From the Landscape Architect:
Growing Communities

BY: BRITTAIN STONE MARCH 16TH, 2018

Plants are social creatures. That is the philosophy and science behind the landscape architecture firm Phyto Studio’s practice. Phyto takes cues from how plants grow as communities in the wild, often in difficult circumstances, to take on projects in urban areas where the odds are often stacked against the plants after they have been installed. It is as much science as it is high end horticultural design. Their plantings are meant to look wild, beautiful and seasonal, but they are also scientifically researched and meticulously planned.

Their firm’s philosophy and methodology are outlined in their book Planting in a Post Wide World which was released two years ago and has put them at the forefront of ideas in horticulture and on the radar of many noted architects and landscape architects.

Rain Garden at North Creek Nursery

In practice, they “layer” plants that grow well together, grouping the different characteristics like height, root structure, foliage shape and bloom to achieve a planned symbiosis. Leveraging this natural biodiversity, they design patterns -- “planting modules” -- that are repeatable and can ultimately eliminate the need for mulch and herbicides and significantly reduce the amount of labor needed to maintain the landscape. Their planting designs can respond to architectural spaces by bringing in color and seasonality or by muting visual noise with calm and subtlety.

We spoke with Thomas Rainer, landscape architect and partner and co-founder about the firm’s philosophy.

How can we give people biodiversity, beauty, and low maintenance -- the holy trinity -- without making it look like a wild mess?

Your firm came about because of the book that you and Claudia West wrote about planting in a post-wild world, a world where pristine nature doesn’t really exist anymore - can you tell us more about this idea?

I had previously been in a practice that had done a fairly high end version of naturalistic planting design, but that practice was more the look of naturalism without really understanding how plants interacted and worked. They would arrange plants in big, irregular blocks, but very often those were monocultures with a lot of mulch underneath them.

Around 2008, I made a transition to a firm that was mostly public sector work, and I very quickly realized how much of what I understood about design and planting design in particular was really driven by resources -- the resources of clients who had the money, and the paid gardeners who’d come in after me and fix all of my mistakes.

When you are working in the public sector, you have fabulous projects with very nice design budgets, and they are going to be maintained by a crew or a city municipal staff. High end residential design approaches were not sufficient for these public spaces that need elegant, sophisticated, functional horticulture -- not just a perennial border. So that was the big wake up call for me.

Writing the book and my work with Claudia ultimately led to the new practice we started last year. It was an attempt to answer that question: how can we give people biodiversity, beauty, and low maintenance -- the holy trinity -- without making it look like a wild mess?

Lancaster Rain Gardens - by Claudia West

Your techniques are scientifically based but also philosophical and evangelistic in message - why is that?

Our mission is to put the green carpet that once covered the earth back. Especially in urban areas, that’s the “why”. But I think we’re more interested in creating a set of tools, and equipping others with those tools. After that we’re not very ideological. We really look at “how” can we combine plants in ways to create more functionality, more life, more beauty. At the same time we’re dealing with the vernacular and urban context that they have to respond to.

Martha's Vineyard design by Thomas Rainer

So how did you research and train yourselves for this different approach to landscape?

We looked at ecological restoration, particularly prairie and woodland restoration but we had one foot in high end horticulture as well. We borrow the techniques that are low cost and low input. Part of it was looking at European models -- Germany and Switzerland in particular have been developing some really innovative tools around ecological horticulture. We are trying to translate what they do in public settings for an American audience.

Layered Edge by Thomas Rainer

Explain how your team's different skill sets inform your practice?

Claudia is trained as a landscape architect, but she had been working in a nursery 7 or 8 years, and I had been in traditional landscape architecture firms. At her nursery and in her own consulting practice she was trialing these kinds of methods in really tough sites. She had a great lab for trying out plants and seeing what could survive in what conditions. Finding out what survives is the hardest. You can make really mean sites that get no maintenance actually thrive. Making that pretty is much easier.

The book had been out for a while and we said, “let’s just do this”. It’s a nice mix; she’s got all this field experience, which is different than my field experience, and she’s got so many nursery contacts and she’s got these trial gardens all over the place. My wife and I are designing the hardscapes and the bones of gardens and Claudia is very often helping with the plants.

New York Botanical Gardens - Native Plant Garden

You are considered thought leaders and give a lot of talks and presentations. Is that part of the job now?

We had big plans for all of the marketing we were going to do, but we really benefited from being on the road from the previous two years doing talks with the book. Right now most of the projects that we’re working on, we just answered the phone! It helps to be out there with the vision. Claudia and I give about 50 to 60 talks a year, so that’s been driving business development.

Understanding who will actually made good clients is based on what would develop the portfolio that we need. Who to say yes to is I think a really hard question that all practitioners have to deal with, and we’re learning how to do that.

Our goal is to lead a revolution in the way people are using plants. To be successful, we need to create a whole village around us!

You plant a great deal more than traditional firms. Is that much more expensive and does it affect the way clients look at your value proposition?

Most of the time were trying to offer a landscape that is hyper functional. To achieve that requires a lot of plants - a much higher density than most other firms will plant. But we offset that by planting things that are much smaller. We use plugs instead of big gallon pots and techniques like drilling and augering holes where crews can place 500 plants an hour as opposed to maybe 50. After the initial investment of more density, the functionality is greatly improved and the hours of ongoing maintenance are much lower.

Plug layouts ready for planting. Designs by Claudia West.

Where would you like to see your practice go?

Our goal is to lead a revolution in the way people are using plants. To be successful, we need to create a whole village around us! We need nursery growers to grow the kind of plants we need. We need contractors who are on board with different methods and ways of combining plants. We need other designers who are creating demand for it and changing the aesthetic around that.

We don’t feel really competitive, we'd rather be open source in a way. We’ll do it as well as we can do it because we know we have a lot of experience, but we’re trying to raise up others around us so that we can have a fuller demand.

People’s curiosity and engagement with land and plants is so rewarding, and ultimately behind everything we’re doing. They have more engagement when the land’s more functional and diverse. So many people are fighting their land in a way that makes them see their yards as work or something they don’t really love to be in. We want it to be pleasurable! If it’s not pleasurable, then why do it? That’s what we’re after.

Thomas Rainer Designed Garden