Garden Coaching by Rainer


Landscape architect/blogger Thomas Rainer is one of my favorite designers, something I may have mentioned before on this blog.   Gardenblogger Margaret Roach is a Rainer fan, too.  She sought him out for an interview on her podcast, and it’s terrific.  (Transcript here.)

My favorite bits are toward the end, when Thomas offers what I’d call garden-coaching.  It’s advice that I agree with and repeat frequently, to anyone who will listen, so I’m passing them along here with some of my own photos to illustrate.

Creeping Jenny in a border at the National Arboretum

On the importance of the groundcover.

I find inspiration in wild plant communities, which are essentially layered. They usually include a ground-covering layer, a functional layer that serves to resist weed invasion, and hold the ground.  In nature you rarely see bare soil at all. In our gardens, we use endless mulch. By continuing to add mulch in our gardens, we’re effectively preventing the plants from establishing a real community there. Once you establish this ground-plane layer, you can really have the flexibility to have the next layer—which is really the design layer. The ground layer holds it together.

Sedum Angelina covers a difficult-to-mow spot at the Arboretum.


From left, Geranium, Sedum takesimense and Comfrey in my garden.

On the importance of widening the borders by removing some turf, and how to achieve lushness.

We tend to have too much lawn—we can often change it from wall-to-wall carpeting to more like area rugs. In the places we take out, sometimes adding a low, herbaceous layer between our foundation plantings and the remaining lawn–a little layer–softens a garden so much and helps transition things. You don’t even have to rip out your foundation plantings, but just planting a transition layer maybe 3 or 4 feet in front of them can really help. I also think we don’t use enough plants: Plant more–plant small, and in abundance. Get a tray of 50 of something. More lushness, less mulch.

Yes, please, more lushness!

Perennial borders in the garden of David Culp.

Lush borders are easy for experts like David Culp.

Grass borderLarge
Low-maintenance border of grasses in the garden of Kurt Bluemel.

They can be achieved with a lot less work with just grasses.

Easy, mostly-shrub border.

Also low-maintenance are all- or mostly-shrub borders.


Above, in a neighbor’s yard before make-over, turf once met the hedge.  Today, it’s almost filled with lush shrubs (Abelia) and perennials.

Finally, on the “endlessly tiring debate” about natives and exotics (where?  This blog?), practitioners like Thomas need to choose plants that do well, wherever they’re from.

The last decade, as we learn more about the ecological benefits of plants, we are expecting more out of them than ever before: We want them to look beautiful in four seasons, and decorate our landscapes, plus clean our storm water and remove pollutants from our soil; to cool our cities and sequester carbon.


  1. I’ve been cyber-stalking Thomas for awhile now. I appreciate his willingness to admit mistakes and that he doesn’t always know it all. It seems I run into folks (fellow designers/architects) that know it all, and I am truly in awe. The study of natural areas tells us so much about how plants thrive. Thomas is very right about the use of mulch and groundcovers. My thought has always been that mulch is added once, and then the plantings should take over that job…weed suppression and to keep the ground cool and moist…this of course means more lushness! I met a designer recently (who is fairly prominent in my area) who explained that he didn’t like plants to touch. What? Needless to say, his designs feature lots of mulch!

  2. I used to be busy replacing mulch every year. This year I bought many many groundcovers. There are a few areas that still need some more, but I’m working on it. They are not the most exciting plants to buy, but they are worth their weight in mulch.

  3. Thanks for the inspiring post and Julie’s comment. I visited some lovely established private gardens in a 1920’s Tudor style wealthy suburb. Plants were sculptures in mulch beds set amid huge old trees. They were beautifully serene. I loved them. I came home and looked at my efforts for a 1920’s style garden at a much smaller scale and was ready to rip my packed beds out. Now I am looking at it with a new eye: it’s not an overgrown mess, it’s lush! I have all the layers of ground cover thru perennials thru shrubs thru trees! It just needs tweaked, plants divided and planted more in groups. I’m inspired once again. Thank goodness all I had got done in removal was clumps of spiderwort which is trying to take over the world.

