This week’s blog highlights our landscape division and the creative work they do. We’re featuring an Asheville landscape design done by Amy Nies, Landscape Designer, and project manager, Jason Hanna, Director of Customer Services. Our goal is to show you, from beginning to end, the transition of an ordinary landscape into an extraordinary one.

We hope you’ll follow along as this not only highlights the incredible talent of B.B. Barns landscape but also incorporates the visionary work of Thomas Rainer, a landscape architect and co-author of the book, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapeswhose style of design inspired Hanna on this project. This posting is phase one–the beginning and before pictures of the design process. Two more blog posts will be posted in the upcoming months to allow you to follow the transition to the finished project. 

(Click here to learn more about B.B. Barns Landscape services: B.B. Barns Landscape )

Let’s start with Rainer’s call to action. 

The front lines of the battle for nature are not the Amazon rain forest or the Alaskan wilderness; the front lines are our backyards, medians, parking lots, and elementary schools. The ecological warriors of the future won’t just be scientists, engineers, or even landscape architects.  The ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members.  Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature.  And the future nature will look more and more like a garden. Thomas Rainer (Quote from Rainer’s blog post, “Nature in the Future will Look More Like a Garden”.)

How does this translate to design work? Does it translate to the modern suburban landscape? Let’s find out.  

the before picture

Before picture #1: Rainer points out that suburbia America is one of the most under-planted places in the world, and if you walk in the woods, you don’t see little circles of mulch.  (Photo credit: Amy Nies, Landscape Designer, B.B. Barns)

Before picture #2: Beautiful new home, plants lacking. A barely planted landscape is a high-maintenance landscape because now the homeowner is responsible for tending the grass and bare soil, which requires mulch, pre-emergents, fertilizers, and lots of weeding. (Photo credit: Amy Nies, Landscape Designer, B.B. Barns)

Picture #3: Rainer’s schematic of a naturalistic planting community. Layer 2 (seasonal theme layer) grows up through layer 1 (groundcover layer) and layer 3 (structural layer) grows up through layers 1 and 2. A layered, tiered planting that is an ecological plant community. (Photo credit: Thomas Rainer)

Rainer, a Washington, D.C. based designer, is passionate about using plants to naturalize under-planted areas and create plant communities. In his book and many talks (he was the keynote speaker at Speaking of Gardening in Asheville last year) he details the need for using plants not as “individual objects in a sea of mulch” but as “plant communities of interrelated species.”  He urges designers to look closely at modern landscapes. How much is bare soil? How much is grass? Even in beds comprised of shrubs and trees, how much mulched soil is there?  

Homeowners almost always ask for low-maintenance plantings, yet design and implementation done with acres of mulch and few plantings is the exact opposite. Rainer suggests designers instead use herbaceous plantings grouped into naturalized plant communities to create a green mulch that is not only visually appealing but ecologically friendly. Using the tools of horticulture combined with the diversity of ecology, designers can create a well-designed, ecological landscape, using a three-tiered layered planting (refer to schematic picture #3 above). This design technique is what Nies and Hanna hope to include in the before pictures #1 and #2. 

Below is an example of a designed, but naturalized plant community. Designed by Rainer, this herbaceous border requires little maintenance, provides year-round color and is more natural than our beds of mulch with a tree, three shrubs and a few perennials.    


Nature is no longer “out there,” Rainer states, because there is no pristine area of nature we haven’t disturbed. Nature is now suburbia or city-dwelling backyards, courtyards and rooftops. The miles and miles of green space that travel through backyard suburbia can be planted “for the pleasure of the homeowner and the butterflies,” for “the visual aesthetics, the ecology, and the community.” As development continues and more nature is removed, adding it back becomes the responsibility of each of us, and we do that in our backyards and communities.   

So, can this concept indeed be used in a traditional landscape? Absolutely. Zoom in on Nies’ design below. It includes many of the plants and aesthetics in a typical, modern landscape–hydrangeas, Japanese maple, thunderhead pine, boulders, but look closer and notice the carex (‘Bunny Blue Hobb’), planted 150 plugs in one area, 300 in another (notation SF). There’s also green and gold (a shade groundcover), little bluestems (short grass), creeping thyme, and tiarella (foam flower). And no, Hanna won’t be installing 450 gallon containers of carex but will use plugs instead for quicker planting and tighter spacing.  

Design and drawing by Amy Nies, B.B. Barns Landscape. Project management by Jason Hanna, Director of Customer Services, B.B. Barns Landscape.

Look again at the picture below. The present plantings are sparse. Notice in Nies’ design how densely the plantings are, but also notice there is still turf, still trees and shrubs. Rainer’s concept can and does translate to a traditional landscape, but what is mostly open space now, will be, as Rainer puts it, “nature in a garden.”

As we progress through this design process, we’ll delve deeper into Rainer’s concepts, but encourage you to download the pdf in this post or purchase his book. And, we’ll discuss the after-design, real-time reality of this approach. Please join us as we move forward, and join our conversation. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Thank yous to Thomas Rainer for his pictures and inspirational book, to Amy Nies for the design, drawing, and pictures, to Haley Martin for the pdf of Rainer’s work, and Jason Hanna for inviting us along on this trial design.  

Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach, and blog writer.

B.B. Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, all of upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.