Naturalistic style planting is a modern approach to creating pictorial perennial meadow planting schemes. These schemes combine garden plants into stable plant communities. Mixtures of herbaceous perennials, ferns and flower bulbs are put together that will grow well in existing garden conditions. For example, we consider shade, sun and soil type as factors that will need to be matched before combining them in a planting scheme.
What Is Naturalistic Planting?
In nature plants grow together in communities. What grows where is not only determined by physical conditions such as exposure to sun, shade, moisture and soil type, but also to what else is growing nearby. Plants compete with one another for the available resources in a given site and only the best adapted to local conditions thrive. Likewise, naturalistic planting schemes combine garden plants that are well adapted to available conditions. However, for a scheme to be successful the plants it contains must also be of equal vigour. If one plant spreads aggressively it will overwhelm the others.
A traditional garden border, in contrast to a perennial meadow, uses plants as individuals selected on the basis of what looks well together. By placing plants far apart, improving the fertility of the soil, watering and staking the plants in a mixed border present a carefully composed picture. Maintenance involves weeding, watering and staking together with division and replanting to control the more aggressive plants used in the planting scheme.
The communities of plants found in nature have evolved over time and can adapt to changes in their environment. Visually there is a subtle harmony within the patterns and colours they present to the world. And each community is responsible for creating the atmosphere and mood of each specific natural habitat: a windy sea cliffs, a water meadow, woodland shade and open heathland are just a few examples of this.
Please check out my earlier post on exactly this topic – Community Planting.
A naturalistic perennial meadow takes garden plants and combines them in ways that try to capture the mood or feel of a natural setting. We use plants well suited to the available growing conditions and which will co-exist with their neighbours without out competing them.
Capturing the look of a natural plant community
Naturalistic planting learns from nature. The irregular patterns we find there can be used to guide us in the way we set out the plans in our new style garden borders. The dominance of certain plants can be visually exciting and their repetition throughout a community is a way of giving certain plants impact in our schemes. A perennial meadow scheme uses a limited pallet of plants in loose arrangements across the whole area of a garden border to reinterpret such naturalistic patterns.
Here you can read more about my concept for the naturalistic perennial meadow.
Is Naturalistic Planting The Same As Native Plant Gardening?
Native plants are defined by geography, but nature does not recognise boundaries drawn by humans. Plants grow where they do for many reasons. Climate and growing conditions limit what will be found anywhere, but that does not mean that other plants could not grow there if given the chance.
A, so-called, native plant will be well adapted to where it is found growing and as gardeners we should use them where appropriate. But gardens are not native plant reserves, but rather emotionally charge artificial living spaces. There will be other plants, equally well adapted to local conditions, that can be considered for inclusion in naturalistic schemes. Pictorial meadows is a perfect term coined by Nigel Dunnett in his recent book “Naturalistic Planting Design”. Pictorial means “forming a picture of”, and such planting schemes are made for us to enjoy by bringing us closer to nature that we recognise. To limit our planting pallet to just a few native species may fail to enable us to recreate the natural atmosphere we are searching for.
Naturalistic perennial meadow planting schemes are pictorial evocations of nature and do not need to be limited by using just local native species, but that is not to say that it cannot be done.
What Is A Perennial Meadow?
An example of a perennial meadow for an open sunny site would start off by using just five carefully chosen plants. These are the theme plants and they must be reliable, tough plants that will thrive in the site in question. We will fill the whole area with them, using perhaps fewer of the larger-growing species and more of the lower-growing ones. The aim is to cover the ground with a carpet of interlocking plants that will form a stable community that will resist invasion by weeds. If the theme plants are well chosen, they will bring flowers and interesting foliage to the site throughout the whole growing season. Some of them may even be effective in winter by retaining skeletons of dead foliage and seed heads.
Just five theme plants repeated over and over again will give a clear look to a border but this can quickly become monotonous. The trick is to substitute some of them with what I call “complementary plants”. For example, if our theme plants flower abundantly in spring and summer, maybe we need a few bold clumps of autumn-flowering asters and Vernonias to reinforce the scheme. Likewise, early spring-flowering bulbs can be added to kick start the perennial meadow’s impact before the main theme plants get into their stride.
