Whenever my father returned home from abroad, I couldn’t wait to see his pictures. A plant scientist for the USDA, he visited Australia and New Zealand, Israel and Palestine, South Africa, Costa Rica, Taiwan, and dozens of other countries. In my eyes, he was a modern-day Marco Polo, laden with treats and tales from distant lands.
But in 1980, his journeys took him to a less colorful place: the shadowy landscape east of the Berlin Wall. After driving straight to Dresden to avoid police interrogation, he met his host, the former owner of one of Germany’s largest horticultural enterprises, at the Central Museum. “He told me that I could come to his home for dinner, but we couldn’t talk politics,” my dad, Roger, recalls now. “He was sure there were listening devices planted in the house.”
Later, they retreated to a garden house across the street to drink wine and speak openly. Longtime employees stood on the lookout for trouble as my dad’s colleague described the oppression of the regime, which had taken over his hundred-year-old business and kept him on as manager. A radio under the floorboards provided the only external communication. Everyone lived in fear of the secret police. “It was always this issue of neighbor telling on neighbor; it was very difficult to know who to trust.”
But what made the greatest impression was the patched-together garden at the home of another scientist—a collection of plants my dad’s host deemed his “cultivated wild,” gathered from whatever popped up in the landscape. “Of course, these workers didn’t have much money,” my dad explains. Even nice clothing wasn’t readily available or affordable, much less garden plants. “People in the streets were kind of walking around hanging their heads. It was terrible.”
It was into this world that Claudia West would soon be born. A young girl when the wall fell, West remembers the devastating effects of uranium and soft coal industries in her East German homeland. Entire villages had been dug up for mining to keep the economy afloat, leaving giant craters and air so ashen and chemical-laden that West and her family couldn’t even hang their laundry outside.
Those early impressions of an abused earth devoid of vegetation and a sky thick with pollution made witnessing the subsequent transformation of the land even more awe-inspiring. After less than three decades of restoration efforts, clear lakes now fill the craters, whole forests have sprung from tree plantings, and even European wolves have staged a comeback. “In such a short lifetime,” West says, “I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.”
In such a short lifetime, I’ve seen nature return with a powerful force to landscapes where we thought all hope was lost.
As the earth around her recovered, West became enamored with American plants she saw in European parks and couldn’t wait to study them here in their native environments. But instead of the vast prairies of wildflowers she’d envisioned, she arrived to find acre upon acre of land mowed down and mulched over. “It was really a huge disappointment coming here, expecting all these great plants and actually seeing so few of them being used in the landscape. And that’s not only an aesthetic disaster and a disaster for quality of life, but it’s also a disaster for ecological reasons. All these animals have developed intricate relationships with these plants for thousands of years, and we took the foundation right out from under their feet.”
West’s desire to heal that scarred landscape inspires her work as the ecological sales manager at North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania. It was also the impetus behind her involvement with the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing plant communities for resilient landscapes, which she coauthored with landscape architect Thomas Rainer in 2015. In this interview, she articulates the urgent need for ecological design—and provides take-home tips for every gardener interested in restoring habitat to damaged earth.
Q: You must have been six or seven when the wall fell?
That’s exactly right. I was a child, but as a child you see things sometimes even more clearly than adults, who get so used to the environment that after a while you stop questioning it. But I do remember very clearly the heavy industries, to the point where air pollution was really crazy—really thick and unhealthy for people. And the immense scars this industry left on the landscape.
It took a really long time to clean up these landscapes, but not as long as anybody ever suspected. Going back now is like going back into a different world. It took us all by surprise that a landscape that had been so abused can now be the home of such incredible biodiversity and be used by a whole new tourism industry as really the gem of Central Europe.
Q: That’s amazing. So it was a combination of human intervention and nature coming back on its own?
Exactly, yes. So there was a lot of funds coming in—I think from the European Union—to clean these areas up, and a lot of people coming together. It was all planned restoration efforts, with millions of trees being planted and meadows being seeded and fish being released back into the waters. So certainly it was a man-guided restoration, and the results are just incredible. I had no idea that nature can come back with such a vengeance. Now a generation that saw that pollution goes for a walk around the lakes that used to be craters in the landscapes. It’s so powerful how these people can now all the sudden enjoy their home. It was not possible for them for so many decades.
Q: Your parents were in the landscaping industry?
