Resilient Plant Design: Changing Old Habits for a New “Plant Communities” Approach

by Ryan Ives, RLA, and Michael Ledbetter, RLA, ASLA

Roof meadow of Parkline project
Spring in the Parkline “roof meadow” six months after the plugs were planted. / image: Ryan Ives

This post provides two perspectives from two landscape architects—Ryan Ives and Michael Ledbetter, who are adapting their planting design, implementation, and post-construction plant management strategies to the new norms: climate change, reduced biodiversity, shrinking budgets, and clients’ expectations for new methodologies. We hope to see more posts like this from them and others who are trying out new sustainable design techniques and strategies.

Ryan Ives, RLA
Living and working out of Durham, NC

Stepping into your Post-Wild World

My own journey into a post-wild world began in 2016, when I saw Claudia West speak at the New Directions in the American Landscape conference at Connecticut College. I was blown away by West’s presentation of the then recently published Planting in a Post-Wild World, co-authored with Thomas Rainer, ASLA. West and Rainer synthesized decades of sophisticated European and American planting methods with contemporary views and experience (West comes from the post-Cold War East German landscape perspective and Rainer from the wilderness lost legacy of the U.S.). Their arguments seem particularly well-suited to our current moment of climate change and urbanization. The book they produced is a guide that gives the rest of us a methodology and conceptual framework to build upon. If you spend any time on landscape architecture Instagram, you will see that I am not the only person who has been inspired by this book.

Even after reading the book twice, it took me several years to get to the point where I was ready to jump in and start applying West and Rainer’s methodology to projects. Prior to becoming a landscape architect, I worked in landscape maintenance and I was anxious about taking risks with planting design. No one wants to develop an inspiring planting concept that includes claims of low maintenance after establishment (I mean management!), only to see it fail. There is also the issue that many clients, whether because of negative past experiences or word of mouth, believe that plantings will be expensive and difficult to maintain. Essentially, there are a lot of incentives to avoid taking risks, particularly if you are not entirely sure which risks you should take. The concepts expressed in Planting in a Post-Wild World felt like the missing piece that I needed to give me the freedom and guidance to create meaningful, beneficial, and manageable plant designs.

The project that gave me the first opportunity to use West and Rainer’s ideas was a 20,000-square-foot green roof. I would have slept much better if the planted area was 200 square feet, but the design had to be a plant community that could be deployed across a huge area. Below are some of the lessons I learned from this experience:

When an idea is good, it is good for many reasons, but you also must talk about what could go wrong.

Some clients are very interested in plant ecology and will love a deep dive into this planting approach, while others are more concerned about maintenance. The information found in Planting in a Post-Wild World allows you to tailor your presentation to both sets of clients. Be sure to also discuss what could go wrong and the processes you will need to put in place to mitigate risks.

People need good stories about their landscapes so they will know how to value them in budget conversations. Planting in a Post-Wild World will help you create these stories. In my experience, I have found that the planting areas sometimes shrink, but the idea is rarely cut from the project entirely.

A mix of locally adapted sedums and ice plants form the groundcover for two thirds of the roof meadow while large drifts of mixed perennials highlight key moments. / image: Ryan Ives

You can separate the method from the aesthetic.

Not every client wants their landscape to look like my front yard, and there is nothing wrong with that. One of the most interesting parts of applying these ideas is figuring out how to use the framework to create a less wild-looking planting design. You can also take the concepts and decide how to scale the palettes and management techniques to use in leftover planted spaces in our urban environments. As West discussed at the conference, European practitioners are developing plant communities for municipalities to deploy in traffic islands and around parking lots at scale.

Spurred on by the home isolation of the pandemic, in spring 2020, I planted many varieties of sedges, ferns, grasses, and perennials at my house to test new plants. / image: Ryan Ives

Don’t abandon your workhorse plants.

One of my favorite aspects of Planting in a Post-Wild World is the conceptual framework for organizing plants by their preferred wild ecosystem. Your workhorse plants that you have come to depend on can fit into this planting system. Start by adapting what you have been doing and include a limited number of new plants. Over time, your palette will expand. If possible, do larger experiments at your house or at that friend’s house who keeps pestering you to design them a garden!

Installer and Landscape Maintenance Relationships:

When I worked in maintenance, I remember standing in a garden reviewing a planting plan from a landscape architect that was not well-suited to the site. My supervisor and the client ended up having a separate conversation without the landscape architect about how the planting would fail because landscape architects lack true understanding of how plantings work. This conversation made a big impression on me and I kept it in mind as I transitioned from field work to desk work.

