Book Review: A New Way of Landscaping that Creates Habitat for Our Wildlife

Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Portland, Oregon, Timber Press, 2015, 271pp.

Douglas W. Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Portland, Oregon, 2007, Timber Press, 358pp.

Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of and Obsession, New York, Knopf, 2008, 359pp.

Rainer and West in Planting in a Post-Wild World write:

…[A] new way of thinking is emerging. It does not seek nature in the remote mountain tops but finds it instead in the midst of our cities and suburbs. It looks at our degraded built landscapes with unjaded eyes, seeing the archipelago of leftover land—suburban yards, utility easements, parking lots, road right-of-ways, and municipal drainage channels—not as useless remnants but as territories of vast potential. We pass them every day; their ordinariness is what makes them special. As such, they are embedded in the fabric of our lives, shaping our most recurring image of nature.

The traditional landscaping that we inherited from the early gentlemen and merchants and their gardens evolved into landscape culture of “naturalness” as the picturesque preference for long views, open landscapes, clean edges, and touches of mystery. As a result, the general public has little tolerance for wild, illegible landscapes and plantings, especially in cities and towns. When people encounter highly mixed plantings, they are often reminded of abandoned fields or derelict industrial sites, places often associated with urban decay or neglect.

Rainer and West give us an alternative vision that can begin with our yards and be adapted to our communities.

So what exactly is the planting of the future? Look no further than just outside your front door. Go find a patch of weeds in your neighborhood. Notice the variety of species and how they interweave to form a dense carpet. Or better yet, take a hike in a nearby natural area. Look closely at how plants grow in a meadow or a forest’s edge. Observe the lack of bare soil and the variety of ways plants adapt to their site. Then when you get back to your neighborhood, compare those wild communities to the plantings in landscape or garden beds. There is a difference between the way they grow in the wild and the way they grow in our gardens. Understanding this difference is the key to transforming your planting.

…the solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.

Notice that the question for gardeners shifts from what to plant to how to plant.

By focusing on naturally occurring plant communities, as opposed to those that are purely native, the focus is shifted from a plant’s country of origin to its performance and adaptibility.

All it takes to become a plant community is:

1. All plants should survive in similar environmental conditions.

2. Plants must be compatible in terms of their competitive strategies, the key to having plants that last.

The practice is to cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants. As the light levels drop under a tree, grasses transition to a mass of ferns, maintaining a continuous sea of plants. The bases of trees where traditional planting often piles mounds of mulch can be filled with plants (green mulch) instead. Any space around the base of a plant is a space waiting to be filled. Even low plants benefit from being under-planted with creeping plants.

Rainer and West talk about ” naturally occurring plant communities, as opposed to those that are purely native.” Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home is an entomologist concerned about the insects that consume native plants and support native insectivores, like birds and amphibians. Tallamy goes to the ability of the native insects to survive on the plant, regardless of its origin but notes that even alien plants with similar origins accommodate fewer insect species than native plants. The ability of insects to survive to eat and pollinate the next year’s crops of native plants is critical to the survival of those native plants. As habitat is destroyed in development, as pesticides and herbicides are broadly applied without planning, the links between native plants, native insects, and native birds are broken and we start to notice population declines of birds and popular insects, like butterflies and showier moths. Tallamy describes these relationships in his chapter, “What does bird food look like?”

Whatever else it is, local habitat extinction is a local ecological and horticultural crisis. Having the native plants for native insects is the security for the habitat of the rest of the food web. And whatever impact native insects have on alien plants, alien insects frequently have had devastating impacts on native plants. And alien insects are frequently transported on alien plants.

How did we get so enamored of ornamental exotic species in the first place? Andrea Wulf tells the tale of how, on the British side of the Atlantic, wealthy gentlemen and merchants with networks of correspondents around the world traded plants from one continent to another. Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners describes how that correspondence and shipment of boxes of plants produced the explorer-botanists who would search out and ship the boxes of these new exotics as they were laying the foundations of the science of botany in the midst of Britain’s expansion of its empire. She then traces that history to the English obsession with gardening that was exported to America.

Peter Collinson had a correspondent in Pennsylvania named John Bartram, who regularly shipped him boxes of native plants from the eastern coast of America. Another correspondent, a Father d’Incarville sent seeds of Ailanthus altissima from China to Collinson in England in 1751; within a few decades, the tree of heaven had arrived in America. Because it is resistant to pollution, it was widely planted. Today it is considered an invasive species. In 1739 the Camellia japonica camellia had arrived in England and was on its way to America. It is one of the mainstays of ornamental exotics and quite well behaved; its popularity increased the replacement of native plants (such as rosemallow) with ever more camellias. In fact, the default landscaping for local gardens tends to be these exotics that are the result of 300 years of globalization.

Wulf’s book introduces some of the early scientific botanists, such as Mark Catesby, whose Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, (London, 1731-48) contains some of the earliest paintings of native plants and animals in the Carolinas. She follows the obsession with gardens that spread from France to England to America; a subsequent work of Wulf’s describes the gardening obsessions of the four first US Presidents, to whom much of our current styles of landscaping owe inspiration.

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