Planting in a Post-Wild World with Landscape Designer Claudia West

Conservation // May 04, 2016

Walking along New York City’s High Line, it’s easy to think that maybe your own garden could learn a thing or two from the hugely popular native garden. You can easily see how you could fill your own garden with native plants, and your backyard could become a destination for local birds and wildlife. The more you think about it, you feel a bit self-righteous, imagining the space filled with ferns and sedges, bee balm, and joe-pye-weed, providing a more balanced ecosystem.

You let the fantasy play out a bit, thinking that you won’t buy the annuals that you usually buy each year at the local garden center. You imagine the new plants that will fill the spaces where impatiens, begonias, and rose bushes used to be. Then you think of the birds, the butterflies, and the insects that will inhabit your garden space—it’s the oasis you’ve always dreamed of.

And then doubt sinks in. What to plant? Where to plant these new species? How to choose native plants? Does going native mean you have to sacrifice garden aesthetics?

Claudia West, a landscape designer who works as the ecological sales manager at North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, says that it’s easy to shift your garden to a more natural look and incorporate more natural themes to your garden—and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

West, the author of Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2015) with Thomas Rainer, will be the speaker at FOW’s Valley Talk at Valley Green Inn on Thursday, May 19, 2016, at 6:00 p.m. The talk will focus on how residential gardens, public gardens, and city gardens can reflect a more natural approach and help increase biodiversity.

Her approach to garden design is “horticulture meets ecology.” West says the consideration of plant types and design, as well as a plant’s ecological value makes, those interested in restoration and native plant purists interested in this method.

Bringing more native plants into the garden, reducing the amount of mulch while adding more plants to reduce weeds, and improving stormwater management can be done on large and small scales, she says.

“Look at your garden with fresh ideas. Loosening your grip on cherished notions of plant arrangement makes it possible to transform our adversarial relationship with nature into a collaborative one,” West advises.

First, look at the spaces that currently exist in the garden. Think of what plants you can use to reduce the amount of mulch you are using in the garden. Planting ground cover can help reduce the need for mulch.

West describes the various layers of plant life that exist in the garden. First, there’s the ground cover layer, which typically consists of grasses or leafy perennials. This layer is extremely important, she says, because it’s important for stormwater management, erosion control, and ground cover, and is essential for plant health. This layer is lower to the ground and adjusts to different levels of sunlight as other plants grow taller throughout the season. Looking at suburban gardens, mulch is overused in this important layer of the garden, she says. It doesn’t give nutrients back to the garden and doesn’t add to the biodiversity.

West says that most traditional landscapes have one or two layers—think of an azalea garden with mulch underneath, or a perennial garden with nothing growing above or below. For a designed plant community, all three layers are needed, mimicking how plants grow in the wild.

“If you have two layers but not the ground cover layer, weeds creep in. If you add this layer, you will have a healthier garden as a result. There’s more habitat and less maintenance.”

By Erin Mooney, FOW Publicist