Inviting Nature into Your Garden
By Duncan Brine
If you’re starting a new garden or contemplating a redesign, consider a naturalistic approach, which has renewed relevance in today’s environment.
TWENTY YEARS AGO, I left New York City with my future wife to make a garden and a new life in the country, north of the city. There I found inspiration in moving away from the status quo of traditional gardens and toward a career creating naturalistic gardens.
The term “naturalistic” is often used loosely; it can mean different things to different people. A naturalistic garden combines a gardener’s needs and desires with nature’s dictates; its design cannot be premeditated because its inherent beauty is inextricably linked to the landscape on which it is created.
Naturalistic gardens should look different in different parts of the country. They are not generic or paint by numbers—each one is unique. The diverse native flora, land forms, soil, climate, and other regional characteristics inform their individuality. The goal of a naturalistic garden is to idealize and partner with nature’s potential in a given place.
EMBRACING NATURALISTIC DESIGN
Designing naturalistic gardens is an art shaped by science. From my perspective, traditional gardens flaunt their style without consideration of sustainability, while naturalistic gardens have a subtle appeal and simple beauty that reflect today’s concern for the environment.
Unlike the clipped, tidy stasis of traditional gardens, a naturalistic garden foresees, provides for, and celebrates organic change, including redundancy and decay. Those who favor naturalistic gardens tend to embrace their serendipity. They anticipate and facilitate change, delighting in growth and evolution of all kinds.
Naturalistic garden designs can be adapted to spaces of all sizes. A small garden is a fragment, which borrows or quotes from nature, while a large country garden may provide enough space to include areas that replicate different regional ecosystems. A small garden can be used to showcase vignettes representing aspects of a meadow, while a large garden might include an actual meadow.
People habituated to the regimented appearance of a traditional garden can initially be taken aback by a naturalistic garden’s seemingly structureless, scruffy look. Naturalistic gardens are sometimes a taste that takes some time to acquire, but they are worth the effort for many reasons.
One of the inherent goals of a naturalistic garden is to conserve resources and reduce our environmental footprint. Acute problems vary from region to region, but ecosystems fragmented by development and urban sprawl prevail now throughout our country. Properly conceived, naturalistic gardens can reduce water usage, enhance water quality, compensate for habitat loss, and encourage biodiversity.
A naturalistic garden is a personal initiative and pleasure, but in today’s world it is also an expression of a widening awareness that nature is vital and precious; it needs our help.
© 2011 Rob Cardillo
Observing often simple design techniques provides a structural underpinning and guides creation of a naturalistic garden. In this article, images from my rural New York garden illustrate some of the techniques I use in my designs, but the concepts discussed are broadly adaptable in most regions of the country.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most important influences on my personal design philosophy is an entomologist and ecologist named Doug Tallamy. In my opinion, not since Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking book Silent Spring (1962)—which warned about the dangers of the pesticide DDT—has there been such a persuasive observer of and advocate for the environment as Tallamy.
A professor in the entomology and wildlife ecology department at the University of Delaware, Tallamy is one of several national proponents of a growing movement that advocates naturalistic gardens. As a university professor, he is accustomed to teaching, but with the publication of his book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens (see “Resources,” page 41) and his popularity as a speaker, his classroom has enlarged to a nationwide audience.
In his presentations, Tallamy uses a combination of statistics about habitat loss and decline in wildlife—particularly pollinators—with engaging images of native plants and animals to encourage homeowners to reorient their priorities, habits, and perceptions of home landscapes. Specifically he advocates the use of more native plants, particularly woody species that create structure in gardens and provide shelter and food for wildlife. He also urges people to devote more space to plants and less to that ubiquitous suburban monoculture, the lawn.
THE NATURALISTIC GARDEN EXPERIENCE
Tallamy’s goal is to conserve and increase biodiversity, so from his perspective it doesn’t really matter whether or not people take a personal interest in the trans-formative processes that happen in their gardens. As Tallamy writes, “homeowners can observe and enjoy the restoration of complex food webs in their yards, or they can ignore the process.”
