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Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes

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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 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.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published October 15, 2015

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Thomas Rainer

4 books9 followers

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5 stars
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82 (13%)
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15 (2%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 81 reviews
Profile Image for Tarah.
421 reviews60 followers
August 23, 2018
Interesting enough in concept (and pretty pictures), but unclear exactly who the audience is here. Home gardener with TONS of money and an estate, I guess? But some interesting take aways re: planting/landscaping with wilderness in mind. However: minus 10 points from Slytherin for sentences like "Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for the first European colonists arriving on the shores of America" and then waxing white-washed nostalgic for the "virgin" land "we" arrived to. Ugh.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,717 reviews2,311 followers
January 3, 2016
Those random little manufactured planting beds outside of Target, the grocery store, lining the pedestrian walkways in your city... Pansies, petunias, and maybe a random boxwood or juniper, right?

This book, while about plants and land use, is also about humans and society. Professional landscape designers, as well as the common gardener can take something away from this beautiful book. Yes, we want wild spaces to remain wild and untouched, but how can we bring this aesthetic, this biome into our urban spaces, suburban parking lots and business parks, and even in post-industrial/farming/rural landscapes that could be wild again?

This is a practical guide - discussing plants, heights, native species, management and maintenance, but also societal, and personal relationships with nature and habitats. My favorite chapter/section was entitled "The Inspiration of the Wild" and had detailed descriptions about three specific land archetypes, and how they play into human culture (folktales, songs, literature) and also into our livelihoods and general aesthetic. The authors look at grasslands and savannas, shrublands/marshes, and forests, discussing in detail each of these landscape archetypes. (Unfortunately, deserts were not discussed here, but many of the themes, especially of "edge" environments can apply to deserts.) The archetypes lead to technical discussion of designing these spaces and land use, which is fascinating itself, using colors, plant heights, etc. One theme that was brought up a number of times resonated with me. It's about the whole habitat - not just the individual plant. Gardeners plant things apart to cultivate them, spread apart, mulched, cleared, weeded - but nature is not orderly in this way. This book makes a case for managing a landscape rather than maintaining an individual plant/s.

The final part of the book showcases this design method in many environments- small "beds" and ponds, green spaces in urban areas, rooftop gardens that use savanna grasses or meadow plants, interior tree groves and mosses planted and managed inside buildings, etc. On a larger scale, there are also land trust sites, preserves, and arboretums also described and showcased in a larger environment with more room to design.

The spaces are designed, yes, but they recall this natural element that appeals to us and desire for the "natural". And NO pansies or petunias in sight! I'd love to see more of these natural spaces, however large or small, incorporated into landscape design around my city and suburbs!

A beautiful book, with great writing too. Recommended to anyone into plants, land use, and human / nature interaction.
Profile Image for Mark Hartzer.
275 reviews2 followers
July 14, 2018
This is really for landscape designers moreso that the average homeowner. Nevertheless, some ideas are really good. As someone who has bought dozens of cubic yards of mulch over the years, I really like their idea of "green mulch", or having layers of plants covering the ground instead of mulch.

Really nice photos too.
101 reviews1 follower
January 10, 2016
First, the cons: This book is targeted more at landscape designers than the home gardener, which is especially clear when you get to the practical considerations section. The consistent use of only scientific names for plants throughout the text also makes it more burdensome than it really needs to be (yes, common names vary, but a combo of common and scientific names would make for an easier read and give many readers touchpoints to better understand the examples).

The pros are that this is a beautiful book, well-written, and provides a lot of food for thought when considering how to design a planting, as well as how to better utilize available planting space. Overall, it's definitely worth a read for anybody looking to plant a new garden and/or renovate current plantings.
Profile Image for Ashlynn.
51 reviews4 followers
January 4, 2016
This book clarified my thinking about garden design while keeping one foot firmly in the ecological realm of gardening. The archetypes section was especially helpful, as well as the examination of plant behavior to determine what role they should perform in garden design.

(The only disappointment for me was that, save for maybe three mentions of pollinators, it glossed over the fact that thousands of species literally need native plants to survive. The book promoted using native plants, but for those unfamiliar with the reasons why, they may wonder why anyone would go to so much trouble to make untidy natives look nice!)
Profile Image for Renee.
776 reviews23 followers
March 12, 2016
I wish there was a *little* more actionable content, but the essays are still very interesting and don't take away from it. Kind of caters to high-level thinking on this stuff, and on design at a level for more hard-core professionals than mere hobbyists or enthusiasts (like me). Found the case-study format of the actual plans the best part of this book; showed what can be done with a kind of space and how to do it.
Profile Image for Ryan.
990 reviews
April 26, 2020
Aside from a few Michael Pollan books, I don't know the first thing about gardening and landscaping, so you may want to take this enthusiastic response to Thomas Rainer and Claudia West's Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes with a grain of salt.

