Planting in a Post-Wild World |Thomas Rainer |Central Texas Gardener


– Well, howdy, I’m John Hart Asher from the
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, sitting in for Tom Spencer. Today, I’m really excited about our guest. We’ve got Thomas Rainer here, a landscape
architect from Phyto Studios from the DC area. And thank you for being with us today. – Thanks for having me. – Well, I’m really excited about this topic
because it’s something that’s definitely near and dear to my heart. And I want to talk about really your approach
to landscape design and incorporating ecology in urban areas. You’ve done work on the US Capitol grounds,
the Martin Luther King Memorial, and then also you’ve done the New York Botanical Garden,
is that correct? – Yeah, we worked on the native plant garden
there and one of the azalea gardens there. – Okay, that’s great. So you’ve got, and besides that, even all
that work, you’re doing a lot of talking, so you’re a premier speaker. You’ve got your book out, “Planting in a Post-Wild
World” and you’ve got your blog Grounded Design. – That’s correct, yeah. – [John] Do you have, what do you do in the
day? My goodness. – It’s fun. – Well, that’s wonderful. How would you say you’re different from just
what people might consider just a typical design? – Sure. So we’re a landscape architecture practice
but what we really focus on is ecological horticulture, so we’re very niche-y in that
way. And some of our work is our own projects but
a lot of time we’re supporting other designers and other landscape architects on larger scale
projects where ecological horticulture is something that has to be beautiful but also
functional. We’re kind of the niche sub-consultant that
helps with those kind of projects. – We talked about function. Can you delve a little bit deeper in there
to sort of understand what that means exactly? – Yeah, as the world changes, I think people
are realizing more and more that plants no longer have to just be the parsley around
the pot roast of our buildings, right? They just don’t have to be decorative anymore. And urban projects all over the country are
realizing that the planting space that could happen in a park or a rooftop and drainage
ways can not only kind of be decorative but also be functional and we mean kind of ecologically
functional for sequestering carbon, for filtering storm water, for providing, have to have your
pollinators. Just all kinds of ecosystem services that
cities are increasingly needed. So in many ways, there’s this new opportunity,
kind of this new genre I think of planting design that’s not just kind of about clipped
meatballs lawn and the kind of traditional horticultural ways that American cities use
plants, but they’re really about kind of creating more functional, more biodiverse kind of matrixes
that can do a lot more. – When you’re doing some of your designs,
I know we’ve encountered sort of this argument against formal versus natural or however you
might phrase that. Well, what are your thoughts about that? Especially people tend to think of urban designs
or landscape designs as much more, whether people say well-maintained or clean lines. What are your thoughts on that? – Well, it’s important, because I think planting
in urban areas has to be attractive. And a lot of what’s passed for ecological
planting, particularly with storm weather or even some pollinator planting, often gets
a bad rap for being unattractive or being good morally but not always pleasurable to
humans. And we think that’s kind of a false dichotomy. I think in terms of formal versus informal,
very often we think about these design mixes, these kind of social systems that we do. We think of them almost like liquid that gets
poured into a frame. So an herbaceous mix, a meadow mix, a green
roof mix, all these things all typically have the same height roughly for us. And we think about how can we frame these
things in an urban context to make them look more attractive? So in some ways, we’re kind of agnostic about
style. You could take a formal boxwood garden with
frames and pour in the biodiverse kind of mix in the middle and it would look like a
high style garden. Versus something much bigger, farther out
in the urban area or on the fringe where the look of wildness is actually really attractive. I think in urban areas, it’s interesting because
there’s so much framework, there’s so many sidewalks and buildings and other things,
you have a little more flexibility in some ways because they’re such framed environments,
to be a little looser than you would in, say, suburban contexts, where all that context,
vernacular context is very strong. I think we would work harder in those situations
to try to pour our liquid mixes into using lawns, using clipped shrubs, using any kind
of frames you want. Very traditional horticultural elements to
help frame and make those look attractive. – So you’re talking about urban and suburban. Do y’all primarily do larger projects? Do you do any residential? – We do, yeah. Some of them is estates, and what’s really
been interesting in the mid-Atlantic has just been number of kind of more land management
projects really, where garden design meets land management. It’s been kind of a growing niche for us because
there’s so many people that have a little bit of meadow, a little bit of forest edge,
a little bit, and invasive ecology, invasive plants are so much a part of those areas. And those are not perennial borders, those
are not areas in which traditional garden strategies and the maintenance levels that
goes into those will work. So on our residential, we’re kind of focusing
on sometimes this very formal garden design, but a lot of it’s kind of out in the back
