Is naturalistic planting for you?

In comparison to a carefully planted and staked traditional herbaceous or perennial border the naturalistic style can look loose and untidy. Your personality will dictate which you prefer – order or chaos.

Formal planting with plants arranged at regular intervals and often placed to mirror one another bring instant logic to their surroundings. This must be the easiest style of garden design to get right, but of course, the minute one of the carefully place plants dies your scheme is ruined and all attention focuses on the gap.

Personally, I like some elements of formality in a garden’s design to contrast with the informality that I seek to create, but for me a totally formal design quickly looses its fascination no matter how impressive.

Through the associations that naturalistic planting invokes it has the ability to engage and enthrall us. It can trigger memories of longed for landscapes that offer escape and relaxation. American gardeners can use prairie plants to recall nostalgic thoughts about the once extensive tall grass prairies of their homeland. For me such plantings recall the countryside I am isolated from having chosen to live in the heart of a city. And perennials above all other plants demonstrate the dynamic nature of living things and clearly signal the changing seasons and fluctuations in weather.

The biggest problem with naturalistic planting for those of us how want to pursue it is using it within the confines of our domestic gardens. The ideas underpinning this contemporary design trend were first developed in Germany for use in public green spaces. Later adaptions both in Europe and America lead to dramatic schemes for public parks, large private estates and high profile garden exhibitions. These highly publicized projects accompanied by exciting photographs fueled interest and encouraged gardeners to have a go for themselves. Regrettably, few of the projects that followed lived up to peoples expectations and the reasons are really quite simple to identify.

Naturalistic planting needs space to make a bold statement. The plants used are repeated across the planting area to emulate natural plant communities. where the same plants reappear randomly to fill the horizon. In a small private garden there is simple too little room for this to work. Further, most landmark schemes were situated in open sunny locations which gave the plants the best opportunity to grow sturdily. Private gardens in comparison offer shelter, shade and nutrient rich soils – all of which lead to tall, lanky growth resulting in plants collapsing or needing to be staked.

My own ideas for the perennial meadows I now design evolved over may years of struggling within the confines of a small, humble garden. The need for repetition of key plants has to lead to compromises and must result in the use of a restricted pallet of plants. I have learned to create schemes using a small range of key plants, but at the same time leaving room for some extra diversity and freedom. I have also found that by arranging perennial meadows as neat and ordered units within a total garden design that I can introduce some order and formality that is often necessary for gardens that are closely associated with buildings in urban environments.

The wide extravagant naturalistic planting schemes you have read about many not be for you, but I hope that the perennial meadow approach will allow more of us to enjoy the benefits of this exiting new trend in planting design.

perennial flowers in meadowThis is a small perennial meadow in my own garden, covering only a few square meters in area but providing colour and interest all year round.

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