My family—since it was eastern Germany—was not allowed to have a business because of the Communist structure, the regime. After the wall came down, the world opened up for us, and we started a nursery. We really started very small with a few tables at the local market and buying plants from the Netherlands and reselling them. And then they quickly grew into several … stores that my mother was managing. The landscape design build was something my father spearheaded. Many of the plant species that we wanted to use weren’t available yet in the local nursery trade. We started to grow a lot of the things we needed in our designs in the nursery, and that’s how the nursery business started … and with the understanding that plants can make life better, that they are very powerful and necessary for life quality. Not just for ecology but for us, for people.
We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants.
Q: Did you see American natives while growing up in Europe? Is that where you first got interested?
We did—that’s the fascinating thing, where I was just completely confused when I first came here that so few of these plants are here in cultivation. Because we adore them. We are so jealous of the vegetation that the United States has, the incredible diversity and just the beauty of these plants. Thanks to folks like Karl Foerster or some of the early nursery visionaries, these plants became available for the European market.
Many of the European plants have a cool season, simply based on our climate, and they heavily flower between spring and midsummer. Our gardens look more or less green, and there’s not as much of a second flowering highlight as there is here in the United States. So American native plants really fill an aesthetic need in Europe, basically create a second show before winter comes. That’s exactly how they’re being used. And that’s why they’re so incredibly popular, because they bloom until frost, and they’re just spectacular in color and structure and in attracting European insects as well—generalist insects.
Q: You’ve described feeling shocked when you arrived here and found a “chronically undervegetated” and overmulched landscape. When did you first realize that? When you stepped off the plane? Or was it a gradual process?
I think I felt it the second I stepped off the plane, and it just took a while to communicate that better and really understand the extent of the problem and what that means for the ecology. It’s just really a tragedy on such a large scale—the loss of life quality—and what opened my eyes was seeing these opportunities not being taken. And now these opportunities, they have to be taken if we want our landscapes to be continuously the foundation of a healthy ecosystem. Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.
Future nature doesn’t live out there anymore, because out there is gone. Future nature lives here in our backyards, in our developments and parking lots or rooftop gardens—or it doesn’t live. That’s the reality.
I know that gardens do not replace restoration and conservation of wild lands, and a designed system will probably never have the same quality that a wild or somewhat semi-pristine landscape has in some of the few nature reserves we will still have left that function. But at least a designed garden or landscape can balance some of it. And it may never be as good, but it still can add up and make a difference.
Q: Is there a native plant movement in Germany like there is here?
It’s not really the same, and I think a lot of it has to do with our history. Hitler was very much focused on only allowing European native plants. And there was a very strong push to beautifying the European or German landscape with real German plants. … I don’t think we’re quite ready for a mainstream native plant movement yet because we’re still digesting that past. A lot of very cautious voices come up as soon as anybody goes in that direction. (See “Depoliticizing the Wildlife Garden” for varying interpretations of this history and their effects on native plant advocacy.)
Q: I saw a talk by a scientist who was a little bit defensive about native plants and said the movement is “borderline xenophobic.” I think it’s the opposite because our ancestors came here and killed so many of the indigenous people and their plants. But I can see why there’s a hesitation in Germany.
Well, of course, there’s an understanding that the European native plants are the foundation of our ecology, but it’s not communicated in the same way as it is here. It’s something that lives more in the world of ecology. There’s a very strong push there to collect seeds off European native plants and protect them because many of them are endangered because it’s such a highly dense, highly populated, cultivated landscape over there. So there’s definitely a push to restoration, conservation, and bringing native plants back. But it’s a very different context, I should say—a cautious context.
There are garden designers who base their work on working with native plants from Europe, but the aesthetics often limit how far they can go with these plantings. That kind of focus on native plants and ecology often brings with it a very naturalistic planting and style, and that’s just something that here in the United States and in Europe, not everybody feels comfortable with. I think we’re struggling with the same problems, and that’s one of the reasons why Thomas and I wrote the book—to help folks who want to create more ecological plantings and make that more mainstream and acceptable—and to help them make better design decisions so that we can meet in the middle. We kind of wanted to deflate that “native” debate just a little bit.
Q: I thought you handled it really subtly.
We wanted to show a message that yes, a native plant palette [can be applied] as appropriate for a site. We wanted people to be more aware of that and how plants fit together—and take away from “native” as just solely being based on location, where really “native” is defined by a plant’s interaction with insects and ecology.
Q: The alternative language used most often now is that plants should “serve an ecological function.” But when it comes down to it, most of those native plants are the ones that meet that need, right?
Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Q: So it’s just a matter of trying to defuse the labels. I’ve been interspersing “native” with “wildlife-friendly plants” for that reason.