  4. Can anyone suggest a ground cover (besides grass) that might withstand a dog lying on it over the course of hot summer days? Our St. Bernard doesn’t dig, but he likes to plop down on the north side of our house where it’s cool on hot days, and it would be nice to have something besides dirt for him to lie on. I’ve bark-mulched up to his spot, but don’t want to put mulch down where he lies, and would frankly like something growing there. If it gets a little bare, that’s ok as long as it would grow back over the rest of the year. Any thoughts appreciated!

      • Oh Susan, our Toby is a gentle giant! Our Labrador retrievers were much more destructive, always digging and chewing and pacing around. Toby literally just plops down in the dirt and snoozes. He might create a bare spot where he lies, but he wouldn’t dig a hole or roll around, etc. I was thinking maybe an herbal ground cover, or something spongy and cool.

        One of our Labradors was partial to sleeping under a lavender bush in our front bed; he literally shaped it by rubbing against it before he lay down, repeatedly. I’ve often wondered if it was the smell he was attracted to, or the possibly flea-repellent qualities of the plant. He passed away 6 years ago, but the plant retains it’s unique shape and I think about him whenever I look at it.

    • Try Carex pensylvanica or Carex Blue Zinger. They are both dense and soft. I’ve had very good luck using this in both sun, shade and even dry area (under pines). It’s also my go-to plant for durability with dog traffic here in Illinois.

        • Anne, if your site is not too hot and dry, Mazus reptans is a possibility. It’s nice and flat and wouldn’t mind a little squish from your St. Bernard. I myself have a lab, and you are right, they are quite destructive!

          Count me in as a Rainer fan. It seems like he is on his way to being a giant in the field of planting design and I feel fortunate that I got to take a class with him a few years ago. He is a great teacher in addition to being a great designer and writer.

          • Thanks, Mary!
            Here’s what I ended up doing: At my local garden center, I found some Carex, and learned that it’s a type of grass, which I don’t want (it does look sturdy, though). The woman who was working there suggested wooly thyme, which I loved, but the site is on the north-facing side of my house and doesn’t get enough sun. I ended up bringing home 2 Vinca plants to experiment with; I know they will grow and spread, but I don’t know how Toby will like them. I will keep trying until I find something! and next time I’m at the garden center, I will look for the Mazus reptans.

  5. Homeowner ornamental horticulture industry is all about garden centers selling. All about mow-blow-go-testosterone-on-wheels-commodify-all-I-touch.

    There you have it, mulch. It can be sold yearly. Why does the ‘industry’ want groundcover?

    Annuals, same thing. They can be sold 2x yearly. Why do flowering shrubs with flowering groundcovers with flowering trees?

    Follow the money.

    Mulch is mostly pine straw in my area. Hence, lots of dead brown in gardens.

    Ironically, another way of looking at ‘mulch’ is thru historic garden design. There is the ceiling, walls, floor of gardens to create. Floors are groundcovers, gravel, stone…..

    Yet another way of thinking about the floor of a garden. Maximum pollinator habitat needs every layer with plants.

    How did we get here? Seems crazy. Needing pollinator habitat yet falling for the sales pitch of a guy in a truck selling mow-blow-go.

    Sure there are far more angles to this, and I”m ready to learn.

    Garden & Be Well, XOTara

  6. I have been thinking so much about this and here you have an entire article on it! But I live in Texas on a ranch in a house we built in the middle of a pasture and what likes to grow here is GRASS! Only not nice grass – itchy, sticker-filled grass! And I think I can only dream of the lushness you show with our long hot summers…I have some beds now but lots of grass encroaches – I am going to try some ground cover but I admit I don’t trust the landscapers here, as Tara says, they are not going to be helpful. Still, I’m going to do some research…I’m excited! Weeding is good exercise, but it still sucks.

  7. Ground covers are all well and good, but I have groundcovers in several places, and the weeds still pop right up through them. Slowly but surely, I’m going back to good old plain cedar mulch – it controls weeds far better than ground covers, IMHO.

  8. Having just returned from the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in North Carolina, at which Thomas was a featured speaker, I totally agree with your assessment of his ideas. He was like a ray of inspiration at that event. Made so much sense! I cannot wait for his upcoming book.

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