‘plants are the mulch’ and other nature-based design wisdoms, with claudia west

WHICH OF US doesn’t want to look out at a more resilient, manageable, and sustainable landscape–one that really works environmentally but also aesthetically, that’s not messy or chaotic?

Since the book “Planting in a Post-Wild World” came out in 2015, co-authored by Claudia West with Thomas Rainer, I’ve been gradually studying their ideas and starting to have some light bulbs go off, on how to be inspired to put plants together in the ways that nature does, in layered communities.

Claudia joined me on the July 17, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast to about some of the practical, tactical aspects of plant community-inspired designs that we can apply to our own gardens. About how to look at your landscape and read its structure and define its archetype—what kind of place it wants to be, and how to identify and then turn up the volume on the key seasonal “moments” you may already have. And most of all: we talked about covering more soil with plants—not wood mulch! (ABove, Physostegia and late yellow foliage of Amsonia.)

‘I truly believe that wildness and nature is a renewable resource,’ Claudia West says, ‘and that every single plant we put in the ground can make a difference.’

Read along (and listen using the player below or at this link).

You can enter to win a copy of the book by commenting on this story, using the comment box at the very bottom of the page.)

join claudia and me aug. 19 for special events

CLAUDIA WILL BE THE VISITING LECTURER during my Open Day garden event in Copake Falls, New York, the morning of August 19, 2017, and also give an afternoon design workshop; click here for details.

my q&a with claudia west

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Q. I’m so looking forward to your visit during my garden Open Day. I only wish I could not greet my visitors at the garden and come to your workshop myself [laughter].

A. I think we will have a lot of fun.

Q. I should start by saying congratulations on the new venture that you and Thomas Rainer and Melissa Rainer have recently begun called Phyto Studio. The banner on the PhytoStudio.com homepage speaks of “crafting artistic and technical solutions for the next revolution in planting design.” So that’s your mission, yes? [Above, Claudia, left, with Phtyo Studio’s Thomas and Melissa.]

A. Absolutely, and we are so excited to delve much deeper into the world of functional planting design as a team. We are extremely passionate about developing functional and ecological planting further to rebuild the foundation of life on the planet. [Laughter.]

Q. Just a small goal, yes, Claudia? [Laughter.]

A. Just a small goal, yes. It’s inspiring.

Q. To step back just a bit first: Give us a brief bio of how you got from your own beginnings on Earth, as you just mentioned, to sort of doing this. And especially your grasp of native plants in the U.S. I don’t think that’s the landscape you began with, was it?

A. That is so true. As you can hear from my accent, I am from Eastern Germany, and the landscapes of my childhood were a very dark and polluted place. My hometown was surrounded by soft coal mines that put incredible amounts of pollution into the air. Some of the mining fields they left behind looked like nature would never have a chance to return.

When I go back to exactly these same craters in our landscape now, they’re filled with crystal-clear water, and young forests are thriving right next to these lakes. So based on that experience, I have a deeply optimistic view of what we as gardeners and landscape professionals can achieve in really a very short lifetime.

I truly believe that wildness and nature is a renewable resource, and that every single plant we put in the ground can make a difference.

I can honestly say that like many other Europeans, I’ve always been in love with American native plants. We use them quite frequently in European landscapes, and that curiosity and the desire to learn more about these plants bought me my first ticket to the United States. And I was so shocked when I finally got here at age 18 to learn more about these incredible, beautiful plants that very few of them were actually used in the mainstream American landscape.

Q. Yes. I had friends who were German, and lived in Frankfurt at the time I visited them. And while they were at work during the days I would go around to various gardens—and I won’t remember because it was a long time ago, but they were public gardens. There were plantings that were in a naturalistic style, and they did include some American plants. It was just very interesting for me, because I was like, “Whoa, we don’t use those.” And again: this was decades ago. [Above, Chrysogonom and Solidago.]

A. It’s remarkable. You will find American phlox, and black-eyed Susans, and purple coneflowers in every German yard, to the point you think that they are European plants.

Q. [Laughter.] Something that you have said to me, and your colleague Thomas Rainer has said to me in similar words, that really sticks in my head is that “plants are the mulch.” Let’s start there, at that layer—because again, the concept in “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” and in the lecture and workshop you’re going to here, talks about planting in this community-inspired method. If that first layer is “plants are the mulch”…

A. I think every gardener intuitively knows that, because we gardeners and landscape professionals are inspired by natural plant communities that we may see out on a hike in a natural area, or on vacation. Very rarely do we see bare soil anywhere in natural, wild ecosystems.

I think one of the core principles of the natural world is that plants cover soil. (If you are in a really arid climate, you would have a lot of desert-scape bare-soil landscape.)

I think that the same principle is extremely powerful in a garden setting, and it produces much, much more sustainable landscapes if we meet nature halfway and work around this concept that plants cover soil; that nature abhors a vacuum.

I think that instead of mulching with wood [laughter], working with plants like they are designed in evolutionary terms to grow on this planet is beneficial in many, many different ways. It doesn’t only look more inspiring and beautiful to create lush, dense planting that mimics how plants arrange themselves in the wild, it also provides a habitat for some of the beautiful wildlife we so enjoy in our gardens.

And it soaks up the rain. We talk about rain gardens or sponge gardens a lot, and the more biomass we can put into our gardens, the more rain gets absorbed—put back into the ground to recharge the aquifer.

So I think on many different layers, working with this natural principle is beneficial and just so fulfilling and so meaningful for gardeners and designers.

Q. So nature doesn’t go to the garden center and buy bagged mulch? Is that what you are saying? [Laughter.]

A. [Laughter.] That’s exactly what I am saying. I don’t know where this almost perverse tradition came from, but I am hoping that collectively the green industry and gardeners can move away from that again, and put what really belongs on the ground back into our landscapes, and that is thriving plants.

Q. So that we are not displaying mulch as our design element? [Laughter.]

A. Exactly.

Q. Even if we are using it in the beginning when we first plant something, as weed suppression and as mitigation for the pounding of rain and the baking of sun, we’re not planning on it being a permanent feature—to show off the mulched spaces.

A. I think that temporary mulches can be incredibly helpful. They can help you suppress weeds and kick-start the soil, especially after disturbance. But I think the problem starts as soon as mulch starts replacing plants, and that is problematic.

Q. It’s OK when the plants touch, isn’t it? [Laughter.] When they all connect, isn’t it?

A. Plants are social creatures.

Q. I know, “Plants are social creatures.” I love that. When Thomas Rainer, your colleague, and I did that “New York Times” article not long ago [above], it was one of the things we talked about and it was kind of funny, and adorable, and it sticks in people’s heads; it’s a great way to think about it.

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