Rainer and West argue that we should design landscapes that are both functional and aesthetic. We can see the functional in plants that thrive naturally in wild spaces, or just in parts of a town that have some dirt and lichens. Hardy climates call for hardy plants, and there is neither functional nor aesthetic sense in planting a bunch of daffodils in a taxing ecosystem. As for aesthetics, well, I don't have a great eye for aesthetics. Decor, fashion, and paintings are mostly opaque to me. And shapes, colors, patterns, and textures are all beyond me individually let alone smushed together. But Rainer and West call on planters to design around three archetypes: grasslands, woodlands, and forests. They offer guidelines about how to design around these archetypes. As I went for a run this morning, I was modestly pleased to discover that I could now spot these archetypes. Areas that used to code in my brain as "there are some plants there" now read as "someone has used grasses and plant cover to express a grassland archetype." In other words, I was able to see both agency and design.

There are other moments in the book worth consideration. First, there is a taxonomy of plants based on their strategy for survival. Interesting! I was also fascinated by how their lives had guided them to this philosophy. Rainer arrives at "designed plant communities" after a life of American environmental decline. West, who grew up in East Germany, saw environmental degradation (indiscriminate use of pesticides and reckless disposal of pollutants) in her youth but has lived through environmental recovery. I also found their calls for designed plant communities interesting after recently finishing Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian trilogy. In it, people terraform Mars according 'ecopoetics,' which does not sound so far from the balance between function and aesthetics Rainer and West advocate. Readers of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline might also appreciate their ability to find beauty within functional plants rather than romantic flowers.

Sometimes, it's tricky to tell if books are great or if they're just low-hanging fruit for the reader. For me, perhaps it's the latter. But if you've read very little about gardens and landscaping, I recommend Designing Plant Communities. We should always be open to books that will make the world around us a bit more decipherable.
182 reviews7 followers
September 7, 2021
This book is full of beautiful photos of a variety of landscapes and gardens. The rooftop gardens and glass-walled atriums, beautiful as they are, are like a polar bear in a zoo: they allow a few humans to appreciate a little bit of the beauty of the living world, but they're not doing anything to stop it becoming extinct.

The authors' goal is to show the reader how to create good design by considering "the relationships of 1) plants to place, 2) plants to people, and 3) plants to other plants. . . . Finally, plants are related to other plants by carefully layering them into various niches, resulting in a truly functional community with the highest possible ecological value." But I don't see how a community has any ecological value if the only living things in it are 1) humans and 2) the plants that a designer has chosen and placed there.

This book is aimed at landscape designers, but has advice that is applicable to my little yard:

Remember that plants are a community, not isolated individuals; each is always affecting the conditions the others live in.

You can help plants co-exist and even sustain each other by thinking of the layers, above and below ground, and the divisions in time throughout the year, that each of them needs to flourish.

My blooming, buzzing confusion is a delight to me, but may look like a mess to my neighbors. I can increase their enjoyment by designing a landscape that is legible.
Profile Image for George Christie.
48 reviews2 followers
February 1, 2020
As a lanscape designer with a degree in landscspe architecture I applaud this book's goal of creating more-natural types of planting deseigns. In this sense it feels refreshing and new.

Full stop.

It completely fails to discuss plants and their relationships with their native environment, including any interactions with native soil organisms or larger animals. Native bees? Who cares? Native caterpillars for native birds? Irrelevant. In this sense it feels as dated as a rotary phone.

Design-wise it's an interesting read. Ecologically, it falls well short. I'm surprised Doug Tallamy had a positive quote on the front cover, as this book seems like a one-step-forward (design), one-step-back (local ecology) kind of thing.
130 reviews2 followers
September 18, 2017
Outstanding. I've been struggling with how to "mass" plants without looking strange in the landscape. I want big impact and keep weeds down, drought tolerance, and native if it is appropriate for the space. This book outlines the strategy I've been struggling to figure out on my own. Designing a "plant community" in layers makes all the sense in the world to me... this book is especially for new gardeners but all gardeners can learn a lot from the methods presented here.
Profile Image for Mary.
835 reviews46 followers
September 20, 2022
Somewhere in the 4 1/2 star range because for all I love it, might be a little too aimed at the crowd who have large swaths of land available to them, either as estate holders or landscape architects. The smallest parcel of land discussed is the courtyard of the New York Times , which is remarkable and a great example of the "Forest" typology.