In late summer, the prairie dropseed blooms create an ethereal space. / image: Ryan Ives

Many landscape architects do not have the opportunity to get significant field experience working with plants before they graduate. The good news is that the installer and maintainer do have that experience. Part of your role is to establish trust with your team and ask for their input. You cannot have successful plant communities without buy-in from the maintenance team.

One important focus of your conversations should be how managing this type of planting will differ from maintaining a more typical planting. You can also track maintenance hours for the first few years of management to compare to a more typical planting. I once worked with a maintenance team who explained that a shrub planting with mulch allows them to spray herbicides to control weeds, while a shrub planting with sedges would require hand-pulling. The client was on board with the new approach but also understood that it would require extra hours of maintenance. The client was able to tell the story of reduced herbicide as part of their project and that was a value-add.

You will also likely see the groundcover plugs you are spec’ing on a VE (value engineering) list from a contractor. It is important to explain to the contractor and the client that more plants will lead to less individual plant maintenance and instead more management of the plant community. Be sure to use the maintenance appendix in the back of the book. It is an excellent tool for clarifying the maintenance process in advance.

In autumn, the changing tone of the prairie dropseed emphasize the grasses as objects in a quincunce spacing. / image: Ryan Ives

Stewardship Relationships:

There have been several times that clients who are ready to sign off on a design with this planting approach have expressed lingering concerns about what happens when the project ends and we are no longer under contract. This is the perfect time to bring up a stewardship contract, which is typically an hourly relationship with an annual not-to-exceed budget. The simple way to phrase it is: “If your maintenance crew runs into problems, I want to be the first one that you call.” This will reassure the client and demonstrate your value over time. It also provides you with an opportunity to monitor your project and learn from the results.

The winter is one of the key seasons for this south facing roof, as it can be quite warm in summer. / image: Ryan Ives

If you haven’t read the book, stop reading this post and go find it! The lessons learned from Planting in a Post-Wild World will help you make the first steps to expanding your planting palette and creating more sustainable, beneficial, and beautiful landscapes.

Michael Ledbetter, RLA, ASLA
Living and working out of Newport Beach, CA

Change Can be Hard

It was a couple years ago when Ryan in our Durham office first shared this book with the rest of our team and showed us some of the projects he was working on and implementing the strategies for creating plant communities through landscape design. It would be a few more years before I was comfortable attempting to implement this kind of landscape design in Southern California. It would require a rethinking of my entire approach from the ground up.

Landscape design for me had become focused on using plant material I was confident would survive the small planting areas and lack of maintenance typical of commercial landscapes found in our urban settings. I layered by height, color, and texture and looked for massings that I found pleasing but in essence I viewed each plant as an individual and my planting plans and specifications were built around that idea. I would amend the soil, provide planting tablets for each planting pit, and finish it off with a three-inch layer of mulch to create the best environment I could for healthy plant growth. This kind of landscape design requires upkeep to remove weeds, thin out overgrown material, and replenish mulch every season. These landscapes are drought tolerant but not resilient.

The plant communities approach takes a step back to view the landscape as a whole and not just individual plant groupings. I’m attempting this new planting design technique for the first time on a project this year and hoping to find that better way forward. The first challenge was getting better knowledge of the plant material I wanted to work with. It’s not enough to know preferred lighting and water requirements; it takes a deeper understanding of how these plants live together in the wild. I’m learning about the individual root morphology of each plant to understand which level of the soil horizon each takes its nutrients from. I’m going with generally smaller plant material at initial planting to reach establishment faster and using plugs in between the gallon-size plantings in an effort to cover the ground as quickly as possible and not let weeds take over the spaces in between. I’m planning on doing plant mockups on-site during construction so I can test out the plant communities I’ve developed. I’m also sitting down with my client and their maintenance team to start educating them on a new approach they’ll have to take once construction is complete.

It’s easy to follow the old ways of doing things but we cannot find a better way forward without breaking free from those old ways that we’ve grown comfortable with. We’re starting down a new path, with the hope of creating landscapes that will be resilient in our ever changing climates while also being purposeful and beautiful for the enjoyment of the users for years to come.

Ryan Ives, RLA, is a Senior Designer / Associate in the Land Development Studio of
Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in Durham, NC. Michael Ledbetter, RLA, ASLA, is a ‎Landscape Architect at Little in Newport Beach, CA.

One thought on “Resilient Plant Design: Changing Old Habits for a New “Plant Communities” Approach

  1. jodiecookdesign September 10, 2021 / 10:31 am

    This is a wonderfully informative article! I was also influenced by that book. However, observing the building in your photos, I worry about, and wonder why, architects continue to design highly reflective/mirrored facades. The very real risks to wildlife (birds) are not a secret.

    As the field of landscape architecture is quickly transitioning to planting for increased biodiversity and restoration of long-gone food webs we are sadly luring wildlife into dangerously mirrored environments.

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