Read my earlier thoughts on the design principles for perennial meadows planting schemes.
What Are The Advantages Of Naturalistic Perennial Meadows?
An established perennial meadow contains plants that grow happily together. Some will be larger than others in the community, but each will survive by exploiting its own separate part of the ecosystem; its so-called ecological niche. The taller plant might need a lot of sunshine while its lower-growing neighbour may benefit from the shade it casts. And each may have root systems that occupy different levels in the soil below them. In this way they happily co-exist. For weeds to invade such a scheme is far more difficult than when plants are set out in well spaced groups in traditional garden borders.
Maintaining naturalistic perennial meadows takes far less time and effort than working with traditional garden borders. In a community plants compete in order to survive and they tend to be more compact and healthy. You will rarely need to stake anything and weeding will become less and less as the scheme matures. Typically such schemes are cut down completely in late winter and thoroughly weeded.
Because naturalistic perennial meadows use appropriate plants for the available growing conditions, such traditional practices as feeding, mulching, watering and spraying against pests and diseases are simply not needed. Plants are generally healthy and generous in their contribution to the insects, birds and other animals that visit them. Nature as a whole benefits.
Rules To Follow When Making A Naturalistic Perennial Meadow.
Step 1 Design Concept
What mood, atmosphere, memory or association do you want to realise in your garden design? Without a clear design aim gardeners tend to use plants they like without considering how they will relate to one another or the location in which they are going to be grown.
Here is an earlier Meadows 101 post on the background to this new style of planting.
Step 2 Garden Plan
Naturalistic perennial meadows are introduced into garden designs as borders, strips or blocks that fit together within the total ground plan of a garden. I try to make each of these planting areas as big and deep as possible. This allows the repetition of the theme plants to occur and thereby guarantees their impact. If you can walk between borders filled with naturalistic planting schemes they will embrace you and the mood will be intensified.
Step 3 Site Preparation
I always work with the existing soil conditions. No mater how poor the soil, there will be plants that will be able to grow in it. However, if the ground is seriously compacted then you need to break it up to allow for planting and the development of healthy plant root systems.
The most important thing you need to do, however, is to ensure that the ground is free from the roots of perennial weeds. Unless the planting area is weed free during the first year of establishment, your perennial meadow will be invaded by undesirable plants at the expense of your chosen theme and complementary plants.
Step 4 Plant Spacing and Planting
Pictorial meadows consist of specimen shrubs, trees and isolated groups of feature perennials surrounded by mixed perennial meadow plantings. These discrete feature plants need to be set out first.
I then place the complementary plants where I feel the scheme needs them. Sometimes this will be randomly dotted across the whole planting area, but often I will concentrate them into just one part of the total design. The theme plants are then arranged fairly randomly in the remaining spaces of the planting area.
Eventually the whole area will be covered by an even mix of plants with an average planting density of around 8 perennials per square meter or square yard.
nb. It is best to work with small pot grown perennial plants. In this way the intermingling of the different species is better, these small plants establish quicker than larger examples and also, importantly, they cost less.
Step 5 Establishment and Maintenance
Water newly planted schemes regularly during their first growing season and keep an eye out for any invading weed species.
In the second year there will be less weeding and watering needed.
Perennials are cut back or mown off in late winter. If the debris can be chopped up into small pieces it can be left lying around the crowns of the plants and will serve to gently nourish them in subsequent seasons as it decays.
Learning All About Naturalistic Perennial Meadows
This web site has everything you need to know about how to put the ideas of naturalistic gardening into practice. For those who want to go further and study detailed examples of naturalistic perennial meadows for different garden conditions, situations and design objectives my series of eBooks is available as shown here in the side column.
Additionally, at Learning with Experts I run two month-long courses. Gardening with Grasses is focused upon designing with ornamental grasses which as a group, will play an important role in the creation of many naturalistic planting schemes.
The grasses course serves as a good introduction to my second course specifically on Perennial Meadow Gardening. Here, as in the eBooks, I give detailed information about how to put together viable planting schemes, accompanied by examples of successful meadows I and others have designed.
In both course you will undertake short assignments and have the opportunity to discuss and analyse these with me on a one to one basis.
Learning with Experts offers a wide range of professional level courses for really keen gardeners.