And the view from the UK by Mark Laurence

February 25, 2016

in Book Reviews, Reviews

I think that ‘Planting’ is an important book, but I was also struck when I read James’ review  that this was one of those times when the differences between the UK and America was quite significant. So I was very pleased when Mark Laurence offered thinkingardens a UK focused review of the book. And here it is.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

A review of Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West from a UK/European Perspective – by

Mark Laurence.

Planting in a Post-Wild World COVER 3D

This book represents the new wave of thinking about “natural” planting that has been emerging in recent years. Actually it has been developing for the last thirty or more years but like all new things it has tended to follow an exponential growth curve.  I’d say that right now we’re near the base of the steep upward bit with this one.  Left unchecked exponential growth tends to end in collapse but this idea deserves to stay the course.  To do that it has to translate from a style into a design language and that’s what this book is really about.

This is a very US-centric book, unsurprising since Thomas Rainer is from Alabama and Claudia West, though of East German origin, lives in the US.  I would have liked her influence to have given the book a more European feel; it would have been richer for it and more globally relevant.

The book has already been reviewed on thinkingardens by James Golden. Although I’ve read this I’m not referring to it, save for one point.  Needless to say, that review is also very US-centric; my purpose is to give a more UK/European viewpoint.

The thinking in this book is very design-led. The authors refer to landscape archetypes, which I think is very useful.  However, they only select three – grasslands, wood and shrubland and forest.  Given the vastness and variety of American climate types (which has just about everything), I’m surprised they didn’t mention desert landscapes, arid-mountainous or Mediterranean (as in Californian coastal regions). I suspect they have simply not worked with these climates, yet to omit them from a listing of archetypes is limiting.  It is clear too, that their interest lies mostly in the grassland or prairie archetype.

Desert_archetype_Dubai Copyright Mark laurence

There are many archetypes other than the three mentioned in this book. Desert near Dubai, UAE.

Referring back to the James Golden review, he wanted to add another archetype, edges.  I would argue that the wood and shrub land archetype is an edge, or rather a transition.  Only in farmer’s fields do we have an edge as such.  I would also think of these archetypes as parts of a sine wave, one transitioning into another as climate and topography dictate.  This sine wave also rolls around the globe over time, one archetype superseding another in any given place.  Remember that the Sahara desert was woodland just 10,000 years ago, when we emerged from the last ice-age. This fits with the theory that there is no such thing as an ecological climax.

Another interesting thing in the book is the idea of “designed plant communities”.  You could say that any grouping of plants together is a designed community but the preference they have for grouping plants by habitat-type rather than just their visual look is refreshing.  This makes good sense, provided that such a designed grouping is appropriate within its wider environmental context.  Taken to its logical extreme, however, you end up with only native plants.

What may be harder to work out is how much of this philosophy fits into a garden. Even the largest garden can’t fit in a whole wood, let alone a prairie, so of course, we must work by inference.  This aspect of things is not really discussed in the book and most of the pictures are of large gardens in amazing settings: domains of the lucky few that we landscape designers occasionally get to work for.  For the majority of small garden owners, instruction for the adaptation of these principles is missing.

Millenium_Park_Chicago-May-1 Copyright Mark Laurence

The Lurie Garden, Millenium Park, Chicago by Piet Oudolf exemplifies modern Naturalistic planting. This is large ribbons or drifts of plants rather than the species intermingling favoured in this book.

Millenium_Park_Chicago-Nov-1 Copyright Mark Laurence

The same garden in November; form is held in the stems and shapes of the seedheads but use of some woody plants might add more winter form?

Given that the book only really looks at one archetype, that of New Perennial/Prairie style gardens – and there is a big focus on this at the moment, –  I might compare this book with Oudolf & Kingsburys “Planting, a New Perspective”.  That book, whilst not getting down to the archetypal design level, is more European in focus, so possibly a good companion read.  Yet it too mostly deals with perennial-based planting, as you would expect from these gents.  The work of Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough comes to mind too.  These perennial plantings can be subject to rapid change, even degradation over time as some of the most desirable and favourite species are so short-lived: Achilleas and Echinacea for example.

