Thomas Rainer on Design Trends


My favorite blogging landscape architect, Thomas Rainer, posted a provocative report on Garden Design Trends, so let’s discuss, shall we?  I wrote to Thomas for clarification and he kindly obliged.

New Romanticism
First, I love these predictions and sure hope they come to pass:

People will turn to their gardens for a spiritually authentic, but emotionally-soothing experience. .. We crave something real from our gardens, but not too edgy…Other romantic trends include exoticism, a renewed interest in the emotional experiences of gardens, and the glorification of wildness will be big themes in designs this year.

But I had to ask: is he talking trends among regular DIY gardeners or high-end garden designers?  The answer?  It’s complicated.

I write about design trends only because design is what I do—it is what I think about all the time. I am an avid home gardener myself, but I’m less qualified to discern what those trends are. Your question is interesting to me because to be honest, I never really distinguish between a high-end design world and the DIY gardener world. Yes, of course, there likely are differences, but I’ve always thought that gardening generally is better served by blurring those distinctions. I am a landscape architect, and I love the breadth and depth of our profession—including the idea that top-down design is often necessary. But first and foremost for me is the garden. I believe deeply in the garden as a discipline, a place, and a way of thinking. By its very nature, a garden is a relationship. It is a relationship between a person and a piece of land. When a designer designs a landscape for a client, it does not become a garden until that homeowner gardens it—until they enter into relationship with it. That’s what I’m interested in.

Is Massing Really Out?

Thomas’s post boldly declared that “Massing is out.  Highly interplanted, mixed schemes are in. It’s not just Oudolf anymore.  Designers across the world are using richly woven tapestries of plants to express an ecological aesthetic. ”  Here’s Thomas’s clarification in an email:

I actually don’t think massing is out. But I do think that designers will use highly mixed planting schemes to express a more ecological aesthetic. Mixed planting schemes are extremely hard to do well… [Regarding the Arthritis Research Garden], even though it featured highly mixed planting, the mix featured plants of the same height and color theme so that the entire mixture read as a carpet. And Hoblyn (the designer) contrasted the highly mixed plantings with larger masses of clipped hedges. That balance of legibility and intricacy is very pleasing.

If you’re interested in adding some interplanted beds to your garden, think of a unified “palette” of plants that are similar in height and competitiveness. Keep the number down to 3-7 different species. Repeat them throughout. With interplanting, repetition is the key to legibility and visual strength. And always place an interplanted bed next to something very simple–otherwise it will be too visually chaotic. I’d highly recommend Michael King’s ebook series on Perennial Meadows. Not only is he a great photographer, but he is one of the keenest minds on design strategies with perennials.

Plant Communities Explained

From the Chelsea Flower Show, a garden inspired by the plant communities of North Wales.

Another trend Thomas sees is toward “Community Gardens” but he’s not talking about allotments filled with vegetables.  He means gardens inspired by “wild plant communities” and predicts they’ll be used by “designers looking to add a bit of ecological aesthetic to give their designs context and credibility.”  An insight into the world of professional design I find fascinating.

I asked Thomas if “wild plants” was a synonym for native plants and got this insight into English garden design:

Yes, by “wild plant communities” I meant native plant communities. I used the word “wild” because I’ve found that the concept of “native” is not as strong in Europe—particularly Britain. Their landscapes have a much longer history of disturbance than the New World, so they don’t get so hung up on our more ideological distinction of natives/exotic. Whatever word you use, designers across the globe are more interested in using both the look and ecological function of communities of plants that have evolved together in nature. It’s my big area of fascination right now. It’s going to be a big, big deal.

He further clarified that these communities are native to somewhere; the point is that they grow naturally together, not necessarily where the designer is now using them.   “Designers are being influenced by the aesthetics of plant communities, not just their ecological function. It’s part of an emerging ecological aesthetic.”

Sustainability doesn’t have to look this bad.

On the Beauty of Sustainable Gardens, or the Lack Thereof

Here’s a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse:  “Functionally sustainable landscapes must now also be beautiful.”  When asked for an example, Thomas has a couple of juicy ones:

Oh yeah, I think the vast majority of “native” gardens in public gardens are functionally sustainable but not beautiful. It’s all about a collection of plants, or a theme park ride through various habitats. They become green messes.

Or consider rain barrels. Throughout history, cultures have harvested water from roofs or underground springs. Try this experiment. Compare the look of historic water-collection devices to modern rain barrels. The Chinese collected water in gorgeous carved stone basins; British estates often used decorative lead troughs to water livestock; Romans used stone and cement fountains throughout their cities. And then think about our modern rain barrels. These black and green plastic barrels with corrugated pipes poking out of them. They are engineered monstrosities. Why does being ecological mean that your yard has to look like an episode of Samford and Sons? (See image.)

Lower Maintenance is IN

Thomas laments the trend toward lower-maintenance gardens, especially for public gardens.  Budget cuts, ya know.  But I wonder:  is there an upside, like the need for fewer inputs?


