Plant Communities Landscape Design

by Cheryl A. Gross, Plant it Wild and AEMG

Typical landscaping practice separates trees, shrubs, perennials, and the like, from each other.  Mulch is used to define each plant.  There are extremely few places in nature where plant spacing occurs.  Desert and dying forest is just about the only places I can imagine.  The more water available, the denser plants grow.  Think of the rainforest jungle.  Next time you walk through a natural area, look around you.  What do you see? How are the plants growing?

The plant-separation aesthetic is artificial and very high maintenance. Spring and fall the mulch needs to be weeded.  Every year or two additional mulch is added to “keep up appearances”.  Plants in nature do not “keep their distance”.   It makes me wonder who conceived of this silliness.  Plants WANT to cover the ground.  Bare ground is not a natural “thing”.  We “clear” a patch of land and invasive species move in.  “Disturbed soil” attracts a whole hosts of undesirable opportunists. 

Thomas Rainer and Claudia West in their book, “Planting in a Post-Wild World:  Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes”  address a new vision… a vision of layered landscaping and plant communities.  Since plants want to cover the ground, and a plant covered ground is evident in nature, it is up to us to take the cue and begin to design our landscapes with this ethic in mind.


Plants do grow in community with each other.  They cluster with plants which share the same soil, moisture, and light needs. There are plant communities in dry sand, forest shade, wetlands, prairies, and the like.  We would be startled to see a cattail on a sand dune, or a sunflower in a woods.  The plants would be out of place.  It is the sense of place that should drive our landscape designs and plant choices.  After learning about this approach to landscaping I experimented Fox Sedge, Copper Shoulder Oval Sedge, Little Blue Stem, Pussy Toes, and Potentilla Simplex.  The results have been remarkable and I am not finished. Where I used to plant 3-5 of certain plants, I am thinking more in flats. Plant in drifts so plants can crisscross in the garden bed.  Place shorter plants to the outside edges and taller plants toward the middle.  Plant flopping plants surrounded by sturdier stemmed pants.

Consider never mulching again and reducing your weeding time.  In your designs, begin to think in edges and layers.  We have many Michigan native plants that are underused that can make perfect companions.  Consider planting under and in-between shade trees, small trees and shrubs.

            Are there places you could add Pennsylvania Sedge or Foam Flower?  Both can take shade to partial sun.  Both will spread to fill in as ground cover should.

            Native grasses are also excellent guests at the party.  Prairie Dropseed is our most formal-looking grass and there are many others to choose from depending upon the backdrop you are trying to create.

            Potentilla Simplex was addled to a heavily mulched bed of trees and shrubs in full sun.  It has performed beautifully and that bed will never need to be mulched again.

            Consider planting suckering or spreading shrubs en masse.  Bush Honeysuckle is a perfect medium-height shrub with a suckering form.  Plant spaced apart to allow for spread and much the first year.  Soon no separate plants will be visible.  Low-Grow Sumac is another shrub that will spread and grow together.  In a few years they will mass and grow together…covering a lot of ground.  When a beneficial plant takes up real estate, there is not much room left for weeds.

Reference:Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for ResilientLandscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, c 2015, Timber Press