in to cover the mulch as foliage from spring bulbs dies back to the ground.  All of these plants are either poisonous or so distasteful, the deer ignore them.

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She and I commiserate regularly, sharing plants, problems and solutions as we discover them.  We’ve both come to a sort of peace with our own very wild gardens.   Having learned that squirrels are as greedy in stealing our tomatoes as the deer are in munching flower buds, we have found ways to foil both.

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March 20 2015 fresh 003

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But unlike Rainer, we’ve also learned that wildlife gardening doesn’t have to attract every wild animal in the neighborhood.  We’ve gotten smarter about what we plant and what we don’t.   We have learned to use poisonous plants to good effect, even to repel voles with Daffodils, Hellebores, and other plants with poisonous roots.  We mix all sorts of Alliums into our pots and beds to discourage inquiring rabbits and deer.

We’ve learned to build slightly raised beds over and around tree roots, and to welcome the many ‘native’ plants already encroaching on our gardens.

Through trial, research, flashes of inspiration and a lot of errors, we’ve been gardening and finding satisfaction in our wild forest gardens.  Nothing is ‘post wild’ here, and no augers on electric drills for us, thank you very much….

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April 9, 2015 planting 001

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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October 17, 2014 light 019

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

16 responses to “A “Post Wild World”?

  1. LOL – that guy didn’t stand a chance! 😉 In the end, experience trumps all the grand ideas. You echo the survival strategies of our ancestors, planting to stay one step ahead of the competition of wild animals, while living amongst them. Thoughtful post!

    • Thank you, Eliza. I hope Rainer does stand a chance at creating wider acceptance for a beautiful and ecologically sound landscaping style. He has accomplished some beautiful work. But he will have to learn (as we all have over the years) how to anticipate and answer the naysayers. He just wasn’t prepared thoroughly enough to help non-gardening professionals translate his ideas into their own realities. I am sure he will continue to learn and season both as a speaker and as an horticulturalist. And, let me say again- he had a great sense of humur, and used it well in his presentation. Yes- experience and pragmatism trumps most everything else …. eventually ❤

  2. Laurin Lindsey

    Thank you for a good recap and sharing your thoughts. I like much of what Thomas Rainer has said as I have followed his blog over the years. The audience brought up good questions. As a designer I work for a happy medium. I use at least 50% native plants, we encourage organic gardening practices and the acclimated plants I use are not invasive. My clients want low maintenance, heat and frost tolerant, out door rooms and curb appeal in my very urban city. I challenge myself to give them what they desire while encouraging them to have a wildlife friendly garden too. One interesting thing I learned the hard way is if you don’t have deer and critter eating down you native perennials they get very leggy. So i have learned to replicate deer eating them : ) I also learned to remove my bird feeders before I put up my Christmas lights on my Crape myrtle after the squirrels gnawed off and ruined 8 strands of lights. Living in harmony is a process! I have been very heartened that the city of Houston has let many of the roadsides and mediums go native as in prairie grasses and what we thought of as weeds. I think they do it to save money now that people are getting used to a more shaggy look.

    • Thank you for sharing this perspective, Lauren. Your comments about Houston brought to mind Mrs. Johnson, and her tireless efforts to preserve Texas wildflowers. Native plantings do have a rather ‘shaggy’ look, especially as plants come and go through the season. It is rarely a manicured look! How much more interesting to drive on highways with native plantings, though. There is much more of a sense of place. Oregon’s Rt 5 has some of the most stunning highway plantings I’ve seen. Virginia does some of this, but not nearly as much as I’d like. I’m fascinated, though, that you have to replicate the effect of deer eating some of the perennials! I never thought to look at it as them helping with ‘the pruning.’ That is a positive way to view it, rather than as ‘deer damage.’ We don’t even try to have bird feeders here, anymore, because that food source attracts so many undesirable mammals to the feast. I have a recipe for pepper laced suet cakes I’m ready to make to help them through January, but no loose food for us. Sorry to hear about your Christmas lights, Laurin. That is the first time I’ve heard of squirrels gnawing them, too! I’ve seen facing timers and roof beams gnawed around here- Thought squirrels were a little more clever than that 😉 It is definitely a balancing act in selecting plants for any garden. Good for you for encouraging natives and working them in to the client’s vision. ❤ Best wishes, WG

  3. Half way across the world we have the same issues, just different wildlife. I enjoyed your post.

    • Thank you 😉 One tiny planet, and we all want to work with the conditions we have to bring forth abundance. What animals come to ‘share’ your garden with you? ❤

      • Koalas come at intervals, the Possums are probably here all the time but we only become aware of them sometimes. There is most diversity in the birds, there are 15 different types that come here frequently. What about at your home?

        • No Koalas or Possoms. Guessing the Koalas might be as hungry as our deer? We have a huge stand of bamboo at the back edge of our property they probably would love ❤ We have Possums, but don't see them unless we are driving around the community at night. Same with foxes and raccoon. There are deer and squirrels everywhere, several kinds of turtles, frogs, toads, and lizards in summer. We have one of the highest bird counts in our county as anywhere in the country. We're on a major migration route. But we also have so much wetland, forest, and parks that we can support a large population year round. We have everything from Bald Eagles, Osprey Eagles, Canada Geese, White Egrets and Great Blue Herons down to Owls (who live in the ravine behind our home) and Hawks, Crows, and many varieties of song birds.Our cardinals are among the year round residents, and gather each evening in the bamboo. We're always happy when the hummingbirds show up each spring, and know winter is near end when the robins begin to return in February. It is always a pleasure to watch the birds. Cheers! WG

          • The Koalas only eat certain types of Eucalypts and there are plenty of those around here so they won’t go hungry. On Kangaroo Island they were breeding so prolifically they were literally eating themselves out of home. I think that’s been controlled by de-sexing.

            • Glad to know they aren’t endangered. Eucalyptus is something we rarely see here. I bought a little one a few years ago and grew it on in a pot, but put it in the ground last October. I’m hoping it survives for us here. Think we might be right on the edge of the climate where it is hardy.

  4. farseems

    Very well summarized and summed up.

  5. farseems

    Thank you very much, no, no augurs and drills for us already “post wild” wilders.

We always appreciate your comments. Thank you for adding your insight to the conversation.

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