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thomas rainer landscape architect on native plants washington dc

The Contemporary Native

by Mary Jasch

Thomas Rainer, landscape architect and troubadour of wild places, designs residential gardens large and small, corporate and public gardens, public parks and monuments. He consulted on New York Botanical Garden’s New Native Garden and the Azalea Garden renovation under Sheila Brady, landscape architect and is involved with the 180-mile allee in The Journey Through Hallowed Ground Living Legacy Project that celebrates the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. There, along the historic road between Gettysburg, PA, and Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia, 620,000 trees are being planted, one for every soldier who died in the Civil War.

Here, he speaks a word for Nature.

Rainer, who lives on a quiet suburban Virginia street, loves native plants and is part of The Native Plant Movement. “It’s hard to be the one yard with a meadow in front,” he says of his own yard dressed to the hilt in gads of almost-Nature’s finest.

But to him, The Native Plant Movement has two problems:
1) “The tone is a bummer as in ‘We must suffer for our sins.’ For natives, the tone has lost some of its joy. Gardening is about plantings that enchant. Even if we’re doing something for the bugs and bees, it needs to have some human spirit.”

2) Reaction to scale: trying to take the beauty and grandeur of nature as we see it in the wild and imitating it in smaller spaces. The pleasures of a meadow or old field extend far beyond property lines.

“Part of what is so beautiful about native plants in Nature is scale. You can’t shrink it. It requires interpreting, or exaggerating the quality, in order to make native plants legible and make sense in our landscapes. Oudolf does it so well. His work has an emotional resonance. His is a stylized interpretation of nature – a pumped up version. His work has something bigger and wilder than the planting.”

Though we may be tempted to plant a meadow full of native plants on our properties, Rainer says there are 4,000 years of great garden design that can help relate them to our natural environments. A frame, such as a formal bed with boxwood borders or the clean line created by a fence, can help a planted wild garden relate to the vernacular landscape.

“Native plants can be fun and stunningly beautiful and conform to traditional garden styles, whether modern, formal or naturalistic. There is a lot of flexibility to be looser within a frame. A loose naturalistic planting, like an English border, is highly relevant with massing plants, scale, repetition and composition and more ornamental.”

These days Clients want everything from plants, he says: deer-resistance, four seasons, storm water absorption. “It is fascinating now. We’re just learning how much more plants can do. We know a fraction of their complexity. I think about an aesthetic that is natural and functional, how plants can work in a design. In aesthetic terms I can’t be a purist or ideologist for planting. I need every tool in the tool kit whether native or not native. I use a combination of native and exotic. A planting has to meet the client’s expectations or I won’t get hired. We have to have practical solutions. I’m interested in ways that traditional horticulture can help support native plantings. Practical plantsmanship must catch up with our ecological ideologies. I have one foot in the traditional world of horticulture and one foot in the wild world.”

Rainer’s plantings are deeper, and densely herbaceous, expressive of natural meadows “beautiful with harmony of color and evocative in an emotional way.” His rich plantings play with our memory of being again in Nature.

He believes that straight species are under-rated and often more interesting in form, depending on context. Though some cultivars are improvements in performance and color, there is much design opportunity with the species such as the ethereal Monarda bradburiana, fluffy pale pink with purple spots and two pouty lips on every petal. Rainey is creating plantings that evoke something bigger than what is there – like walking in a meadow.

People need to loosen up the landscape, he says. "The typical suburban landscape is a very loveless place. We mow lawns, clip foundation plants. We’ve projected onto our landscapes a protestant work ethic. Our yards have very little relationship with our American landscapes – the beauty and spirit of the American prairies, our Eastern deciduous forests… There’s so much beauty and so much inspirational potential in our yards. We’re disconnected in a very profound way.

“Gardens don’t need to be taken that seriously. They’re not meant to endure. They’re meant to enchant, for real gardeners to understand the joy of the relationship with a piece of land. I’m all for encouraging relationships no matter what it looks like whether that be an exotic or native garden. The point is to be fully engaged with our landscape. For me, more fundamentally, I’m an advocate of gardening.

“Landscape design is about the picture of a garden, but gardening is about the relationship. My objective is to create a relationship between the owner and the land that may or may not be there. .. to have clients use the land in a away they never have before. The lessons to be learned from hands in the dirt are myriad.”

Rainer grew up on the edge of the Birmingham suburb-woodland ecotone where, with his Huck Finn friends, watched the leveling of the Appalachians. Perhaps, he says, he became a landscape architect in reaction to the loss of the mountains, streams and woodlands torn away to build homes.

“Part of my interest in native plants is the celebration of wild places. Part of my interest in native plants is not just for ecological benefit but the enchantment that wild spaces have. Now we have to drive to have the chance to romp around. We were feral boys.”

Bottom line?

From his blog: “Thomas thinks you should use more natives, plant in humongous masses, and loosen up that landscape, for crying out loud.” See why here.

Thomas Rainer’s Credo
I believe:
- Good design matters.
- The quality of our environment affects our health and spirit.
- Gardens are points of connection, grounding, and continuity.
- Well loved spaces amplify living.
- Nature should be interpreted, not imitated in designed landscapes.
- Planting design should be bold, daring, and uncompromising.
- We can reclaim biodiversity and habitats within human landscapes.
- A good day ends with dirt under my nails, grass stains on clothes, and dreams of the next garden.

Thomas Rainer’s blog:
Meet him at NYBG lecture, March 20. Sign up here.
Buy a tree: Journey Through Hallowed Ground Living Legacy Project
**All photos courtesy of Thomas Rainer

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published February 20, 2014

Photos to enlarge

Thomas Rainer in his garden. Darren Higgins photo

Thomas Rainer's magnificent front yard. Thomas Rainer photo

Another part of Rainer's suburban front yard. Thomas Rainer photo

Masterpiece garden design by Landscape Architect Thomas Rainer. Thomas Rainer photo

Masterpiece close-up. Thomas Rainer photo

Connecticut garden designed by Thomas Rainer. Richard Felber photo

Rainer trains the Golden Triangle Ambassadors in Washington D.C. how to plant the seasonal rotations for three blocks of medians on Connecticut Avenue. “It was a real fun experience. They’re more invested in the project.”

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