As a landscape designer, however, I enjoy engaging and involving my clients with their gardens. Based on my own experience, many are intrigued by and value the interaction of wildlife and plants in their gardens, so they embrace the concept of naturalistic design not only for its positive effects on the environment but because it enhances their own enjoyment.
A naturalistic garden spotlights the unexpected while appreciating the routine; it includes the discovery of a never-before-seen insect, a migrating bird’s return to its customary nesting spot, and the anticipated sighting of hummingbirds at the opening of the first native honeysuckle flower. Becoming attuned to recurring natural events deepens our understanding of the intricate workings of ecosystems and gives our gardens meaning that transcends the superficial.
Living with nature and observing its rituals is its own reward—perhaps even more so now when many of us are looking for ways to escape the relentless demands of the technologically driven world we now live in. When you’re in a naturalistic garden, you’re part of nature and its interconnected yet seemingly spontaneous activities. You’re alert and sensitized; if the tall grass moves in the distance, you wonder, what animal is moving unseen? When the usual bird song becomes louder and more urgent, you look to see if a bird of prey or a snake is threatening a nest.
Enabling and discovering these interdependencies is at the heart of a naturalistic garden design.
PLANNING A NATURALISTIC GARDEN
A naturalistic garden has a dual focus; like horticulture itself, it’s balanced between art and science. As an artist, you work with feelings and beauty, while as a scientist, you’re concerned with conservation of your garden’s environment and its wildlife. When you create a naturalistic garden, you have to mediate between these sometimes conflicting perspectives.
From my experience, in some cases it is possible to find a happy medium between traditional garden design and naturalistic garden design. Say, for instance, you are strongly attracted to some particular quality of Japanese, French, or English garden design. My advice would be to draw inspiration from that design and incorporate it into an indigenous style.
Although designing a garden to match the fundamental conditions of your site— sun or shade, moist or dry ground, and acidic or alkaline soil—is important in all gardens, it’s particularly critical for naturalistic gardens. Within the overall design, always place plants where they will thrive, not where you’d prefer they grow for aesthetic reasons. This may sound fundamental, but how often have you fooled yourself about a plant’s preferences because you wanted it in a prominent location or next to another plant? I will be the first to admit that I’ve done this many times. The first rule of designing a naturalistic garden, however, is to use realistic, not just wishful, thinking.
Confining yourself to plants that are well suited to existing conditions may seem limiting to gardeners who are used to radically amending soil or removing trees to create sunny borders. But with a naturalistic garden, these limitations actually help you find, or preserve, your landscape’s identity by excluding the inappropriate.
NATURALISTIC DESIGN TECHNIQUES
There is a generally unacknowledged sleight of hand, a purposeful confusion, involved with designing a naturalistic garden. Much like magicians, naturalistic landscape designers create illusion and don’t always want to share the smoke and mirrors.
Those of us who specialize in naturalistic gardens may not readily admit it, but we tend to choose and place everything in a naturalistic garden just as carefully as designers do in a traditional garden. In my designs, I try to blend the existing and introduced plants so they co-mingle and the distinctions are blurred.
GIVING BACK TO NATURE
Too often, even gardeners take nature for granted. A naturalistic garden offers us all a unique personal opportunity to nurture nature. I like to view naturalistic gardens as part of a two-way remediation; they are a means for each of us to give back to nature while, at the same time, we are benefiting from nature. For those who choose to create a naturalistic garden, the dividends are richly rewarding.
Duncan Brine and his wife, Julia, are principals of GardenLarge (www.gardenlarge.com), a landscape design firm. The couple’s six-acre garden in Pawling, New York, is a regular stop on garden tours.
Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas W. Tallamy. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2007 (updated edition 2009).
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts, 1962.