Thomas Rainer on Contemporary Garden Design with Natives


Landscape architect Thomas Rainer (whose blog Grounded Design I’ve raved about) recently spoke to a rapt audience at the National Arboretum’s Native Plant Symposium, addressing the big question – how to create a native-plant garden that looks like a garden.  You know, cared for and pretty.

So first he clarified that he’s no typical landscape architect but a true plant nerd. (Does he garden after dark?  Check.  Stay awake at night thinking of plants for his garden?  Check.  Et cetera.)  He’s also not a native-plant purist, but native plants DO resonate with him spiritually, answering his longing for nature, what we’ve lost and are rapidly losing.

Thomas went on to complain that Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women – as either virgins or whores.  Just Google “Yard of the Month” to see the nature-free yards that are held as the ideal, visions of which drew groans from the nature-loving audience.  But with so much of our land now developed, nature is no longer something that happens elsewhere.  We need to make room for it in our very own yards.

So, what’s the existing “design aesthetic” for native plants?  Thomas believes that in reaction to that “Yard of the Month” style we love to hate, native gardens overly embrace the wild look in their attempts to imitate nature.  While he loves naturalistic design as much as the next guy, he thinks the resulting gardens look weak and sloppy.

And sadly, our enthusiasm for wildness makes us our own worst enemies.  Most observers, including our neighbors, just don’t think the wild aesthetic is appropriate.  Gardens designed to replicate habitats are so often on too small a scale to look good, causing viewers in the general public to see them and ask, “Where’s the garden?”

Getting feedback like that and attempting to remedy the situation, the NY Botanic Garden is totally re-doing their habitat garden with the help of Oehme van Sweden, the famous firm that employed Thomas before the recession (he’s now with another well respected firm.)  To avoid design failures like this, he uses what he calls the mother-in-law test – would his mother-in-law like this, recognize it as a garden?  If so, then it’ll probably be accepted by the public.


Abstract garden design by Andrea Cochran

So here’s what Thomas recommends to native-plant lovers who care about design and want to win converts to native-plant gardening.  Create contemporary, abstract designs that interpret nature artfully.  Rather than using plants on a small scale, “Turn up the volume!”  Distill and amplify the plants’ features.

Start by choosing an analogous plant community for the site (one with the same characteristics as your yard).  Google “DNR natural communities” and your state name for ideas. Pick the most important three or four plants from that group.  One inspiring plant community for the Mid-Atlantic might be the Dolly Sods Park in West Virginia (below), where a dominant plant would be the Little Bluestem grass.


Then create a short list of the patterns you see those plants making in their natural setting.  And voila – using abstraction and the dominant species with the volume on high, you have a garden that’s simpler, bolder, more architectural – a garden.  “It sells itself!”

An added benefit is that large masses are easier to maintain than small groups of many different plants.

A great example of this style of native-plant design is Gary Smith’s design for Peirce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens, which uses thousands of tiarellas, maidenhair ferns and Christmas ferns to glorious effect.  It’s not an imitation of an Eastern forest but a bold interpretation of one.

Peirce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens by W. Gary Smith

In a follow-up email I asked Thomas how this type of design could work in a small garden:

With small urban spaces with no clear reference (or adjacency) to a native plant community, you’re free to “import” almost any native plant community to stylize and adapt. The important thing is that the garden evokes a moment in nature, something it wouldn’t do using a traditional horticultural approach.

As to how, massing might be appropriate, but not always. In a small site, you might get legibility and spirit through repetition of species, color, or texture, not massing. The important aspect is that you’ve edited the community of inspiration down to the visual essence species. This is what creates the link to the larger site.  As an example, I think Tom Stuart-Smith’s Laurent Perrier garden in the Chelsea Flower Show is perfect. It’s not a native garden, but it accomplishes exactly what I’m advocating for. In size, it’s not much bigger than a townhouse backyard. But he picked a palette of plants that FEELS like a fairy-tale woodland. A clearing in the woods. The umbel-laden forbs nodding under a grove of birches is a perfect example of distilling a palette down to a few plants with maximum emotional impact.

I’ll have more from Thomas coming this afternoon in another post – his “Myths about Native Plants”.


  1. Daryl Morrison was doing this decades ago via University of Georgia ornamental horticulture program.

    Italians have been doing this stuff for centuries.

    Natives are problematic in Atlanta metro subdivisions. All the native soil, micro habitat, has been scraped away to build the homes. The macro native habitat has been destroyed. The native temperatures no longer exist.

