Gardening Tips from Thomas Rainer, via the New York Times

Michael Tortorello has just written a wonderful NY Times article about Thomas Rainer, garden blogger extraordinaire. His blog, Grounded Design takes a stand against the dogma of green landscaping.
Thomas Rainer and son
“The native plant movement is, in part, this Protestant idea that it has to hurt in order to do good ..... Sustainability should be more hedonistic, more pleasurable.” 
Let's hear it for hedonism in the garden! All the green movement people should embrace their inner 'peony lover'.  I, for one, feel we should include as many native plants in our garden as we can (for the bees, butterflies, birds) but I also agree with Thomas when he says, "Don’t be dogmatic about native/exotic, straight species/cultivar"....  I think we cannot deprive ourselves of some glorious dahlias or exotic Japanese ferns. 
Japanese Painted fern
 Rainer writes:
"When it comes to plant selection, great plantsmen are often pragmatists, not crusaders. 

....What makes a garden-worthy plant is not the plant’s pedigree, but its performance.

 This kind of ruthless meritocracy only allows the most vigorous, interesting, and worthy plants into a design. " 

Hakonechloa macra & Echinacea pallida are superior straight species, while the cultivated Monarda is more garden-worthy
So we should all be pragmatic hedonists in the garden! I concur.....
The  exotic hakonechloa (Japanese Forest Grass) can be planted next to a native azalea...a native winterberry, next to an andromeda.  This works for Mr. Rainer because he obviously loves all sorts of are 2 pics of his small home garden:
Thoma Rainer's garden

Thomas Rainer's garden
For more photos of Rainer's garden click on this link
I think gardening is like art - you might like one painting and I another; You like bee balm and I like Siberian iris; you like 'Get Shorty' and I like 'Moulin Rouge'.  But we all must honor Mother Earth and not put pesticides, willy nilly, in our soil, water and air.  That is a truism that cannot be bent.
Siberian Iris from Bluestone Perennials - not a native but I adore this plant. deer resistant.
Mr. Rainer offered a shortlist of what he feels we should not do. This is from the NYT article. The red text is my commentary.
STOP MULCHSCAPING  As an alternative to dumping mulch under shrubs, try ferns and sedges to hold the ground. “Any place you can see mulch, you can add another species underneath it,” he said. No mulch mountains!
RELINQUISH CONTROL "In order to create that natural look, you have to work the design to death.” One alternative: self-seeding. A bed without mulch will find its own serendipitous ways to fill the holes. Yes..and then again, no.
DON’T RUN TO THE BORDER “If people would just pull out their foundation plantings 8 or 10 feet, that alone would create a more garden-esque landscape,” he said. I think he means makes the beds  wider...I agree. 
FORGET NOAH’S ARK “Buy small and buy a lot, especially with perennials and grasses,” ... establish them early in the season, so they have time to grow. Don't buy too early in the season because more varieties are available later in the year. 
DON’T GO BIG pick dwarf cultivars that grow to scale. Agreed! Use 'Little Lime' Hydrangea instead of 'Limelight'. 
DON’T MAKE TROUBLE FOR YOURSELF “I think the American idea of ground covers are these nasty invasive plants like English ivy and pachysandra” Am I the only person left who likes pachysandra?
CANCEL THE CROQUET TOURNAMENT “We use lawn as wall-to-wall carpeting, and I think it works better in most yards as an area rug.” Love that comparison - area rug.
garden by Jan Johnsen - not native plants and with lawn and mulch. Hedonistic pragmatist, am I.
One point for discussion: in his blog he writes: 
"One minor post-publication quibble:
The print edition of the Times refers to me in two bylines as a "horticulturist." 
I am, in fact, a licensed landscape architect. 
.....Though both professions deal with plants to a degree, they are two entirely different professions."
Rainer means - I think - that he is trained and works with the design end than the plants end. Architectural design in the landscape is his profession and training. Toward that end, what do you think of his garden from a design standpoint? this is another photo of Rainer's garden:
Thomas Rainer's garden 


  1. Jan, I have been thinking about this article for a few days now. It inspired me to subscribe to Tom's blog. I find the debates about plant politics that people in the industry tend to have both important and entertaining. While I have made a promise to myself to find a place in every garden I design for species like milkweed, I more comfortable operating as a realist. There are many logical arguments in favor of native species and sustainable gardening. But we must never forget the primary purpose of our vocation: pleasing the clients. It is true that entirely "native" schemes may work in huge contexts. In smaller areas they often just look weedy. Generally speaking, a tiny plot of land with hundreds of species is not natural. So I say pick a few natives and augment them with non-invasive exotics that play well with others. And in my designs there will always be places for annuals. Nothing else offers as much bang for the buck. Occasionally you may find a client who is interested in an entirely natural looking design. But not on 1/10th of an acre.
    I am in the process of re-rendering my graduate school final project for submission right now, so this is all I have time for at the moment. Perhaps I will elaborate these thoughts in a post of my own in the near future. But these are concepts that I have been giving a lot of thought to for quite some time. So I will say this: The area where I intend to practice is primarily made up of properties that are less than 1 acre. I am a huge fan of Van Valkenburg and Oudolf, but both of these men speak about using non-natives when they can not find suitable native alternatives. In other words, the client/property owner generally hires a "designer," not a "horticulturalist." We are in a position to do responsible things and educate the community, but not at the expense of "good design." Further discussion on these matters would include "How do we define 'native'," and "Will five or six milkweed plants in five square miles of impatiens and begonias REALLY attract butterflies to that garden?"

    I would suggest that you ping George Reis into this conversation.

    And, yes, you may actually be the only person left who actually likes pachysandra.

    1. Matt - love your last question re milkweed plants... We need to plant hundreds! I know a man who collects the sides of milkweed and scatters them along roads and in open fields, parks, everywhere.

  2. I can't live without Siberian Iris! I do love Milkweed as well...

  3. Your blogs and every other content are thus interesting and helpful it makes me return back


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