Natural gardens are beautiful to behold, but they rarely happen “naturally.” Like other gardens, they’re carefully planned to bring out the best in whatever space a gardener has available. There are a multitude of natural garden themes throughout North America to choose from. Some – like desert and tropical – are more geographically specific. But others – like cottage and woodland themes – can work in all kinds of places. No matter the theme you choose, the key to a successful natural garden design is to figure out how to make it actually look natural in your neck of the woods.
To make it easier on yourself, take the same approach as the professionals: Give a lot of thought to the natural landscape you’re trying to match, as well as the purpose or function of the garden you’re hoping to create. Landscape professionals also do a careful site evaluation – examining the future garden’s soil, location and orientation. Then they get their checklist in order, lining up their resources, materials, plants and tools needed for construction so that overall, the entire project will take the least amount of time from start to finish.
Of course, one of the first steps in natural garden design is deciding on your garden’s theme. Whichever you choose, try to figure out if your garden will serve a particular purpose as well. Maybe you want to control water consumption by reducing the amount of water-guzzling lawn. Or maybe you want to beautify a shady urban back yard so you can enjoy the view from inside the house. On the other hand, you might just want to bring more birds into your yard. Maybe you want to create an entry garden that lends a welcoming appearance to your home. Perhaps there’s a neighbor’s garage you’d like to screen from view or a hard-to-mow slope you’d like to tackle. No matter the purpose, having a goal for your garden will help give it a reason for being – as well as help shape its design.
Like the professionals, you’ll also need to spend some time thinking about how your garden will function. Who will use it, and do they have specific requirements? What about needs for privacy? Will you be sharing your garden space with children? Need space to entertain or unwind? Also consider how the garden will be viewed, both from inside the house and from the outdoor living areas. Contemplate the times of day and seasons of the year you’ll use your garden. Each of these ideas can affect the function of your garden, its size and its placement.
Don’t forget to consider how much care you can give your garden, too. Do you have lots of time to putter about working on it, or are you time-starved? Thinking about this ahead of time will help you plan a garden within limits that you can maintain by yourself. (After all, too much time spent watering, mulching, pruning and cleaning up won’t leave much time for enjoyment!)
You’ll also need to familiarize yourself with your region’s natural spaces. To help your garden blend in better with the natural landscape, see what you can dig up on the original purpose of your land. Was it forest, prairie, mountain? Visit some natural areas in your region and study the native plant life there. You can learn a lot about creating personal natural gardens by observing how wild plants grow and flourish in your area.
After you’ve spent some time observing your natural surroundings, you can start ruminating on the types of plants you’d like to include in your own natural garden designs. This means making a decision about the natural garden approach you want to take: Should you use only plants native to your region or include plants that are non-natives to your area but are well-adapted to growing in your region? Visit your local garden center – or even garden-savvy homeowners – for ideas as well.
Not sure? Start by making a list of all your favorite plants. Are there ones that are so special to you (or your location) that you just can’t live without? Maybe you’re a Southeasterner who’s always dreamed of having a flowering dogwood in your yard. Or maybe you’re a Westerner longing for an orange drift of California poppy, or a Vancouver Islander envisioning a landscape filled with azaleas. Consider your “dream plants” in your natural surroundings. Which combine well with your current plants and garden conditions and can flourish with minimal special care – and which work within your theme?
Finally, to ground your garden and really give that sense of “natural belonging” to your region, try to incorporate a variety of natural materials – like stepping-stones or pebble paths. This not only reflects your community’s unique character, it usually helps keep a project within budget.
Whether your natural garden design is of a simple meadow grown in one season from seed or an intricate wetland that will need detailed preplanning, approaching the task like a landscape professional would makes all the difference. After all, when you know where you’re going with a big planting project before you ever dig a hole, you’ve gone a long way to ensure you’ll have a beautiful, thriving garden to enjoy for years to come!