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Naturalistic gardening

Q: I’ve heard the term “naturalistic gardening” used quite a bit in recent years. How would you describe this gardening trend?

Francine Sutton, Modesto, CA

Naturalistic garden designs echo natural settings and ease the transition from dense woodland to open lawn. Naturalistic garden designs echo natural settings and ease the transition from dense woodland to open lawn. Photo/Illustration: Steve Silk

A: Ann Lovejoy, the author of Naturalistic Gardening and several other gardening books, replies: Both practical and philosophical, the term “naturalistic gardening” describes a nature-influenced design style and a toxin-free method of garden care. Naturalistic designs tend to be regionally appropriate and sustainable. They typically use plantings rather than hardscape to inform the overall look of a garden, and the lines between formal and natural areas are often blurred by way of graceful transitions.

Naturalistic design often echoes the layers of plantings seen in nature. Consider a woodland setting, with its true canopy, understory of shrubs, and ground covers. Another element is to replicate plant communities that naturally occur together. For example, western red cedar and hemlocks are commonly accompanied by red alders, wild cherries, hazelnuts, Indian plum, and huckleberries. Plants also are clustered according to both cultural preferences and the strictures of a given site. In many cases, plants are respected for their year-round attributes rather than, say, a single season of showy flowers.

A naturalistic approach to maintenance focuses more on supporting plant health than on fighting problems. Care begins with the least toxic solution to any garden problem, perhaps starting with a squirt from the hose rather than a can of pesticide. For example, sucking insects like aphids may be reduced or eliminated quickly with a jet of water without affecting beneficial companions. Care continues with the planting of simple composite flowers, such as sunflowers or cosmos, to encourage pollinators and beneficial bugs. The basic concept is that well-chosen, well-placed plants on a lean but adequate diet are healthier and more independent than artificially pampered plants in overly lush conditions.

With naturalistic garden design, repetitive chores can be reduced or eliminated. Maintenance and pollution issues can be moderated by limiting the size of lawns and avoiding planting lawn in hard-to-mow areas such as sharp angles between intersecting paths and narrow turf strips between paths and beds. In addition, choosing regionally appropriate plants further reduces the need for expensive maintenance and increases the garden’s resilience in the face of seasonal adversity.

Care and nurturing of the soil are also vital. Disturbance is minimized to protect soil communities, and annual layering of compost mulches replenishes organic materials. The generous use of compost mulches also reduces the need to water, fertilize, and prune overgrowth caused by excess nutrients.

From Fine Gardening 104, pp. 74