    Alas, this message still isn’t reaching the broader public.

    Happily, landscaping this way for decades is keeping me employed during the worst economy since the Great Depression. Having my best years, EVER.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I’m interested in reading what else Mr. Rainer has to say. I must find a way to incorporate a bit of the wild in my suburban yard–but not with the neighborhood squirrels.

    I like the Peirce’s Woods’ feel: very curvy, in contrast to the “abstract” gardens of Andrea Cochran and Tom Stuart-Smith. Yes, the Chelsea Flower Show garden’s *plants* soften the stark right angles, but I’ve always wanted a meandering garden. I have a hard time with the European Formal Garden style–way too regimented for me–but the monastic knot gardens make me happy. Could be the tendency toward monoculture in the former, and a variety of shapes within the knotwork in the latter.

  3. I really like this interesting design approach and will look to incorporate elements of it in my own work. Peirce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens looks stunning, I must visit there this summer!

  4. Thomas’ email refers to design by “repetition … not massing”–what is an easy way to understand the difference?

  5. Oh my MIL was way more Natural than me. Maybe I should visualize her saying, “It is so Neat?”

    A bit of a plant nerd myself. Worried about types of leaves to use as Mulch. Oak Vs MapleVs Kousa. Bagged them differently even..

  6. I see here a more fundamental issue–that in our culture we see nature as one thing, and humanity as another; as if they were opposite forces. I see this a lot in my student writing about the natural world–these college kids have been raised in a system that believe nature does exist (it doesn’t any more), and that it is something other, something we consume for pleasure but don’t need. So when I push natives, I’m also pushing how we ARE nature, that we aren’t divorced from the pain and suffering of animals or trees, that they are reflections of our pain and suffering, and in tending to one you tend the other.

  7. PL–I see massing as massing of one plant–a huge swath of 10×10′ feet of bluestem. In my 1500′ I use repetition, clumps of coneflowers in three or four places, or mountain mint in several places, or a stand of switchgrass here and there. Repetition in color and texture, too.

  8. One of the reasons I use native plants is to provide food to native birds and insects which are short of habitat these days. Massed plantings in a small space don’t really do it. Native bees need nectar from spring to fall so a range of flowers. Birds need safe places to nest and food so I need a conifer and berries that hang on the trees over winter. Water needs to soak in not run off. How does Thomas Rainer factor in these things?

  9. One of my favorite stories told by Felder Rushing is of a front yard that didn’t match the typical award winning standards yet had this sign out front: Area Yard of the Season. Being Felder he knocked on the door and asked about the sign. The fellow told him he made the sign himself! I’m considering making such a sign for me atypical front yard 🙂

  10. People in Austin have embraced native plants for quite a while, thanks in part to the efforts and inspiration of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. But I do wish they’d add more contemporary native gardens to their display gardens. It would go a long way to converting those who still see natives as messy. Austin’s inner neighborhoods are largely being renovated in a clean, contemporary style, and homeowners want gardens that reflect that aesthetic.

  11. “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women – as either virgins or whores”

    Such a great quote. This may be one of my favorite Garden Rant posts ever. Really interesting design ideas that move beyond the native vs exotic stuff we’ve all heard before.

  12. I’ll tell you how I factor those things, Sarah. Fauna doesn’t recognize property lines. Each property doesn’t have to provide the panoply of features required by all the local fauna. I would highly doubt that a single yard would have a major impact, depending on size of course. It would seem that illustrating to neighbors that desire a well ordered landscape that their desire is possible using natives would help get far more habitat plants planted than any one person could plant on their plot. Simply showing them that there are tidy, dumb, green, native shrubs that provide food for insects and birds alike could vastly increase the numbers of native shrubs in a neighborhood.

  13. Wish i could have seen his talk, thanks for the writeup. His advice would help more people embrace less lawn. If front yard native gardens had less of a tendency to look ‘too natural’, then skeptical neighbors might be more likely to embrace them. When i have heard of people who had neighbors complain about their attempt to go either lawnless or native or both in the front lawn, it typically tuns out it was because the intended garden was just a mess with no structure. Admittedly, my back yard is one of those structureless messes, which i adore. But i keep it simple and strucured in the front, because as the adage goes, you catch more flies with honey.

  14. Thomas Ranier is inspirational! He is bringing new insights and funny and creative language into the narrative of landscape architects and garden enthusiasts. I would love to see a book of his thoughts and ideas — and in particular more visuals of the type of balance that he preaches.

    Great article and even better subject!

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