naturalistic garden with purple tulips

What is naturalistic planting?

Within a biodiverse garden the wildlife with whom you will share your space does not all require you to provide specific plants for them to survive. Instead it has been demonstrated that a variety of habitats, creating a layering of spaces, will encourage herbivores and predators alike. At its essence this simply means different areas such as a pond, a lawn, areas where grass grows longer, rich planting beds of perennials and shrubs, and trees and shrubs for vertical interest and perches.Here my definition of ‘rich planting beds’ are those where there is a ground cover layer, and an emergent layer of perennials, grasses, ferns or shrubs. The idea that plants should have little areas of bare soil around them (effectively creating the perfect weed bed) is outdated in an age when we want to do our best for the creatures we share our garden spaces with.

However the theme of this post is a definition of naturalistic planting. What has preceded has sought to demonstrate that what follows is neither proscriptive nor necessary in order to attract wildlife. Instead naturalistic planting, at its best, is an artistic representation and invocation of wild spaces – creating areas of planting that are suggestive of meadow, woodland, prairie or riverbank. It is the careful selection of a palette of plants that will co-exist and provide a long period of interest, bringing to mind a certain wild space (even if that space is conjured in the mind rather than from a specific location). This diverse palette is especially important when seeking to create a space for people to enjoy – the lush green of summer can, for many people, lack the richness of colour that they yearn for from their own garden spaces. At their heart therefore naturalistic plantings are designed with both biodiversity and aesthetics in mind.

An important point for the prospective gardener seeking to design such a planting though is that it will be intended to change and develop over time. Plants will move (requiring gentle editing to stop certain plants taking over the entirety of a space), and others may well fall prey to slugs or snails, or simply reach the end of their lifespan (meaning that the movement of other plants should be encouraged in the right place to prevent gaps from forming). Such plantings just need a slightly different mindset to the traditional horticultural practices of the removal of anything that is not where is was originally placed and, indeed, the cutting back of everything to bare earth in the autumn. This practice mimics the destruction of a habitat and encourages weeds to set and grow. As you can see therefore a well designed and carefully managed naturalistic planting will become a much more relaxed space that is subsequently easier to maintain.

The fundamental beauty of naturalistic plantings derives from their layering of plants, forms, colours, and sizes; their encouragement of a rich variety of wildlife – from invertebrates to mammals; and their visual strength when juxtaposed against geometry elsewhere in the garden.

Naturalistic planting is therefore a philosophy rather than a formula and one that starts with seeing your garden as a place that provides habitat variety so that people and wildlife can coexist.