Researching Perennials for Post-Wild Chesapeake

Researching Perennials for Designed Plant Communities for the Chesapeake

So how do you go about designing a garden in the way that Tom Rainer and Claudia West propose? In a previous post, I gave an overview of the “Post-Wild” method of designing gardens using four layers. (“Post-Wild Chesapeake” is my shorthand name for the rather long and awkward “Designed Plant Communities for the Chesapeake,” OK?)

The concepts are not hard to understand. But when you sit down to actually do it, you quickly realize that you need to know an awful lot about the plants, to make it work.

You need to know some of the obvious things that garden designers are used to knowing. Things like how tall the plant is, when it blooms and for how long, and does it prefer sun or shade. But to use this new model successfully, you also need to delve into qualities that are a bit more esoteric, such as, does the plant spread by rhizomes? Do the leaves allow light to filter down to the ground? Does it produce a lot of seed?

I was preparing to teach a course based on the concepts presented in West and Rainer’s excellent book, Planting in a Post-Wild World. So last year (2015) I began creating trial gardens to demonstrate the use of this design concept with Chesapeake native plants, for a variety of settings: clay, sand, sunny, shady, etc. I am already a landscape designer with a master’s degree and years of experience designing with Chesapeake native plants, yet I still found that each garden required some considerable research.

I am used to a researchy style of garden design, because I like to see a good sequence of bloom, and I want to very closely match the plants to the soil and other conditions like moisture, the presence of deer, and level of sunlight available.

And now, of course I still want to know all those things, to make the garden a success. But for this designed community approach,  I also want to know which layer(s) a plant is suited for.

Here is a brief take on the layers, and the characteristics that might make a plant a good candidate for that layer (if you don’t have it yet, I recommend Tom and Claudia’s book, Planting in a Post-Wild World).

LAYER FUNCTIONS PLANT CHARACTERISTICS
A structural visual anchor, frame for composition tall, long season of interest, multiple seasons of interest, relatively stable, long-lived
B seasonal provide big characteristic seasonal display long or colorful bloom, good in masses
C groundcover erosion control, moisture retention, weed inhibitor rhizomatous growth, shallow fibrous roots, deep roots, shade tolerant, evergreen, spreading
D dynamic filler pop up to cover holes as they occur in garden self seeding, short-lived, opportunistic

Like multi-talented individuals, some plants can play more than one layer. And sometimes a plant is good for one layer in one composition, but not good for that same layer in a different composition, because it’s relative to the other plants in the composition…

In my next post I’ll try to show a small part of the large research sheet that I put together. On it I have notes about how the plant reproduces, type of roots, month and duration of bloom, and sometimes, host plant information. (I’d put them here right now, but…. uhm… does anybody know an easy way to convert pdf files to jpg… ?)