I think the wood and shrubland archetype is the most likely to resonate with those seeking to create a garden, yet the ones of great importance to me, in a European and specifically coastal Southern England context, is that of the unmentioned Mediterranean or arid-mountainous archetypes.  Whilst some areas of the Mediterranean clearly fit the wood & shrubland archetype (ie broadleaf and evergreen woodlands and Maquis), other areas such as Garigue, salt marshes and rocky shorelines, do not.  I think this range and essence adds up to its own unique archetype.  Arid-mountainous too is quite distinct and gives us wonderful, tough plants like Perovskia.  The Dutch biologist Brian Kabbes has done much to inspire and educate us with his exploration of plants in Kyrgyzstan.

Arid_Kyrgyztan_Perovskia_arbrotanoides Copyright Brian Kabbes

Perovskia arbrotanoides growing wild in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Copyright Brian Kabbes

To me, one of the biggest drivers in creating naturalistic planting communities has always been resilience.  To my mind, planting should survive without irrigation, so low water-use plants are attractive.  I can’t think of a single garden in the UK that couldn’t survive without irrigation. The desire to use pop-up sprinklers is ridiculous and surely industry-driven.  Climate is changing now faster than Nature can shift plants and ecologies around the globe, so that is something we humans must do ourselves if we want a future landscape of any description (oh, and  our own survival).  So we have to transmigrate landscapes from one continent to another to keep pace. Yes, with all the risks that entails when introducing new species (and it will not be just plants we’ll have to relocate).  So learning about plant communities and how to build them is a vital skill which this book begins to explore, – yet it could have gone much further.

Med_Architype-1 Copyright Mark Laurence

This coastal garden in Southern UK loosely mimics the Mediterranean archetype, and uses a full range of grasses, perennials, sub-shrubs, herbs, shrubs and trees.

In the European context then, archetypes other than grassland/prairie might have been more useful and translatable into a garden context.  That this book has not covered these is not really surprising but it is a mistake to think that the new language of resilient/natural/sustainable landscapes would necessarily be dominated by perennials and grasses.  This aspect is possibly a trend within an underlying drive for a natural interpretation.

In a very real way, “Planting in a Post-Wild World” attempts to create an archetype-based design language and is a valuable contribution to that task.  But we need the language to be global, or alternatively to see this book as a regionalized attempt to cross boundaries and develop new thinking.

A European version of this book is needed, which could perhaps take it to the next level of design language development.  In this respect, inspiration could be drawn from another book, “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander which, although about architecture and space, is also about soul, spirit, context and community, realised through the use of a language of patterns.

This is an important book and I recommend it. For all its limitations it shows ways to develop landscapes that are truly new and profound.

Mark Laurence

Mark_Laurence-5 Portrait


Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

David Feix March 7, 2016 at 2:11 pm

A very good review that invites careful thought, not having read the book, nor yet James Golden’s review, I’ll have to reserve final judgement until I have ticked both those boxes. It does strike me as problematic trying to translate habitat biomes into smaller scale gardens. The challenge of such has beautiful and timely Chinese and Japanese historical precedents. Symbolism and selective minimalism within a learned common cultural-religious framework have withstood the test of time and still accomplish their goals of referencing nature.

Whether the book is too American-centric, it does point out how much where we live influences our designs and viewpoints, and the difficulty of writing or philosophizing about gardens and plants in a way that instructs universally. I’d agree with this reviewer, that the archetype of shrub-woodlands doesn’t cleanly contain the Mediterranean Climate’s Biome, if purely from the selfish viewpoint of living here in California, and appreciating how unique it is.

I’ll have to read the book! So the review has definitely done its job.

SusanITPH February 26, 2016 at 4:30 pm

The authors of this book, and most other gardening books written for a “national” U.S. audience are really focusing on those east of the 100th meridian, which is where the majority of the population lives. Aside from specific west-coast maritime and Mediterranean climates, there is a whole portions of the country, namely the intermountain, and Rocky Mountain regions that get ignored. There is a wealth of steppe flora that is just becoming available to horticulture for those gardening in this region, as well as a whole different horticultural practice. It is often remarked that gardens person who move to this area from areas with more rainfall and different soils must learn completely to garden all over again.

Thomas Rainer February 26, 2016 at 1:09 pm

Mark’s review is much appreciated by me (co-author) and I’m sure by Claudia as well. He points out very well the limitations of writing a book with a truly international perspective. There is such a staggering diversity of natural habitats, for example, that any system of classification will ultimately leave some dissatisfied. And there are issues within one’s cultural context (the pervasive use of lawn and shrubs only in American suburban “yards”), that addressing those will make some wonder what the fuss is about.

