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Think of plant as groups, not specimens

  • FILE - In this June 7, 2011, file photo, an area of exposed rail pokes through the foliage after on the High Line, an industrial era elevated railway converted into a city park in New York. Many plant and landscape experts have begun thinking of plants in terms of communities, instead of as individual specimens. They recommend that home gardeners look to the wild for inspiration. The idea is to think of plants as interrelated species. That shift in thinking got underway in earnest with...Kathy Willens

  • Paddle cactus, butterfly milkweed and little blue stem grass grow together in this sun drenched outcrop of the Native Plant Garden in New York. New York Botanical Garden

  • FILE - In this June 7, 2011, file photo, visitors pause to take in views of the city's West Side on the High Line, an industrial elevated railway converted into a city park, in New York. Many plant and landscape experts have begun thinking of plants in terms of communities, instead of as individual specimens. They recommend that home gardeners look to the wild for inspiration. The idea is to think of plants as interrelated species. That shift in thinking got underway in earnest with the...Kathy Willens

  • This undated photo provided by the New York Botanical Garden shows large intermixing masses of purple-flowering monarda mix with palm sedge and garden phlox along the sunny edge of a gentle slope planted with actea, which thrives in the drier and shadier conditions under a mature pin oak in NYBG's Native Plant Garden in New York. Many plant and landscape experts have begun thinking of plants in terms of communities, instead of as individual specimens. They recommend that home gardeners...

  • This undated photo courtesy of Tom Potterfield shows the "rabbit's eye point of view" of a plant that looks full from above, but actually has bare soil underneath where weeds are starting to grow. The photograph is featured in the book "Planting in a Post-Wild World," by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. Many plant and landscape experts have begun thinking of plants in terms of communities, instead of as individual specimens. They recommend that home gardeners look to the wild for...Tom Potterfield

  • FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2014, file photo, pedestrians stroll between luxury apartment buildings along the High Line in New York. Many plant and landscape experts have begun thinking of plants in terms of communities, instead of as individual specimens. They recommend that home gardeners look to the wild for inspiration. The idea is to think of plants as interrelated species. That shift in thinking got underway in earnest with the opening of the High Line. In a move considered radical...Kathy Willens



Associated Press
Friday, September 22, 2017

Are your plants looking lonely, surrounded by small patches of high-maintenance bare soil? If they look like they’re suffering in solitary confinement, maybe they are.

Many plant and landscape experts have begun thinking of plants in terms of communities, instead of as individual specimens. They recommend that home gardeners look to the wild for inspiration.

“Thinking of plants in terms of masses and groupings, as opposed to objects to be placed individually in a sort of specimen garden, is what most young people are really responding to now,” said Brian Sullivan, vice president for landscape, gardens and outdoor collections at the New York Botanical Garden.

The shift in landscaping toward looking at plants as interrelated species gained prominence almost a decade ago with the opening of the High Line, a public park built along an old elevated rail line in New York City, Sullivan said. In a move considered radical at the time – but replicated in parks and gardens across the country since then – the designers of the High Line went with a wilder look, with plantings resembling roadside grasses and wildflowers more than a traditional garden.

Many horticulturalists and landscapers say such gardens – with consideration of how plants benefit each other, and birds, insects and other wildlife – look better for more of the year, and are more functional and self-sustaining.

For landscape designer Thomas Rainer, co-author of Planting for a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes with Claudia West, his epiphany began when he pulled over to the side of a road one day and really looked at what was growing naturally there.

“I’d been puzzling over how we can reach this holy trinity of beauty, low maintenance and functionality in landscaping. Looking more carefully at this weedy neglected patch at the side of road, I saw that it was way more biodiverse than I’d ever dreamed. I counted 23 species in just one tiny section. It was kicking my garden’s butt in terms of biodiversity,” said Rainer, who has designed landscapes for the U.S. Capitol grounds, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the New York Botanical Garden, as well as gardens from Maine to Florida.

“If you look at the way plants grow naturally, it’s completely different from the way they grow in most parks and gardens,” he said. “If you look at functioning communities of plants, they really maintain themselves.”

“We have this peculiarly American habit of adding 2 or 3 inches of mulch a couple times a year, but green mulch – ground cover – happens naturally if we let it,” he said.

He reminds home gardeners that “there’s a huge range of self-spreading, less-sexy plants that create the conditions for stability for the upright plants, and require almost no maintenance whatsoever.”

Aesthetically, too, the right ground cover adds dimension to the more dramatic plants around it, making a landscape visually interesting throughout the year, he points out.

Those interested in adopting this approach can start by seeing bare soil as the enemy.

“There isn’t much bare soil at all in the wild,” Rainer points out. “Every inch is covered and there are various levels of plants all packed in together.”

He recommends getting on your knees and examining your garden from a rabbit’s perspective, then planting the bare patches with groundcover, ideally native, like sedges or even low perennials, many of which do well in the kind of dry, shaded areas that tend to be where the bare patches are found.

“There’s been a huge rise in popularity of sedges, which come in a range of colors like icy blues or apple greens that can really set off the bright pinks of an azalea,” he said.

Another fun thing to do is to step back and let the plants seed themselves for a season, Sullivan said. “Just watch and see what pops up, as opposed to planting every season.”