  1. The challenge is fabulous gardens with the least maintenance, most pollinator habitat, shading home in summer, letting the winter sun in, no irrigation system needed, little mowing if any, zero mulch needed. Potager instead of vegetable garden.

    Beautiful garden rooms on axis with every window view in the home.

    Exactly the historic gardens of Italy, whether modest/grand.

    Been copying them ever since I studied there over 2 decades ago.

    What’s old is new again.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I like the idea that a garden isn’t a garden until the homeowner/gardener gardens in it, making it real. I think this also ties into the wild look. Plant grow well where they want to grow. I simply cannot fit this into the instant gardens where really great soil is brought to a site, because the native earth was removed through the building process. How would you come up with a plant community based on anything other than the zone and quality of light geared to whatever the esthetic of the homeowner?

  3. Lower maintenance better be in — people need to understand the cycles of nature and plants, and be reconnected to the seasons. This is what I love about gardening with my prairie natives; I get to witness first hand the subtle and not so subtle evolution of a plant throughout the year, and no my garden and my world better as a result. When I hear low maintenance, I hope I’m also hearing native plants in the right place (I still don’t think garden designer have much clue about creating self sustaining gardens that people can grow into that won’t be so overwhelming–this includes private gardens and public / commercil).

  4. Am I the only person who gets totally confused about all these different planting styles – apart from the possibility of describing them as ‘flat planting’ ? – That approx the same height thing. Though some designers in UK go for sticky up plants in amongst like the old ‘dot’ plants in bedding…

    Interestingly Tim Richardson discusses these trends in the latest UK ‘Garden Design Journal,’ saying the High Line was a peak and is now dated, Hitchmough and Dunnet make Oudolf style look ‘like buttoned up Victorian carpet bedding’ – but their style doesn’t work in small back gardens..reckons there is a return to a new version (get that?!) of old fashioned English gardening..

    I’ll try and borrow his piece for thinkingardens so we can all read it at some point and consider the future of flat planting or not…

    Confused? You might be…

  5. I also liked the comment about gardens not being real unless the homeowner/gardner gets down into the dirt with it.

    And yes, I suppose sustainability “doesn’t have to look bad”, but sometimes sustainability is about using what you can because you don’t have the resources that someone who is more interested in “The New Romanticism” might have.

    Finally, there is just the teensiest bit of an impression that Mr. Rainer is looking down the long slope of his nose with his reference to “Samford and Sons”. Perhaps fostered by the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to spell Sanford, with an “n”, correctly.

    • Pedinska,

      My criticism about rain barrels was not aimed at homeowners who have them. I have an ugly black plastic one myself. And I am an avid gardener with very modest resources.

      I’m writing because there was just “the teensiest bit of an impression” that you were saying I was a snob because I care about design.

      My point was not to disdain people who own rain barrels, but to ask why they had to be so ugly. Collecting rainwater has happened throughout history. Most of the ways it is done was with beautiful, functional materials. To me, the modern offering of rain barrels is an indication that design is a secondary consideration for much of the sustainability movement. And that’s a problem, not because I look down my “long nose” at poor gardeners who don’t live up to my design standards, but because the fact that rain barrels are ugly prevents them from being used by more people. And they should be used by everyone.

      Steve Jobs transformed the functional, but ugly desktop computer into a thing of beauty. And he made it (somewhat) affordable for the masses. Why can’t we have attractive, functional, AND affordable rain barrels?

  6. I don’t pay attention to garden trends. I do my own thing and it’s pretty obvious if you look at my garden that I’m out of step with other gardens in my region, but I don’t particularly care. My garden satisfies my soul. It’s my art project. It’s my stress releaser. It’s one of my sources of happiness. I am down in the dirt/compost/leaves, etc. almost every weekend.

    I agree with Thomas that most of today’s rain barrels and rain tanks are ugly. –I own black plastic tanks and green plastic barrels; however there seems to be no beautiful solution available to the consumer that isn’t expensive, at least not in my neck of the woods.

    I think in general, our society has long been moving toward function over beauty as a result of cheap mass production, and yes, I know beauty is relative.

  7. Most rain barrels are “ugly” because the people using them believe in upcycling and recycling. Also “pretty” rainbarrels cost a fortune! I don’t care how mine look because they are behind my garage and nobody can see them.
    Come on get real.

  8. Someone somewhere took their ugly blue recycled rain barrels, some large leaves from the garden, spray paint, and used the leaves as stencils to spray leafy patterns onto the barrels. Not stunning, but for a negligible amount of money and effort, quite pretty.

  9. As someone who works in the design profession I put a high value on aesthetics , especially when good design is applied to a mundane but utilitarian function ; enter the butt ugly plastic water barrels.

    I hope 2013 will be the year that designers will share their ideas on how to integrate them harmoniously into the garden via attractive screens , cloches, and architectural inclusions.

    I also hope the garden design trend of using recycled wood pallets goes the way of the wood chipper.

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