Natural Gardening

Incorporate Natives Into Your Landscape
Create a garden that mirrors the best of what Mother Nature has to offer.

Create a Natural Garden

Mother Nature was the original garden designer. The evidence of her work can be seen in majestic forests, prairies, and meadows that are filled with a host of colorful and textural plants. You can enjoy the simple beauty of a natural landscape in your yard, on a smaller scale, of course. It's a matter of rethinking the use of perennials, annuals, shrubs, trees, and ornamental grasses. Landscape architect Thomas Rainer's and horticulturist Claudia West's book Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press 2015) invites readers to reconsider landscapes by enlisting gardening rules that look to nature as a guide. Following are some of the suggestions for taking a walk on the wild side in your garden. 

Taken from Planting in a Post-Wild World Copyright 2015 by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. All rights reserved. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher.

Imitate Nature

Gardeners can plant nature-inspired landscapes by mirroring the way the natural world grows. For inspiration, Rainer and West suggest taking a walk and observing how plants are combined in wild spaces to see how efficient and smart Mother Nature is. "Go find a patch of weeds in your neighborhood. Notice the variety of species and how they interweave to form a dense carpet."

Image: Elliot Rhodeside

Listen to Your Wild Heart

There is an evolutionary basis for our preference of landscapes -- some people love forests, others love prairies -- but we all treasure wild places. Different landscapes evoke different emotions in people. These landscape archetypes -- or patterns -- include grasslands, woodlands and shrublands, and forests. Natural landscapes, albeit large, can be used as models to create natural (and smaller) gardens in places like your front yard or backyard. 

Image: Adam Woodruff

Create Plant Communities

Natural landscapes start with communities of plants -- plants that are compatible with each other. Understanding how wild plants work together in natural settings helps gardeners create natural-looking places in their yards. Rainer and West recommend looking at wild plant communities and adapting the principles at work. For example, a woodland garden would mimic nature by including a canopy layer of trees, a layer of understory trees and shrubs, and perennials and annuals that fill the lower spaces and totally carpet the ground.

Image: Jamie Agnew

Fill Every Niche

Nature is lush and busy. Rainer and West suggest that filling every niche, like nature does, makes for a naturalistic garden. “Think about seeing plants in the wild: there is almost never bare soil. With the exceptions of deserts or other extreme environments, bare soil is a temporary condition. Yet in our gardens and landscapes, bare ground is everywhere.” Their advice: fill in the blanks in your garden with plants, just as nature does in the landscape. 

Any space around the base of plants is a niche waiting to be filled. Even low plants like Sporobolus heterolepis benefit from being under-planted with creeping plants like barren strawberry (Geum fragarioides).”

Image: Tom Potterfield

Think Like a Weed

Weeds are opportunistic -- and a patch of weeds can teach you a lot about how plants like to grow together in nature. When plants are grouped with others in a compatible way -- the way weeds grow -- you get longer succession of bloom, more color, textural diversity, and a more consistent groundcover. Even with remarkable density, plants can coexist. 

In photo: Study the interaction of plants in a community. A sea of buttercups shares ground with tulips in spring. 

Image:Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

Add Structural Plants

The visual essence of a natural community of plants includes large plants that include trees, shrubs, tall perennials, and grasses. Think about the relationship between plants in forests and woodlands: the structure of the plantings -- primarily tall plants -- creates a living architecture, according to Ranier and West. Structural plants offer more than height -- they generally have distinctive shapes, which provide natural visual frameworks. Structural perennials include blazing star (Liatris spicata), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), and Veronica glauca

In photo: Swamp milkweed (Ascelpias incarnata) is a structural plant that also offers appeal to pollinators, particularly monarch butterflies. 

Image: Tom Potterfield

Plant for Longevity

You think of perennials coming back year after year -- forever. But some perennials actually have shorter lives than others. Choose long-lived perennials to add structure and framework to your beds and borders. The life span of a perennial has much to do with where it is growing, so discuss perennial longevity with the experts in your local nursery; they will help you find species that will excel in your area. 

In photo: Keep in mind, also, that some long-lived plants take a little time to reach their full potential. For example, Baptisia australis can take several years before attaining its full mature height and width.

