What are ‘Designed Plant Communities for the Chesapeake’?

What are ‘Designed Plant Communities for the Chesapeake?’

In a nutshell? It’s a way of designing a garden, meadow, or other planting so that it is more bullet-proof.

The basic concept behind Designed Plant Communities for the Chesapeake is to use four design layers to create a plant composition that is not just aesthetically pleasant but also resilient and low maintenance.

The idea is inspired by the excellent new book, Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Tom Rainer and Claudia West.

But unlike the book, which is written for a global or international audience, this “Post-Wild Chesapeake” is completely dedicated to using mostly plants that are native to the Chesapeake region.

And at least for the moment, this first round of research and writing is focused on perennial plantings. The reason for this is that perennial beds are where the need is greatest and where Tom and Claudia’s concepts can, I feel, do the most good:

We all want more color, more texture, more year-round interest. And we want all that with less maintenance.

My clients, in particular, are asking for native plants, and asking for plantings that will be resilient enough to withstand conditions found along the Delmarva Peninsula and the Annapolis area.

We have some fascinating extremes here–sandy soil, clayey soil, salty conditions, strong winds, severe droughtiness and extreme sogginess are all here, in varying combinations. Selecting plants can be quite a challenge.

R chrysopsis mariana w cucullia moth caterpillar01So… what about those four layers?

I’m oversimplifying a tad, but basically, you design the area to be planted by thinking in terms of four layers of plants. Different plants have characteristics that make them suitable for different layers.

For the details, I strongly recommend Tom and Claudia’s book. Since the book doesn’t include regional plant lists, I’m basically taking their ideas and adapting them by using plants that are native to the Chesapeake region.

1. First, the Structural layer.

These are the taller plants in the composition–the ones that give the garden its structure. They need to be reliable, and stay mostly where they are put. Ideally they should allow sunlight to filter down to plants in the lower layers. And they need to provide long and perhaps varying interest throughout the year. Getting the balance and placement of this layer right is part of the fun and challenge of good design.

2. Then there’s the Seasonal layer.

Plants that are good candidates for this layer are plants that have a long bloom season and are fairly enthusiastic. They like to grow in great clusters–can be considered “gregarious”. They are often the kind of plants that we think of as hallmarks of a season.

3. The very important Groundcover layer.

This layer may or may not be very showy, but is critical to reducing the maintenance of the garden. It keeps the ground covered, reduces erosion and the sprouting of weeds, helps retain moisture and in some cases can help to build soil if it’s designed to do so.

Plants that make a good groundcover layer often spread by rhizomes. They can tolerate being shaded by the taller layers. Also they should provide some kind of presence through the winter months.

4. And finally, the Filler layer.

I am fascinated that Tom and Claudia included this layer. It is basically a seed bank to cover the inevitable but never-planned-for events that disrupt and can often ruin a garden. Particularly a garden that will not receive a lot of regular care and attention (uhm, that would probably be most of our gardens, wouldn’t it?).

Why a seed bank? OK, so what happens in a garden is that sometimes some of the plants just never establish and leave bare spots. Or weeds get removed and leave bare spots. Or the weather is unusually dry or unusually wet, causing some of the plants to die and leave bare spots.

Those bare spots are the bane of the perennial garden.

What the filler layer does is provide an instant, emergency response team that lies waiting, always ready to respond to those bare spots with no action required on the part of the gardener!

When it kicks in, this filler layer is brilliant!

The filler plants don’t have to live long or become a permanent part of the design–their job is just to stand in until the other layers can expand to cover that spot. So this also gives a role to many plants that I love but that just don’t last very long in the garden–I’m thinking of of my dear but transient friends, cardinal lobelia (lobelia cardinalis), wild columbine (aquilegia canadensis), or fire pink (silene virginica). I love that they now have a distinct role to play in the garden that is well-suited to their short-lived nature.

Overall, these four layers knit together to create a garden that is visually pleasing, changes through the seasons, responds well to the inevitable garden catastrophes, and requires less maintenance than the traditional perennial garden bed.