Roots and Shoots: Letting Nature Run Its Course in the Garden

By Pamela Doan

Larry Weaner has coined the term “self-perpetuating garden” to describe a naturalistic approach to landscape design that works in partnership with nature to create dynamic, low-maintenance outdoor spaces. Weaner and his eponymous landscape design firm have created at least 300 meadow plantings in the past 30 years, he estimates.

Larry Weaner
Larry Weaner

He specializes in meadows and works all over New England, upstate New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “We’re a natural design firm. Our work is patterned on native plant communities and we incorporate not only plants native to the region, but also include some of the processes that occur in nature. In nature plants change, some things drop out and others come in, but it isn’t static. We try to incorporate change.”

Incorporating change and self-perpetuating concepts go hand in hand with natural processes. Nature wants to constantly evolve. As seeds are dispersed and then distributed by wind, animals, birds, and people, plants are in constant motion. In formal garden design, the goal is to create a static space. Desirable plantings are installed in a defined area and then undesirable plantings are weeded out or otherwise controlled. It could be high or low maintenance, but removal of unwanted plants is the main strategy for keeping the original design intact.

As an example of a self-perpetuating strategy, Weaner described using a plant like joe-pye weed that will seed itself and spread through the landscape with the wind. He said, “The additional element is allowing plants to colonize the landscape using strategies and plant selection that encourage plants to spread naturally.” He emphasized that this approach is about, “setting a process in motion” and that understanding the life cycles and habits of plants and how they work together in the landscape was crucial to success. “It amounts to less work, but more thinking. You need to understand the process and then you can save a lot of work,” he said.

LWLA_Meadow01Wild geranium, also known as cranesbill, was another native plant Weaner mentioned as an example. Unlike joe-pye weed, its seeds won’t be distributed by the wind. If you want this perennial wildflower to spread, you have to spread the seeds by hand once the seed pods have split. It could spread in a localized area but it won’t show up yards away.

Weaner, who always considered himself to be a naturalistic designer, observes nature as his guidepost for garden design. “It really comes down to a different way of thinking. As opposed to static, it’s a dynamic process and the plants will change over time naturally.”

For home gardeners who want to incorporate these principles into their landscapes, Weaner advised that they first learn about what grows where they live. Two great resources that I frequently mention in this column for native plant lists are the Native Plant Center in Valhalla on the Westchester Community College campus and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website.

LWLA_Meadow04Weaner also recommends that gardeners who want to create self-perpetuating landscapes “pick up a textbook on terrestrial plant ecology that give you a basic understanding of plants in the landscape. You need to learn two things — the plants and the processes.”

Weaner didn’t have any recommendations for such a book offhand, but he is writing a book about the process that will be published next year. I like Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon as a good resource for understanding how plants work. It doesn’t delve into specific plant processes, but does cover anatomy, genetics and functions of plants.

When I asked Weaner to talk about his favorite aspect of his work, he said, “Visit a park like Yosemite and you’ll be amazed at the beauty of it and enjoy it, but you haven’t had a role in creating it. You don’t have a relationship to it. What I love is when the plants are changing and seeding around and new things are coming in and it’s evolving over time. It’s the idea that you’ve affected things and it wouldn’t look like this if you’d done nothing, but it’s a partnership and nature is doing things that I wouldn’t even think of. The landscape has its own life.”

LWLA_Meadow06To learn more about this concept, Weaner has several upcoming talks and workshops, including one in Copake, New York, on Aug. 16. Check his website for more details.

Photos by Kim Sokoloff, courtesy of Larry Weaner Landscape Associates

3 Responses to "Roots and Shoots: Letting Nature Run Its Course in the Garden"

  1. David J. North   August 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Is it possible you have misidentified a “friend” as a “foe”? (Aug. 22). The photograph is of a plant that looks like Common Pokeweed, not Japanese Knotweed. According to Weeds of the Northeast, by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal and Joseph M. DiTomaso (Cornell University Press), the stem of Japanese knotweed is “bamboo-like,” whereas in Common pokeweed the stems are “smooth, erect, and branched above.” Additionally, Japanese knotweed spreads primarily by rhizomes, as you correctly stated. Common Pokeweed, on the other hand, reproduces by seed. “Fruit are conspicuous berries, green when immature, turning purple to dark purple-black at maturity” (Uva, Neal and DiTomaso). I appreciate your attention to this apparent discrepancy. Any suggestion to use an herbicide, such as Round-up, had better be warranted, as well as educated.

    • Grace Kennedy   August 26, 2014 at 6:20 pm

      I am sure that’s poke weed, which can become a nuisance but is not invasive and certainly doesn’t warrant RoundUp. In fact it’s the poke in poke salad, eaten only when the leaves are very young.

  2. Tara Dillard   August 26, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, includes templates/processes of gardens along with architecture. Founders of the internet said they used processes from A Pattern Language. “It amounts to less work, but more thinking. You need to understand the process and then you can save a lot of work,” he wrote. This includes saving money.

    Studied historic gardens across Europe for decades. Europe never had cheap gas after WWII like the USA, their garden choices have always been about doing what is right for the soil, water, Earth. Been doing Tara Turf instead of lawns for decades thanks to those studies and more.

    Gardens are amusement in USA, in Europe they are stewardship. Sadly, the USA understands stewardship to mean more work. Instead it means less work, and a reverse stewardship of what the garden gives to us in higher property value, lower HVAC and greater personal joy.

    Lovely article, written with care. Much appreciated. Garden & Be Well, XO Tara