Distilling the essence of the world’s biomes–our task in the second part of the book–is by its very nature reductionist. So I have no doubt many in very particular climates or biomes may feel underrepresented. For us, though, it was important to extract only the most relevant patterns and layers for designers and gardeners. So categorizing these communities in archetypal forms made the most sense to us. I would consider the Mediterranean habitats Mark says we exclude as a shrubland (which is very specifically mentioned in the book), something we spend quite a few pages describing. We felt the problem with using regional terms like “Mediterranean” was that it would seem overly specific and exclusive; whereas the fundamental dynamics of plant community organization is remarkably similar whether you live in the Mediterranean, chaparral, Maquis, or fynbos. There are, of course, meaningful differences between local variations, but without turning this part of the book into an encyclopedia of international habitats, we had to make reasonable choices about elevating the most relevant information to designers and gardeners.

There was one specific critique that made we wonder whether Mark had just missed or skimmed those parts of the book. How to scale large natural inspirations to small gardens and landscapes–something this review says is “not really discussed”–is quite explicitly discussed. In fact, this is the central topic of the design chapter–and one of the central themes of the book. We go into great detail about how to interpret and amplify the patterns and palette of natural inspirations for small settings. Even many of the images, from Adam Woodruff’s suburban scale garden to the tiny NYTimes courtyard, to Heiner Luz’s small German garden, to the rather small residential rooftop gardens show examples from the many pages of text dedicated to the problem of scale. If our method was not satisfactory, that is certainly open to judgement, but to say it was not addressed is simply not accurate.

This review essentially makes the argument that the book may not be relevant to the European gardener, and bases that mostly on our characterization of the archetypes. That our characterization may have a particularly American flavor is certainly valid. There are many ways this could have been done and I’m sure we all have opinions about how that could be done.

But the archetypes are really not the central focus; the focus is on describing a METHOD for putting plants together that creates more resilient systems. This, in my humble opinion, is entirely relevant to European gardeners. And this was not discussed at all in this review. I’d be interested in Mark’s opinion here.

It is certainly an honor to be reviewed here (twice!). I’m grateful to Mark and Anne for facilitating this transatlantic dialogue.

Mark Laurence February 26, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Hi Thomas

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my review! As you say, archetypes could be argued over endlessly, probably to little purpose. It is a great way to assess and understand a landscape, no matter how you divide or sub-divide things. There are for certain though, aspects of say a Mediterranean climate (which occurs in five areas of the world) which do not fall within either grassland or a shrub-tree archetype.

With regards my critique of not discussing scaling things down, I really meant you didn’t go into this in any real depth for archetypes other than the grassland type. I certainly didn’t mean that you book is not relevant for the European gardener, for I believe it is, most especially as a tool for design thinking.

I mentioned the need for developing a design language that is based on critical observation and understanding of the patterns of landscape. We also have to layer over this other patterns, such as climate change and of course, patterns of human interaction. Your book is a great step forward in introducing this process to people.

Carla Black February 26, 2016 at 11:05 am

Thank you for your spot-on review, Mark Laurence. I have the book, encouraged by James Golden’s review, and am glad for the first reading. But I live in seasonally wet tropics, and am having to adapt the message(s) of community planting to a very different environment than contemplated by the authors. It’s an interesting challenge, and certainly worth putting mental energy to work on. Still, my adaption of the book might be easier to my big tropical garden than to the small garden up against the house that Katherine describes, her location notwithstanding.

Katherine Crouch February 25, 2016 at 11:28 pm

I really must read this book……although I fear that it would not be very relevant to the smallish British garden, as Mark says. It is difficult to convey the intent of a coherent habitat when you go from total shade against a building to full sun within the space of 6 metres of less. To pull a garden together, I am always using ‘repeater’ plants (alchemilla mollis and campanula porsharshkyana currently, more suggestions please!.) As for gardens ‘that couldn’t survive without irrigation’, once plants are established, the right plant in the right place can survive dry conditions – ask Beth Chatto.

Norma February 26, 2016 at 1:18 pm

“As for gardens ‘that couldn’t survive without irrigation’, once plants are established, the right plant in the right place can survive dry conditions – ask Beth Chatto. ”

I think that is exactly the point that is being made in this review, as what’s written is:

“I can’t think of a single garden in the UK that couldn’t survive without irrigation”. The double negative means “All the gardens in the UK that I can think of could survive without irrigation.

Mark Laurence February 26, 2016 at 3:34 pm

Norma – you are correct, that was exactly what i meant!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: