This is the second blog post following an ecological outdoor spaces landscape design and installment plan from our B.B. Barns Landscape division in Asheville, North Carolina. Here, you can read the first blog, which covered the design phase. The project we’re following is designed by Amy Nies, Landscape Designer with B.B. Barns, and implemented by the project manager, Jason Hanna, our Director of Customer Services. We’re following along for a couple of reasons.

  1.  We’re showing off our landscape division’s creative and beautiful work.
  2. We thought a before/after design, installation, and follow-up maintenance would be fun and educational.
  3.  Our designers are using a new design palette inspired by Thomas Rainer of Phyto Studio in Washington, D.C., and co-author of the book Planting in a Post Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for a Resilient Landscape. They’re very excited about his approach to design and want to introduce it to you. (For a summary of Rainer’s design concept, read here.)
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First, let’s recall 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”.)

This call is for “anyone who can influence a small patch of land,” which is all of us, but uniquely landscape designers whose careers are dedicated to helping clients establish their landscapes. To quote Rainer, we are “urbanizing at a pace unprecedented in human history, so now we must look at the landscapes we live in as places where nature could be.” He continues, “Now is the era of the designer. The design focuses on resolving conflicts by looking at all angles and finding feasible solutions.”

Our designers and project managers consider themselves those who can “influence a small patch of land.” They are continually looking for new inspiration to help them in this endeavor. Rainer believes some of our older, now-outdated design techniques are hurting more than helping as our literal backyards and communities become where we may see nature restored. See below.



To the left is a traditional planting design. It is tidy and typical but lacking in the lushness our eyes prefer, requiring a lot of maintenance, seasonal work, and mulch, and is vulnerable to washing out. The design on the left uses a “plant community” design that disturbs less soil and maintains a high density of vegetation, leaving little room for weeds and less chance of washing out. Claudia West, a principal at Phyto Studio, is responsible for this design. (Photo credit: Thomas Rainer)

Below is a schematic from Rainer that outlays his three-tiered community planting or plant-driven design. We are accustomed to the term “layered planting,” but the layering we’re accustomed to is a tree, a shrub, and a perennial, each standing in solidarity encircled by mulch. Look closely at what Rainer suggests below instead.


This is a dense planting design, with each layer supporting the next layer, forming an autonomous plant community instead of individual plants surrounded by mulch. (Photo credit: Thomas Rainer)

How do we define the above concept into “plantable” terms? Rainer breaks the design into three primary layers and one temporary filler layer.

The filler plants comprise only 5-10% of the group and are short-lived perennials, biennials, and annuals. They are helpful for their showiness and ability to cover soil quickly until longer-lived perennials are established. Examples are: Agastache rupestris, Lobelia cardinalis, Coreopsis verticillate

The functional or groundcover layer makes up about 50% of the planting and is more practical than showy. The functional layer’s job is to suppress weeds, control erosion, and provide nectar. Examples are: Carex pensylvanica, Callirhoe involucrata, Geum fragarioides

Next is the design layer, which includes the seasonal and structural/framework themes. For a few weeks, the seasonal theme includes mid-height plants that are visually showy, growing in masses and drifting. They make up 25-40% of the planting, with a long to medium lifespan. Examples are Coreopsis ‘Red Satin,’ Amsonia ‘Blue Ice.’ Helenium ‘Mardi Gras

The uppermost layer is the structural framework formed by tall grasses and forbs. This group is your winter interest, as well. They only make up 10-15% of the total population. It includes trees, shrubs, upright perennials, and grasses. Examples are: Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind,’ Asclepias incarnata, Liatris spicata


Thomas Rainer curbside self-sustaining plant community. (Photo credit: Thomas Rainer)

Review Nies’ design below and see that it calls for plantings in numbers 110 (SF) Carex ‘Bunny Blue Hobb,’ and 130 (SF) ‘Chrysogonum virginianum.’ The SF stands for how much square footage needs to be covered. Rainer suggests using plugs in plantings instead of the typical gallon container where you can. There are several reasons for this.

  • It’s less expensive when you’re planting to cover space that would have been mulch. This design idea is a lot of plants planted tightly together.
  • When planting, you’re disturbing less soil by using augers to drill narrow holes and then drop in tiny plants. (Read here why that is a good thing.)
  • You’re starting with plants that haven’t been nurtured in a greenhouse and are quicker to adapt to their new environment.

Nies’ design fits a traditional home, including the usual trees and shrubs and, yes, even mulch, while incorporating Rainer’s use of the layered design. (Design by Amy Nies, Project Manager, Jason Hanna)



Before picture. (Photo credit: Amy Nies)



After picture, phase one, soil prepped, beds made, boulders in place, shrubs and trees planted. This is the structural/framework phase. In late April, the plugs will go in. (Photo credit: Amy Nies)



Before picture. (Photo credit: Amy Nies)


After picture, phase one, soil prepped, beds made, boulders in place, shrubs planted. This is the structural/ framework phase. In late April, the plugs will go in. (Photo credit: Amy Nies)

We incorporate into all of our designs and plantings a layered system to maintain not only function but the enjoyment of the landscape throughout the year. Although our designs may not always directly reflect Rainer’s style of plantings, we believe that his gravitation towards not only sustainability but form and function in the landscape through planting communities is the direction that we not only want to educate to our clients but implement as well. Amy Nies, Landscape Designer

Many designs would stop at phase one, allowing the trees and shrubs to stand alone, or they may add a few perennials for color or seasonal annuals. This is the point where Rainer would urge us onward and upward. This is where Nies and Hanna are pushing forward to “educate our customers and implement Rainer’s design technique,” as well.

At B.B. Barns, everyone is passionate about plants and design. We’re also excited about the design tools used within nature’s ecology. Sounds hokey, sure, but we all work together to bring our customers the best possible plan and plants while being conscious of the greater environment surrounding us and seeing the two, ultimately, as one. Each person’s job is to help the clients create a beautiful outdoor living space. Our job is also to understand the tools needed to merge backyards and nature. That is what Nies and Hanna are doing in this project. Please follow along with phase three, where the final installation of plugs will occur.

And if you’re interested in doing something similar in your landscape, contact our landscape division (828-650-7300, then press 2) for a consult.

Written by Cinthia Milner, Landscape Consultant and blog writer. Design by Amy Nies, Landscape Designer. Project Manager, Jason Hanna, Director of Customer Services. 

Thank you to Thomas Rainer and Amy Nies for the pictures and drawings. 

Banner picture: Rain garden designed by Claudia West of Phyto Studios. 

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