Organic Consumers Association

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Understanding What Makes Plants Happy

A dense carpet of woodland perennials. Thomas Rainer, a landscape architect, calls plants “social creatures” that thrive in particular networks.

Thomas Rainer and I have both been doing the botanical thing for decades; we know, and use, many of the same plants — and even much of the same horticultural vocabulary. But what he and I see when we look at a butterfly weed or a coneflower, or what we mean when we say familiar words like “layering” or “ground cover,” is surprisingly not synonymous.

It turns out I’ve been missing what the plants were trying to tell me, failing to read botanical body language and behavior that could help me put plants together in combinations that would solve challenges that many of us have: beds that aren’t quite working visually, and garden areas that don’t function without lots of maintenance.

As we gardeners shop the catalogs or the just-opening local garden centers with an eye to finally “fixing” that bed out front that has never quite cooperated, I asked Mr. Rainer, a landscape architect based in Washington, D.C., to lend us his 3-D vision.

In his career, Mr. Rainer has designed landscapes for the United States Capitol grounds, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the New York Botanical Garden, as well as gardens from Maine to Florida. He is an author with Claudia West of the 2015 book “Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes.” He is a principal in the firm Rhodeside & Harwell, but will leave soon to start a new firm with his wife, the landscape architect Melissa Rainer, and Ms. West. He advocates an ecologically expressive aesthetic that interprets rather than imitates nature.

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