Yeah! I love that. That’s exactly what it means. Because the concept of “native” means very little to the general public. It’s not powerful. But if you can sell the quality—that these plants will bring all these beautiful creatures into your garden and you’ll be able to enjoy them—who doesn’t want that? That’s the purpose of gardening. This is where the hobby and the passion lives. That’s powerful and that’s what we wanted to focus on and not location, location, location. I think that is really an exhaustive debate. And what we need are solutions. We need better native planting design to sell this quality.
Tips: Trusting Nature’s Time-Tested Recipes
Traditional landscaping is replete with formulaic advice based on appearances and shallow vital stats: Put tall plants in the back, short ones in front. Buy three to five of each kind and place them 12 inches apart. Mulch the remaining earth, add fertilizer and water, and repeat.
But nature is much more imaginative. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, authors Claudia West and Thomas Rainer explain what plants really want—and don’t want—to survive and thrive among us. Here are three top takeaways that can be applied in the home garden.
Plants have social needs.
If you’ve ever watched the proliferation of blue mistflower added to a sunny spot or a Virginia bluebell planted under a tree, you won’t be surprised to learn these species rank high on a “levels of sociability” scale created by German plant researchers, including one of West’s teachers, Hermann Müssel. But while some species are gregarious and don’t mind taking up the whole garden, others are wallflowers, preferring to stand alone or with just a few friends.
Mimicking these natural tendencies can encourage long-term sustainability of planned landscapes, especially on sites under high pressure from invasive species. European designers interested in grouping species based on spreading tendencies can turn to Friedrich Stahl and Richard Hansen’s groundbreaking book Perennials and their Garden Habitats, published in 1993. West has been hoping to develop similar guidelines for American native plants. In the meantime, I’ve found it instructive to read the online plant profiles provided by a variety of sites, including North Creek Nurseries as well as these favorites: Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder, and the USDA’s Fire Effects Information System. (The latter offers information on wildlife habitat and plant communities associated with a number of native and nonnative species.) Regional or state-based databases, such as the California Native Plant Society’s Calscape, are also helpful resources for learning more about plant growth habits.
Plants live in a space-time continuum.
Plants’ personalities aren’t solely defined by the number of friends they keep around. Though often thought of as static green backdrops, plants are constantly interacting with the world around them and occupying space in different ways. Some spread laterally by shallow roots, while others anchor themselves deep in the ground. “There are very few plants—things like cattails or phragmites—that grow in monocultures,” says West. “Most other species in the wild are naturally layered. Their entire morphologies are based on that.”
The resulting intermingling of complex root systems below ground can improve storm water filtration, while aboveground layers of vegetative growth provide abundant food and shelter opportunities for insects, amphibians, and small mammals. Blanketing the earth with mulch stymies these natural benefits to the environment, so West and Rainer recommend instead mixing low spreaders among taller perennials to create a continuous matrix. “They are not always the most floriferous plants,” they write of these groundcovers, “but they are the workhorses of designed plant communities. Density is created not by cramming plants together, but by layering a composition vertically with plants inhabiting different spaces based on their forms.”
The way a species changes through time—and especially through one season—also affects the surrounding plant community. Some may roam through the garden in spring but stop spreading in early summer, when taller species begin to shoot up or leaf out and cast shade over the ground below.
Plants adapt to “stressful” conditions.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and the same is often true of plants. Plants in drier climates have evolved creative ways to withstand drought, including by storing more moisture in their waxy leaves or going dormant during the warmest weather. Many woodland species derive more consistent moisture and nutrients from rich soil and fallen leaves. Plants in both environments form intricate relationships with microorganisms in the soil, sharing nutrients and water through underground fungal networks.
The typical recommendations for starting a garden ignore these community-based strategies and weather-specific adaptations. Quick-growth recipes of compost, fertilizers, and irrigation are best left to the vegetable garden, designed for one-season harvest. In other contexts, too much pampering from the gardener can kill plants outright by overwhelming them with inputs they don’t need.
Rather than altering the texture, chemistry, and moisture levels, gardeners will have better luck using plants already adapted to the topography and terrain—supporting the vigorous responses of individual plants to their environment, the long-term sustainability of broader plant communities, and, ultimately, the wild animals who depend on these landscapes for their very survival.
This is the first in a series of Q&As based on interviews I conducted for my forthcoming book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat, due for release from Princeton Architectural Press on April 18.
*Featured image: A black-throated sparrow surveys his domain from a cholla cactus in a suburban Scottsdale, Arizona, development. Though the species is said to be less adaptive to suburbs than other desert birds, this individual may be faring well alongside humans because the community is brimming with natural areas and native plants. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)