The typology is at the heart of the book--prairie, forest, woodland and "transitional," a sort of in-between the others--in designing spaces that are managed rather than strictly maintained. As managed landscapes, one only has to keep the frames sharp, selectively weed invasives or non-desirable plants and keep the overall view pleasant, rather than obsessing over each individual plant. The impact of the middle-distance view is kind of the key. Forest typology benefits from a view of parallel-ish trunks, verdant ground cover and not much in-between. Instead of having a lot of variety of colors and textures, there's a repetition and blowiness that allows the eye to rest. Again, the Times courtyard is a paragon with maybe three species total, and a seasonal palette of green, white and gold. Prairie design, exemplified by the work of Dutch designer Piet Oudolf such as the High Line, may have more species, but they are still repeating and random within the plant community. The authors recommend creating layers from low to high, including seasonal bloomers for each season.

For as natural as these landscapes look, the authors are gardeners, not naturalists. These are designed spaces and are allowed to include non-native plants. There's a weariness about the native/non-native debate, which the authors see as reductive, especially in the face of climate change where the plants that best perform in a space may not be those that previously grew there. Additionally, the authors often iterate the sharp lines, especially hardscaped walkways, are necessary in giving these places a civilized veneer. Cease to mow your lawn and invite weeds and you may get an HOA citation. Do the same thing, but include some smart raised brick partitions and you are a landscape artist.
Profile Image for Terry.
298 reviews66 followers
April 9, 2021
I first became aware of Planting in a Post-Wild World a few years back when attending a professional conference of landscape architects and hearing the authors speak. It prompted me to buy, read and even incorporate some of their novel ideas into my work. The best success I have had with approach has been with green roofs, but I have also applied it to the ground plane.

Because there few reviews, I thought I would write one here on Goodreads. These days, I read more novels than non-fiction, so my regular followers may be surprised to find a review of this book. I hope, though, that this review will help spread the word about this important book.

Planting in a Post-Wild World is a valuable resource for landscape architects, of which I am one. It presents a different view of planting design, a different way of thinking about the developed landscapes — thinking which incorporates the concept of systems and the growth cycles of plants.

Most of our landscapes are no longer “wild”, and attempts to replicate the wild with native plant restorations are valiant, sometimes not successfully achieved, and frequently unsuitable at the garden scale. “Gardens” are artificial constructs, even when filled with native plants. The authors provide an alternate technique to achieving success with plants, mimicking the “wild” dynamic relationships of plants to each other.

Five stars and kudos to Rainer (a landscape architect) and West (the owner of a perennial nursery). There are so many books out there about planting design that do not explore new ground, and so it is refreshing, to say the least, to read one which is counterpoint to conventional approaches.

And, if you are an enthusiastic and adventurous sort of gardener, with a blank slate piece of ground, you might try an experiment to see if this would work on a small scale in your own personal garden. This book could help you to do that. At the very least, it will lead you to think about your garden in a different sort of way.

Profile Image for Kate.
251 reviews51 followers
August 4, 2021
"As populations expand and resources become increasingly limited, plantings can no longer be just ornamental backdrops for our buildings. They must instead perform double duty: cleaning our storm water, providing a food source for pollinators, and acting as kind of genetic reservoir for diversity. Achieving this requires understanding how plants fit together, how they change over time, and how they form stable compositions."

This book was a delight to read. While targeted more at landscape designers than the layperson, the later (i.e. myself) still has plenty to learn from this book. "Planting in a Post-Wild World" explores how we can take an ecosystem approach to gardens and plantings. It considers how best to create resilient landscapes by paying attention to the existing ecosystem and building on its strengths, rather than continuing with extractive, resource-intensive landscape practices that look nice aesthetically but are false and contributing to ecological problems.

This guide won't tell you what species of plant to use when designing; rather, it lays out high-level principles and frameworks and shows you how to adapt them to your own site. This point - understanding the site itself, and working with it, rather than against it - is emphasized over and over. But the book also notes it's not sufficient to choose 'good plants.' The human relationship matters as well. Pollinator plots are lovely, but if the surrounding community hates them because they look scraggly and messy, what's the point?

