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How Can Your Garden Adapt to a Changing Environment? 7+ Ways to Manage Horticultural Futurism According to Thomas Rainier


Unlike the oft-quoted French saying, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” in horticulture things really do change. Especially given the impact of Climate “Change”  

The keynote speaker at this year’s Metro Hort plant symposium, Thomas Rainer, highlighted the “Hot Mess” we’re in; yet offered sustainable gardening solutions. 

What does this cutting edge leader of Ecological Landscape Design have to say about garden designs in our changing world?  You’re in for a Plant-Centric garden discovery.


You may ask, “Why should a plant lover like me care? After all, I’m not a garden designer.”

Answer: For oh-so-many-reasons. 

But let’s just go with “Because” at this point.

And as Rainer urges, “Think like a Garden!”

He is taking us on a journey to a Plant-Centric Future.

 Thomas Rainer

I’ve long been a big admirer of Thomas Rainer.  

My introduction to him and his co author and business partner, Claudia West’s Horticultural Renaissance was back in 2016, (!) with the launch of their book, Planting in a Post-Wild World and the book tour, including that year’s Plant-O-Rama (POR).  

I looked back in my Garden Glamour blog archives for the overview Planting in a Post-Wild World post and to my delight, it still resonates ~ therefore, I’m sharing the link with you here.

If you are a Rainer/West Post-Wild World newbie, it’s a great introduction.  If you’re a Post-Wild fan, it will put this year’s POR lecture into context with perspective.

At the annual symposium and trade show this year, Rainier proved yet again, that he is at the vanguard of a revolution: a “renaissance of horticulture.”  It might help to think about garden design more as land management. It honors the spirit of the place ~ genius loci ~ and the history of our connection to biodiversity. Sustainability was embedded in our DNA. Until…

The Fundamentals have changed the landscape. Literally!  

That is the essence of Climate Change. Change being the key word here. 

Human activity has increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, leading to more heat retention and an increase in surface temperatures.

Rainier displayed a few images to highlight this point of changed landscapes due to three factors: Urbanization, Species Extinction ~ both of which are brought about or at the least, exacerbated by Climate Change. 

Solutions for a Horticultural Future using Ecological Landscape Design Management Techniques 

1. Can we hack Wild Systems for strategies to inform our more “designed landscapes”?  This design plant system thesis is at the core of Rainer’s philosophy. Urging us to think or regard Plants as Systems. Not as Objects.

Plants are not just decoration but are part of a dynamic system, he noted. 

Rainer employed the car engine as an analogy. 

In other words, plant communities should function as the sum of all its parts. 

‘The big shift in horticulture in the next decade will be a shift from thinking about plants as individual objects to communities of interrelated species.’

Rainier explored the best and most relevant planting strategies for today’s aesthetic and environmental challenges.

2. Create Mixed Design gardens.  We need a biodiverse mixture vs. constructed isolation.  

He said it’s best to use a plant mix of various heights and textures, not a planting of all one kind of plant in a garden bed ~ whether it’s a public or private home space.

Well-balanced and diverse is better.

“We have to understand that plants are social creatures. Our garden plants evolved as members of diverse social networks.”

3. Another Rainier suggestion is to adapt a wild plant palette to a garden design.

“Translate. Don’t Replicate,” he advised.

As an example, Rainer reminded the professional horticulturists in attendance that urban heat can up the surface temperature by 15 degrees.  

For you homeowners planning your garden spaces, think of your driveway area or patios.  

You may be putting in plants that won’t grow well with temperatures and surface conditions they can’t handle.  That’s in addition to the higher seasonal temperatures we’ve been increasingly experiencing during our spring and summer growing season. 

“It’s a hardiness issue.” These conditions affect a plant’s ability to thrive. 

4. Which leads to Rainier’s recommendation to merge your garden design with the built environment. Rainier cited the tree planting requirements adopted by the city of Toronto. There, they specify that a tree needs a minimum of almost three feet of soil for a planting.  Recognizing the carbon sequestration, the cooling effects, and the oxygen exchange, Toronto is recognizing plants as Utilities!

We should too. 

This kind of ecologically smart and prudent strategy amplifies Rainier’s observations and manifesto, that we don’t think about plants as mere accessories to be looked at; admired even, but rather as part of the overall, immersive experience.

His presentation illustrated his powerful points throughout the talk.  

For this point, Rainier showed several examples including a corporate HQ with little islands of plants in a huge lawn, median strips and homes that feature beds that hug the foundation and the big feature is again, the lawn.

He is guiding us away from this antiquated, and moreover, unsustainable landscape design.

In its place, embrace Ecological Landscape Design and Management.

We all need to.  

5. He urges us to prioritize Green; find places for plants. Make plantings, not just pairings. 

Observe your home garden and take note of what high-maintenance plants. 

Do your plants require a sophisticated  irrigation system?  

Do you love the idea of green walls?

Wellll… Turns out, Rainier thinks like I do:

Specifically, at the talk I gave last year to the Kitchen and Bath Designers (KBIS), I acknowledged that I’d been told how many of the members like the idea of incorporating a plant wall into their clients’ kitchens.  I persuaded them otherwise. You do not want this heave maintenance, soggy wall anywhere near your food 🙂

It’s been pointed out that this way of gardening needs to go the way of the buggy whip.  Let’s change those things that belong in the past. 

Plants that are used for not only their beauty but for their utility will benefit your lifestyle and your bottom line.

