In a lot of ways, Thomas Rainer had the quintessential American upbringing.
His childhood home in Birmingham, Ala., backed up to miles upon miles of Piedmont forest, and on Saturday mornings he would wake up, grab a backpack and take off. It didn’t matter which direction, he simply set off into the woods. Near one grove, dominated by massive beech trees, he and his friends caught crayfish.
Yet as Rainer grew up, the forest shrunk, replaced by development. By the time he was in high school, the hills were bulldozed and pushed into the valleys, and the beeches were gone.
“The streams where we caught crawdads are now pipes underneath a Super Target parking lot,” he says.
Rainer may miss those woods, but that doesn’t mean he lets nostalgia take the reins: as a landscape architect, he knows the natural world, once disturbed, can’t simply be put back the way it was. So he moves forward, inspired by the sprawling forests of his childhood, but conscious that the green spaces that are left are significantly smaller. In “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes,” he and co-author Claudia West make the case for – and present practical guidelines to – maximizing plant diversity on any size plot. Rainer is coming to Chapel Hill on Nov. 6 to give the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s annual Jenny Elder Fitch lecture.
There’s no bringing back lost ecosystems, but he believes imitating natural systems is possible. It gives him hope.
“We want to step back from that nostalgic impulse and look forward more progressively and think about how we have to adapt,” Rainer says. “We’re not imitating the wild. We’re actually co-designers. Nature is something that looks more like a garden than ever before.”
Even in ecological restorations, he explains, you can’t just return an area to a natural-ish state and walk away. You have to weed perpetually just to keep invasive plants out, and you have to keep planting native plants. With all that hands-on upkeep, Rainer says, it feels like gardening. Yet he accepts this responsibility: rather than letting the tragedy of lost natural areas overwhelm him, he’s chosen optimism. If we pay attention to the areas that are left, however small, we can make a meaningful change.
We as gardeners can be stewards of the random green spaces that surround cities.
Thomas Rainer, author of “Planting in a Post-Wild World”
“We as gardeners can be stewards of the random green spaces that surround cities,” he says. “We’re not apart from nature, but we are nature.”
“Planting in a Post-Wild World” asserts that any area where green things can grow, from yards and corporate grounds to highway medians and sidewalk strips, can support complex plant communities. The idea is to take the land as it exists, even if it’s gravelly or nutrient-deficient soil, and introduce interlocking plant populations. It’s not nature, but inspired by nature.
“A single plant can really be resilient and adaptive and tough, but it’s really plants as entire systems that makes them so resilient and able to bounce back from stresses,” Rainer says. “You think of a meadow population. In dry years, dry tolerant species become more dominant. In wet years, wetter species maybe become more dominant.” More resilient communities are less likely to get wiped out in disaster years, he notes, referring to Hurricane Matthew and the ongoing drought in Southern California.
This kind of planting doesn’t have to take massive acreage, either, but can occur in tiny spaces. Anywhere there’s mulch, Rainer says, or bare soil, is an open invitation for weeds or disturbance. The first step to this kind of horticulture is to see mulch and think “what plants can go here?”
“You don’t have to rip out your whole landscape to do this really complicated meadow-like planting, just start looking around at the bare spots and start adding more life,” he says.
This can have a cumulative effect. Rainer cites the High Line in Manhattan, an urban garden planted on a short stretch of unused elevated rail, or Chicago’s Lurie Garden. He admits these are carefully designed mixed perennial plantings, sure, but his point is that both gardens’ insect and bird counts reveal a rebound for many species.
“I was talking with Scott Stewart, director of the Lurie Garden, a few months ago and he said the Lurie Garden is not only sustaining its own population of insects and birds but it is basically supporting a bunch of fragment populations that are in the city,” Rainer says. Adjacent gardens are seeing more birds and bugs as well, he says, noting that Lurie Garden itself is only two and a half acres.
“If you think about the power one garden within the city can do, just imagine if we start replicating that on rooftops and even containers, for millennials who only have a porch or something,” Rainer says. “That impact does become amplified.”
Reach Hill at email@example.com