Planting in a Post-Wild World notes there's a lot of heavy lifting to do when it comes to using plants and restoration to solve ecological problems. For all the praise being heaped on things like native plants right now, it's much easier said than done to simply get an ecologically thriving community going. If you're up for the challenge, however, this book is a great place to help you start thinking through how to do it.
"Designing plant communities require...plant lovers who understand that we don't need to go to a national park to have a spiritual experience of nature; we can have such experiences in our backyards, parks, and rooftops."
Profile Image for Laura Marelic.
27 reviews34 followers
February 23, 2023
Read this book since it seems to be the go-to for landscape designers getting into ecological planting. So many big, beautiful photos wonderfully illustrate the concepts. There are also some really helpful charts and diagrams. The middle of the book felt repetitive (I didn’t need 30 pages to understand layering) but again the photos kept my interest. I wish they included examples from places beyond the US and Europe, though I understand the climate zones are similar between those areas and therefore probably most familiar. Overall, I felt inspired each day I read this book and will likely reference it in the future when I design a planting of my own.
Profile Image for Kari.
12 reviews3 followers
November 23, 2020
I really liked this book for the conceptual and philosophical overview of plant communities. I need additional resources to help translate these to my own space and region. It does seem this book is aimed at experienced gardeners and landscape designers, but I got a lot out of it in an overview/sense of purpose/finding a direction way.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
263 reviews
September 8, 2021
Love the thoughts behind this gardening book. It’s not your typical gardening book. It focuses on how to plant to keep weeds down naturally through other plants, and planting in a way that mimics nature. It did seem like it was written for an audience already very familiar with gardening/landscape architecture. I’m excited to get started in my yard little by little.
69 reviews
November 3, 2020
Unless you are really into design this is book is a bit in the weeds (LOL).
If you are a budding landscape designer or in school to be one, this would be a very good book to read.
It was more than I really wanted to know, but that does not take away from the book. It was just not for me.
8 reviews
December 30, 2016
Revolutionary concept! The book is very well written with excellent pictures and illustrations, without a single word wasted. Thank you, Thomas and Claudia, for the ground breaking work, that brings ideas and practical actionable methods to create an ecological, resilient, naturalistic, harmonious and aesthetic pleasing planting style that I have always been wishing for.
February 18, 2021
I bought this book after hearing the author speak several years back. Ever since then I’ve tried (with only modest success) to use plants instead of mulch to cover the ground. The book includes some interesting design advice. Although much of it seems geared to professional designers, a savvy home gardener could definitely absorb most points. (Not me 😉) The archetype section was especially helpful and there were good tips on building layers. While designing resilient plant communities is the stated goal, using native plants was not as stressed as much as West did at her talk. To me, truly sustainable landscaping includes supporting birds, amphibians, insects, etc. The gardens photographed were wonderful.
Profile Image for Jess.
194 reviews2 followers
September 27, 2018
This book eloquently picks up on a number of trends in landscape design that have been gaining steam over the past few years, directed towards more resilient and enduring place-making. I appreciate the authors’ open framework which takes a more wholistic and creative approach to planting design and breaks free from the puritanical exclusively native camp instead foregrounding community and system thinking.

I’d be interested in an exploration of additional archtypes, while grasslands, woodlands and forests cover many typologies, there are certainly more left on the table.

It’s Interesting to read the other reviews. While I agree it is largely directed towards design professionals I think in many ways individual hobbyists are better positioned to follow the recommendations of the authors, particularly in the creating and managing section of the book.

All in all a good resources and with while ready for anyone interested in landscape design and/or gardening.
Profile Image for Carmine.
259 reviews2 followers
June 9, 2018
I don't entirely agree with the author's premises as I am much more of a purist when it comes to planting natives, but there were some valuable concepts in here, such as planting to reflect real natural habitats, creating landscape layers all the way to the ground. Plus "how to" info on ratio of structural layer plants to middle and ground layers, and how to go about preparing the site and installing. I think the text is more geared to landscapers than home gardeners such as I, but still valuable.
Profile Image for romney.
151 reviews1 follower
October 21, 2018
This is a pretty technical book, targeted at the professional gardener. That said, it contains a lot of information about design, planting and maintenance of semi-wild spaces. If you're wondering why your prairie meadow looks bad or seems to require a lot of maintenance even though you're doing exactly what other people told you to do, this book will tell you how to fix it but perhaps not in the way you expect. Be prepared to have your assumptions about natural landscapes challenged.
Profile Image for Jason.
14 reviews6 followers
November 16, 2015
All of my intuitions and approach to horticulture and landscape design validated - loved it!
43 reviews38 followers
October 25, 2017
First of all, gorgeous! Secondly, thoughtful planning and preparation guide for sustainable landscaping. Highly recommend to novices and enthusiasts; definitely a good pick for a public library.
Profile Image for Carol.
392 reviews4 followers
March 29, 2018
Good book. Lots to think about both in thinking about your own yard and also community spaces.
Profile Image for Sarah Guldenbrein.
233 reviews7 followers
March 27, 2020
This is definitely more geared toward landscape designers than home gardeners, but I still got a lot out of it. I appreciated their flexible philosophy that suggests that you should probably plant a lot of natives, but that not all exotics are inherently problematic. They advocate for thinking about plant communities, which is very permaculture, without ever using the word. As designers, they acknowledge that gardens/designed landscapes are about creating a pleasing design for humans, and have lots of advice for how to achieve that. I quite love this permaculture-in-philosophy, horticulture-in-practice take. However, as someone who is relatively new to gardening, I found their forest/woodland/grassland archetypes to be a little difficult to make practical sense of: I get what they're saying, but not how to translate it into the specifics of my own garden. Finally, the authors seem to be situated in the eastern US and Germany, so many of the plants they referenced are unfamiliar to me. As a hobbyist, I'm only familiar with the most common Western natives and garden plants.