On your home property and in your town. 

A wider variety of plants, native plants, will be easier maintenance, requiring less use of precious resources including water and manpower to weed, and prune. 

Rainier urges us to “Think of biodiversity as infrastructure.” 

In other words, be pragmatic. Work with what we have now, not a nostalgic past.  The future can be viewed with your green-colored glasses 💚 🌿


6. When designing your gardens or working with your garden designer, Think like an invasive species. 

“What?!” You’re probably recoiling just reading this; tut-tutting that you pay good money or spend precious time weeding out bloody invasives. 

Here, Rainier is making the case that we get desirable plants to mimic the way invasives thrive with such capriciousness. 

  Yikes!  This looks all too familiar.  Hillsides with non-native, aggressive plants just taking over!

Rainier showed us examples of some of his projects where the garden design is meant to create a world of aggressive plant growth for many generations, using plants that are “resource abundant” rather than those that we’ve chosen to embrace ~ we like these plants in our gardens! But they are practicing resource scarcity.  

“The crisis we face is that we’ve created these plant specialists,” said Rainier.  We need to learn from Nature and embrace plants that adapt to stresses.”

After all, we do! Ha. 

7. Build Ecological Memory. Rainier posited, “What if we do nothing?” 

Put a pin in that thought…

He went on to explain that a site’s capacity to recreate its ecology ~ it’s ecological restoration as destiny is very obsessed with process. 

We need a holistic approach here. 

Think of the system you are creating. It’s the birds, who helped colonize the soil and the seed dispersal, the animals and the plants.

However, if there are no more understory trees or plants because the damned deer thieves have had one too many brunches and stolen all that biodiversity capacity, there is a disconnect.

We need to build more memory on the site.  

Time builds memory and succession…

“It’s not just planting trees,” said Rainier, “It’s building in layers.” He is referring to folks who plant a monoculture of trees thinking they’re aiding and restoring the loss of nature when in fact, plantings of multiples of trees doesn’t help the ecosystem.  

We must think diversity.  In our gardens; in our nutrition, and in our communities…

In the garden Rainier recommends we start small.  I think that works for our plants and our towns, as well.  

“Build one section on top of a planting; generate diversity. 

“You are ReWilding.” 

Make your own weeds!

Create a Seed Bank.

Start with fast-growing, early successional species.  Bear in mind that if you lay in new soil, some plants cannot adapt to young soils.”

Rainier concluded with a somewhat rhetorical question: “Do you choose Hope or Fear?”

Answer: “Plants have always adapted to climate change.  Hack their superpower!”

One of my former Botanic Garden execs used to jokingly remind folks, “Remember, it was the plants who survived the Ice Age. Not the dinosaurs.” Food for thought.

Speaking of Superpower, I was so honored to be surrounded by Hortie Heroes: Thomas Rainier on the left and Thomas Christopher, a very successful garden writer, author, and podcaster.  Be sure to tune in. (Christopher is also a graduate of the School of Professional Horticulture at The New York Botanical Garden. One of the most successful students!)

For more on Thomas Rainier, here is the bio as provided by Metro Hort for Plant-O-Rama:

Translating the Wild: Practical Design Strategies for Evocative Urban Landscapes

Nature has long inspired designers but creating garden-scale replicas of natural plant communities is surprisingly hard. Landscape architect Thomas Rainer explores the best and most relevant planting strategies for today’s aesthetic and environmental challenges. Learn how his Phyto Studio applies different tools of naturalistic design tradition to inform their projects.

Thomas Rainer is a registered landscape architect, teacher, and author. As a leading voice in ecological landscape design, he has designed landscapes for the U.S. Capitol grounds, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the New York Botanical Garden, as well as over 100 gardens from Maine to Florida. 

Rainier gave us a very inspired and provocative talk.  

In turn, I hope I have inspired you to use Rainier’s plant and landscape design wisdom and experience and his compassionate love of nature and art, to create and manage a horticultural future that you can enjoy for decades.

A Smart Planting Management talk took place in the afternoon, when Claudia West and MaryKatherine Green took a practical, hands-on deep dive into the root causes of high maintenance needs and planting instability. 

West is a leading voice in the emerging field of ecological planting design. Known for her passionate advocacy of plant-driven design, she applies the technologies of plant systems to bring essential natural functions back into our cities and towns. She has worked as a designer, grower, installer, and land manager, grounding her innovative work in pragmatic solutions that address the realities of our urbanizing world. She is the co-author with Thomas Rainer of the critically acclaimed book, Planting in a Post-Wild World.

MaryKatherine Green is the land steward and horticulturist for an ecologically rich, private estate in Philadelphia. 

Cheers to growing more ecologically, beautiful garden designs. 

Thank you, Metro Hort.  Membership has its privileges.

*Intro photo: Phyto Studio


  • Anonymous

    What lovely flowers they are. Barbxx

  • Garden Glamour

    You are most welcome. It's my sincere pleasure ~ and honor ~ to be able to bring you important and interesting information from the front lines. Horticulture leaders, such as Thomas Rainier help us identify salient issues AND provide solutions. Ecological Landscaping & Land Management is a smart Hort future to combat climate change using proven, sustainable land management as practiced by First Peoples around the world. It works!

  • Anonymous

    A lot of wonderful info but will need help and his book to accomplish a good garden. Thanks Leeann for all your help.

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 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

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