Our American ancestors deserve a lot of the blame for the country’s attitude toward landscaping.

Like their cousins across the pond, Americans were influenced by powerful Victorian ideas about gardening. To Victorians – and many gardeners who preceded them, too – the world beyond the property lines was wilderness, landscape architect Thomas Rainer told attendees at the annual meeting of the Garden Club Federation of Maine in June in Freeport.

The garden was designed to be a place of neatness and order, a buffer from the harsh realities of the untamed and wild world, which in the still young American nation could be very harsh indeed. It’s an attitude that no longer suits, though: in modern-day America, most homes are located in suburbs, packed into neat grids of paved streets. Even in rural areas, landscapes beyond the garden are probably cultivated fields of soybeans, corn and such. True wilderness has become rare.

For that reason, Rainer, co-author with Claudia West of “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” believes that today’s gardeners should invite a little wildness into their gardens. Rainer, a principal at Rhodeside & Harwell in Virginia, is one of several prominent garden designers promoting the use of more native plants and more natural designs in American gardens. Others include Doug Tallamy and Larry Weaner, whose book “Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change” I wrote about last year.

A first step in adding more wilderness would be cutting down on the mulch. Rainer said European visitors often ask him why American gardeners are so proud of their mulch – making it the most visible part of their garden, with tall perennials, shrubs and trees widely separated.

“Gardeners believe they have to act like a middle-school dance chaperone,” Rainer said. “Once things start rubbing together, they think they have to step in and pull them apart.”


If you don’t put in mulch, he said, ground cover will happen. As proof, he showed garden club members a picture of a semi-neglected section of sidewalk with a “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the road and a fence between the sidewalk and the yard. (Hell strips, which isn’t a Maine term, refers to the strip of land that separates the sidewalk from the road.) After Rainer took the photo, he studied it with the help of a plant-identification book, and was able to name 26 different plant species in just that short section of neglected garden – which, he added, was disorganized but looked OK.

In contrast, Rainer said he knows of rain gardens – designed by engineers (not gardeners ) to control runoff – that require both irrigating and weeding, while the guy with the wild garden on the hell strip has, with almost no work, “created” a luxuriant garden. In recent years many people in Portland, too, have created beautiful gardens in these so-called hell strips, often packed with attractive weeds and wildflowers.

Rainer conceded that if gardeners merely removed mulch, they may wind up with plants they don’t want. So he suggested planting as ground cover ferns, tiarella (foam flower), carex (sedges) and short grasses such as Little Bluestem. These may move around from year to year, he said, but that won’t affect the garden’s overall design.

Keep the structural layer of taller plants fairly sparse, Rainer advised. If a garden has too many taller perennials, such as Joe Pye weed, tall phlox and shrubs, they will interfere with wind circulation. Unlike most other garden designers, Rainer is not a fan of grouping taller plants. He prefers scattering them so they make an engaging pattern when they are in bloom – which, he pointed out, is often how they grow naturally.

If you think that a mass of diverse plantings with no discernible pattern will look disorganized and unattractive, Rainer offers a fix:

“The solution to making a garden look neat is how it is framed,” he said. “Having a random mix of flowers looks disorganized – but if you put a boxwood hedge around it, it looks neat. Clean edges cover a lot of sins.”


The frame needn’t be a boxwood hedge, of course. It could be brick walkways separating the different sections of gardens, small fences or even something as simple as distinctly cut edge between the lawn and the garden.

Rainer, who has designed gardens in Scarborough and Kennebunkport, also had an interesting take on plant selection:”Americans treat plants the way Victorians treated women – they are either virgins or whores.”

What he means is that some plants belong in the wilderness and others belong in the garden, and never the twain shall meet. But that isn’t true in the post-wild world, he said. “Gardens should be a hybrid of cities and rural, natural and man made.”

As an example of the type of design he prefers, Rainer several times mentioned the (spectacular and wildly popular) High Line in New York City, a native garden and walkway created between 2009-2014 on abandoned raised rail bed. While they look wild, the High Line gardens were deliberately planted, and they are very lush.

Rainer doesn’t toe the line when it comes to soil, either. Most gardeners think they should add lots of compost and organic fertilizer to provide nutrients and ideal growing conditions for their plants. But Rainer opposes amending the soil. Instead, he encourages gardeners to get to know the soil they already have and to put in the plants that will naturally thrive in it. “Plants don’t want generic soil,” he said. “They want specific soil. The stresses of the soil determine what will grow there. High-fertility soil actually reduces diversity.”

In practical terms, if you love magnolias, for example, but they keep dying on you, stop trying to grow magnolias! Something else will work better in the long run – and that something will be exactly right for the natural plant community that surrounds your home.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: tomatwell@me.com.

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