Image: North Creek Nurseries

Create Year-Round Structure

Tall plants (that are both flowering perennials and grasses) create year-round structure because their stems persist for most of the year -- from spring through winter. According to Ranier and West, these are the best plants to create a backbone of structure: switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), cup plant (Silphium perfoliattum), Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). 

In photo: Grasses add a structural layer to a planting community and generally hold their shapes all winter, as evidenced by this plucky stand of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Image: Mark Baldwin

Enlist Filler Species

In every landscape archetype, there are filler plants -- the overachievers in the plant community. Fast to grow and fast to flower, these perennials help fill in the blanks in the communities. Annuals, biennials. and perennials are all considered filler plants. These are plants, according to Rainer and West, produce large amounts of seed and can readily germinate and prosper. Their advantage is that filler plants cover the soil quickly. 

In photo: Dynamic filler plants such as golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) and columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) add bright lights as fillers in between Carex in a planting bed. Although columbine isn’t a long-lived perennial, it is an opportunistic self seeder.

Image: Ivo Vermeulen

Use Groundcover Plants

The groundcover layer of plants is important because it chokes out weeds as it spreads. In addition, they also help stop erosion and help break up soil compaction. Although many groundcovers are not especially showy, they perform an important function in the plant community. Good groundcover plants include poverty rush (Juncus tenuis), creek sedge (Carex amphibola), and tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) 'Goldtau', according to Rainer and West.

In photo: Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau' is one of the workhorses of the groundcover layer in a plant community. 

Image: Hank Davis

Emulate Woodlands

Natural woodlands have layers. The top is the tree canopy. Beneath the leafy ceiling are smaller trees and shrubs. Depending on the amount of light, the plants that grow on the floor of the woodland may be dense or sparse. Attaining the wild look of a forest follows this layering model: tree, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers. In nature, ground layers of shaded areas include a mix of plants such as trillium, may apples, and Virginia bluebells -- all low-maintenance options that will carpet densely shaded areas in foliage and flowers. These same plants perform the same function in a woodland yard landscape. 

In photo: A layered planting of sumac (Rhus typhina), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), heuchera, and ornamental grasses (Carex divulsa) looks beautiful as well as natural.

Image: Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

Enjoy Texture

Woodland plantings appear mostly green from far away, but are, on closer observation, a tapestry of subtle colors and fabulous textures. In a small garden, combining leaf textures is one of the great joys of natural gardening. Shade-loving wildflowers, ferns, and hostas mass together to make a beautiful (and easy-care) natural woodland garden. When plants are massed together closely, the need for mulching and weeding becomes a nonissue. 

In photo: Use solid blocks of color to create depth and drama. 'Karl Foerster' grass (Calamagrostis  xacutiflora) in the background makes the more colorful foreground plants stand out.

Image: Adam Woodruff

Impersonate a Meadow

Creating the beauty of a flower-filled meadow in your yard involves using plants that exist in natural meadows. A sunny meadow is comprised of sun-loving plants that range in size from tall to small. Achieving this carefree look comes with a little planning. Choose meadow and prairie natives (as well as hybrids of these species) plants such as grasses, coneflower, and black-eyed Susan. These species, and their newly improved hybrid relatives, are all engineered to live in sunny spots. 

In photo: Landscape designer Adam Woodruff uses meadow plants from all over the world, yet they create a community that says "meadow." Low grasses (Sesleria, Eragrostis, and Molinia) are interspersed with showier 'nativars' (cultivars of native species) such as Echinacea 'Coconut Lime'. 

Image: Adam Woodruff

Make Plant Patterns

Create a plant community in a pattern that follows nature's lead. Think about how plants such as wild asters form drifts of color through looser grasses. In a natural garden, clumps of flowers create islands of color. To achieve this look, mass species together. Rainer and West use the "sociability model" (developed by German researchers Hemann Mussel, Rosemarie Weisse, Friedrich Stahl, and Richard Hansen) to create a ratio for massing plants. Low socializers are tall and visually dominant, so there are less of them (plant small clumps of three to 10). More social plants, such as groundcovers, can be planted larger groups of 10 to 20 plants. Use smaller ratios for smaller gardens. 

In photo: A combination planting of white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) and Japanese beech fern (Thelypteris decursive-pinnata) mirror a forest floor.

Image: Hank Davis

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Incorporate Natives into Your Landscape

Learn how to make natives a natural fit in your existing landscape.

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