Naturalistic planting is all about creating a garden that encapsulates the wild appearance of nature within a contained environment. Instead of making the plants perfect and having a tight structure, you allow plants to grow freely and mimic their natural growth.
If you’ve not heard of this design trend, you’ll want to try it after reading this article.
So, how can you incorporate it into your homestead? Let’s look at creating a natural and wild-looking garden.
What Is Naturalistic Planting Design?
Since Nigel Dunnett wrote the book “Naturalistic Planting Design the Essential Guide: How to Design High-impact, Low-input Gardens“, we have changed how we look at and plan our gardens.
It’s all about creating a natural-looking and behaving garden that is more in harmony with nature than our modern gardens. Everything should be integrated and mutually beneficial.
Think of naturalistic planting like a classical painting. The elements should be in harmony with their environment and there should be layers.
You aren’t going to use any formal-looking plants in this style of gardening. Those sheared boxwoods and upright junipers are better off in more formal-style gardens.
As you might expect, you must carefully consider what plants to include in your garden when using this style, but it pays off with less maintenance and happier wildlife in the end.
How Naturalistic Planting Design Is Different
Compared to traditional planting methods, naturalistic planting design is more intentional in the way it impacts the environment and how the plants interact with each other. You need to consider all the elements of your garden.
Naturalistic design involves utilizing more than 100% of the space you have. Confused? If you think about it, the ground is 2D, but plants are 3D. You can have a ground cover, a shrub, and a tree all within the same footprint.
You start with the main “matrix” plants that take up the bulk of the space. These are usually groundcovers and grasses. Then you add your primary plants for visual impact. Then you add secondary plants to bring in different heights or colors throughout the seasons.
It’s a lot like gardening in layers rather than in perfect, defined areas.
Often, people aim to perfect their garden space to make it look formal and traditional. But, this naturalistic design method allows more flexibility and fun in your garden, along with being better for wildlife and the environment.
Primary Plant Options for Your Naturalistic Garden
Before transforming your garden space, you need to know what plants are suited to naturalistic planting designs. Much of what you plant will depend on where you live, of course. But here are some classic choices for your primary plants:
You can spot Monarda didyma by its impressive foliage and funky flowers. Bergamot has pink blossoms with deep green leaves that look amazing in any garden.
The flowering season for bergamot is quite long, lasting from early summer to early autumn, so you can enjoy these colorful beauties for several months.
For naturalistic planting designs, bergamots are a top choice for their appearance and vast leaves that cover lots of space, suppressing weeds.
As long as bergamots have a regular watering schedule and sunlight, you can grow these flowers with no problem. Ideally, you can plant several clusters of bergamot together for a better effect.
2. Purple Loosestrife
This upward-growing perennial (Lythrum salicaria) is an excellent option for naturalistic planting designs as primary accents. The branching stems grow up to 10 feet tall and produce small, narrow leaves. Star-shaped flowers grow on the plant throughout summer.
3. Pale Purple Coneflower
Pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) bloom later in summer and attract native pollinators. They have gorgeous pink flowers with a dark cone at the center.
Pick a location with moist soil and full sun if you want to grow these flowers in your garden.
4. Hardy Salvia
Do you prefer purple flowers? Then, this plant (Salvia nemorosa and Salvia hybrids) will sprinkle some calming colors into your outdoor space.
Not only is the foliage beautiful to look at, but salvia flowers are scented and can reach 40 inches in height. They’re drought-resistant, so you don’t need to worry too much about the watering schedule, and require full sun.
5. Garden Speedwell
Another perennial to add to your growing list is speedwells (Veronica longifolia). These are also tall plants that can reach four feet in height.
Their upright stems and vibrant petals are fantastic in a naturalistic garden. You only need to deadhead the petals occasionally to keep them healthy during the growing season in mid-summer.
Purple smoke trees, hostas, and spirea are a few other options.
Matrix Plant Options
Your matrix plants are the ones that will make up the bulk of your garden. These are the weed suppressors, they hold moisture in the soil, and they provide cover for wildlife.
1. Bigroot Geranium
Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) is a hardy, easy-to-care-for ground cover. You can also use the flowers and leaves to make scented oil for perfume, potpourri, or herbal uses.
Grass-like sedges are an excellent groundcover option. There are many great Carex species and cultivars, so you can find one that will work in your space. Some love standing water while others prefer dry soil.
3. Wild Strawberry
Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) make an excellent ground cover and also provide food. You won’t see those giant berries that you find at grocery stores, but the fruits that do grow are intensely sweet.
4. Wild Ginger
If you’re looking for a good option for shady areas, wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a smart choice. Not only are the huge, glossy leaves gorgeous, but the plant is edible and has a ginger-like root.
With their yellow, daisy-like flowers, coreopsis plants (Coreopsis spp.) are a cheerful addition to the garden.
Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum spp.) are a moisture-loving perennial ground cover that can also be eaten. The leaves are a delicious lettuce substitute.
Stonecrop (Sedum spp.) is a classic choice because it is so hardy and can tolerate drought while still providing a big, colorful display.
Violets, and wild violets in particular (Viola spp.), are perfect for shadier areas where you want lots of color. They’re also edible.
Secondary Plant Options
The “other” plants that you might include in your naturalistic garden are entirely up to your imagination. Trees, especially fruit trees, are always nice to have around. Shrubs like cane berries or flowering shrubs also add a nice visual element.
Plus, they attract pollinators, which is always important.
Tips for Making Naturalistic Garden Designs
When you plant, focus on three different plant types. The bulk should be matrix, with primary and secondary plants mixed in. You should choose a mixture of vertical or vase-shaped, horizontal, and round plants.
It doesn’t matter the size of your garden; the most important thing is to utilize the three elements and experiment with placement. Don’t worry, the color and visual impact will make up for the lack of space.
If the space is small, focus on using all three elements at a smaller scale. If you have a massive area, just concentrate on planting one section at a time.
The last thing to think about is the usage. Set up seating areas, perhaps with gravel and stone. You’ll also need to create pathways. That way, you’ll be able to transition from one place to another without distributing the plants.
You should also plant densely to create a naturalistic planting design. Don’t hold back on volume, as long as there’s enough space and no danger of overcrowding.
Benefits of Naturalistic Garden Design
Following a naturalistic garden design will enrich the environment’s biodiversity and can help provide the soil with nutrients. Another reason to have a naturalistic garden design is that you can have plants for all four seasons.
You can use perennials and self-seeding annuals for spring and summer color, and plant grasses for later in the summer. Use evergreens and plants with colorful bark or berries for winter interest.
The maintenance is also relatively low for naturalistic garden designs, so the only tasks you need to do are watering, replacing dead plants, and deadheading.
Part of the fun of having a naturalistic approach to your garden is embracing the winter phase of growing. There’s no need to remove all the dead flowers; trimming and keeping them in check is enough to maintain a tidy look.
In nature, plants also die off at this time of year, so you can largely leave things up to Mother Nature. Those seedheads that are left behind are a vital source of nutrients for wildlife, and more wildlife is always a good thing.
In contrast to other gardening styles, naturalistic designs are easy to care for as all you have to focus on is tidying and watching for pests and diseases. Otherwise, it’s a simple option that works well in every garden!