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.
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.
Wild 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.
Weaner 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.”
To 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