All that said, though, I read it from cover to cover and have been thinking about it a lot, so it's been of some use even if I'm not quite the target reader.
Profile Image for Joel.
142 reviews2 followers
August 20, 2020
I'll definitely revisit this book when I have garden/lawn space of my own. Unfortunately, apartment living isn't very conducive to the practices described here. But when I have access to my own land, this book will be an essential resource.
Designed plant communities emphasize function, yes, but what we ultimately need are plantings that are relatable to humans. For us, it is their aesthetic and evocative qualities, perhaps even more than their utility, that makes them relevant and timely. Designed plant communities have the potential to transcend many of the bad stereotypes associated with ecological planting. The lingering impression that native and ecological planting is messy partly explains why so much of the world, particularly the United States, relies on lawns and conventional horticulture as the default treatment, despite the high labor and cost needed to perpetuate them. But this stigma of messiness need not be perpetuated. In many ways, a community-based approach to planting depends even more on a designer to translate natural patterns into an ordered vernacular that connects with people. This is precisely why a focus on designed plant communities can lead to a renaissance of design.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
136 reviews4 followers
July 18, 2018
This book opened my mind like no other “gardening” book I’ve ever read. Landscape design is so much more than you think it is, and if you have the smallest interest in learning why then this very thoughtfully written book with perfect charts and photos and descriptions is exactly what you’re looking for. I can open the book to any random page and be instantly engrossed.. in a landscape design book. “As extreme and unnatural as urban conditions may seem, there is likely a native plant community in the wild that thrives under similar conditions.”

You know those really amazing educators who take complicated concepts and boil them down for you in language that even your tiny brain can understand, and then make you think about them in new and expanding ways? Rainer and West are those teachers. For example, the idea of “layers of a plant community”, from season to ground cover to “structure” really pulls all of your random thoughts into a concise package of planning and planting.

I could keep telling you things that I learned from this book, but it would be the whole book. I loved the Meditation on Three Gardens at the end for the hope and inspiration.

I just love this.
Profile Image for Tammy.
243 reviews6 followers
February 9, 2023
Almost skipped this based on the reviews of it being targeted for designers but am glad I decided to go ahead and give it a go. Yes that is clearly the target audience and some sections won't apply to the average homeowner, but there was also plenty of discussion on general landscape design that would be applicable to anyone looking to do some planting/landscaping. It also was less native plant focused than a lot of recent reading I have (surprising for a book with a Tallamy endorsement right up top) but certainly the concepts could be applied to native plantings. The overarching idea is how to design complex plantings without isolated plants traditionally seen in home landscaping but rather communities of multiple plants interacting, so a more naturalistic planting even if the plants itself aren't natural. It isn't going to give you detailed planting designs, and the plants are all talked about by scientific names so if you aren't familiar with those its hard to follow specific plants, but will give you overall big picture considerations to keep in mind. Its also a pretty easy straightfoward read filled with gorgeous imagery.
405 reviews2 followers
December 13, 2019
A big fan of the landscape ideas of Piet Oudolf, Rick Darke, Noel Kingsbury and now Thomas Rainer & Claudia West. When talking to clients, I tell them my landscape esthetic is Organized Chaos but I see now can also be called Designed Plant Communities. Of the three layers discussed, (Structural, Seasonal Themed, and Base),discussion of the ground or base layer was eye opening and very intriguing. I use ground covers, but not to the extent in this book and have probably relied too much on mulch. I can have a fuller and richer Organized Chaos. Thank you Thomas & Claudia! Although i agree with much of the plant material used (native/native cultivars & non native) in garden & landscape settings, we do have to be very careful to keep our "wild" areas as "wild" and as close to native as possible and free of non native thugs. We don't need our forests & grasslands looking like the urban sprawl one sees as you travel across our country with the same store chains, the same restaurants, etc - no individuality. There are certainly degrees of Post Wild.
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