40 of a lot of people’s yards where we think there’s a lot of opportunity but really require
a different way of thinking about planting design. – That’s an interesting comment about opportunity
because I think a lot of people think that if they choose to do something, especially
whether it’s pollinator habitat or let’s call it ecological design, that they might not
really be able to have that much of an impact because it’s so small of an area. But what do you think about that? – I mean, I think these back 40s, these parts
of properties, is where we can have some of the largest impacts. The largest parts of our yards very often
and it’s sometimes as simple as changing a mowing strategy or the timing of mowing or
including a strategy to kind of tamp down the worst of the invasive species to allow
more biodiversity in certain areas, to increase more biodiversity in a hedge row in areas
that can add more color and other things. So we think there’s huge opportunity for wildlife,
for function, for aesthetics honestly. A lot of times, I think a higher, the more
native ecologies tend to be more legible than like an invasive ecology where vines and other
plants really make it a woodland, for example, look very unattractive. So we see it as being kind of a benefit aesthetically
and for the environment as well. – So whether it’s a large scale or a small
scale design, I know society really has an issue with plant blindness, it’s sort of growing. And these designs that you’re talking about
usually are composed of a cast of many characters, these plant communities. And so do y’all do anything to address how
that is maintained? Because there’s a lot of the industry doesn’t
understand what plant’s what or even what invasive plant is what. What do y’all do to ensure that these gardens
or landscapes really sustain themselves and how do you approach that? – Yeah, so everything you start with is, first
question we ask any client is what kind of resources can you put into management, into
your land management? And then that is the starting point. Whatever that is, everything else has to be
designed to meet that. So it really very often shapes how big the
project is, how much we focus, and what kind of methods people are gonna do. Some people have more resources, so we can
do more ornamental aspects on some of those, and in other places it’s really using things
like seed mixes and land management strategies, like once a year mowings from big equipment,
or things where crews come out once or twice. It really is a shift away, I think the limiting
factor and the hard thing for us is that it is a knowledge-based shift. It’s not more work. In fact, a lot of these things are a lot less
work than the types of things our clients were doing previously. Less mowing, less maintenance in some of these
other areas. But it is a different, you need more knowledge
and you have to kind of understand the timings and how to make this work. – But that’s really an opportunity. I think that’s why this is exciting for me
is, you know, we have plant blindness because we’re not really out in the landscape and
these sort of designs allow or extend the opportunity for us to get out there and really
learn about our plants and the natural world. – Yeah, plants want to work for us and I think
the more we can help people understand that plants are not, because the big shift for
us is not plants as individual objects but it’s these dynamic engines. – [John] Flower bed. – They’re these engines, you know? And so like we think about a car engine and
if you take all the parts of the car engine out and then reassemble them like we do with
plants in our gardens, with all the pieces of the engine broken and in different areas,
in many ways we lose the functionality that happens. So what we’re trying to do is to show people
ways of reassembling these. And these are simplified ecologies, these
are not full designs, but to put them in yards in which they have some of that function as
that engine. You know, where things are layered together,
all the benefits of biodiversity, the different layers and stuff add to services that can
help our clients, from aesthetics all the way to more functional landscapes. – And I guess that really gets to a point
that I think is important to both you and I, that it’s about people getting back into
the landscape. It’s not people over here and nature over
here. – No, absolutely not. I think the engagement is the thing. As we globalize, as the world changes, engagement
with land, engagement with plants, these are things that I think are not only important. These are just incredibly important to how
we interact in the world and I think they’re important to us spiritually. And I think, and this was really interesting
for us, one of the bigger demands we’re seeing is in more urban areas, the desire for a more
naturalistic landscapes. In some ways, it’s a nostalgia for the wild. Our fueling, I think, this desire to have
more biodiverse planting is in urban areas. So we see this as a good thing. People in the concrete jungles of our big
cities want a little access to green. Nature Deficit Disorder and want. Not just green clipped and annual beds, but
they want kind of the abundance of a natural system. They find that more and more pleasurable. – Well, I’d like to thank you so much for
coming and visiting with us and talk about extremely interesting topic. And if you need to look into resources, your
website is? – Phytostudio.com. – Phytostudio.com. And then Grounded Design, of course, your
blog. – Yeah, and it’s just my name, thomasrainer.com. – Thomasrainer.com. Well, thank you so much for coming here. We really appreciate it. – Thanks, John. – And next, we’ll follow up with Daphne.




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