naturalistic plants for the garden

Last night I gave a talk on Naturalistic Planting at the Wivenhoe Watching Wildlife autumn event. As always, Chris, Glyn and Greg were on top form and the evening was packed full of interesting information about our local wildlife and a bit of >‘salty’ adult humour (you had to be there to get the salt joke). If you live locally you should definitely look to attend one of the future events. We are incredibly lucky to have such knowledgeable enthusiasts willing to give up their time to run such evenings free of charge.
Getting back to my talk; I was invited to give a brief introduction to a naturalistic style of planting for gardens. Basically, a naturalistic garden is where we use very long lived perennials mixed in with ornamental grasses and some local growing species in order to create a more natural feel to a garden. As I only had twenty minutes or so to talk about this I was unable to go into too much detail about what plants to use, which was the main question I was being asked after the event. So I thought I would write something to help anyone that may be thinking of doing something similar in their own garden.
There are literally thousands of plants that could be used, so it would be impossible to go through them all here. What I can do is recommend a book by Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen titled ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’. This is my go-to book for every garden design project I work on. Oudolf is an internationally renowned garden designer that has been growing plants at his own plant nursery in Holland for decades. His experiments with plants and garden design experience all over the world means he is probably the foremost expert on the plants to use for a naturalistic garden for the northern hemisphere. The book is basically a directory of over a thousand plant varieties with descriptions of each plant and photographs so you know what they are going to look like in the garden border. If you are planning a project then you should definitely begin with looking through this book for inspiration!
It would be simple for me to stop their and leave you to work out your plants for yourself, but I am not going to leave you hanging there. To help you get your foot in the door I am going to give you a list of seven plants that could be used as the backbone of a stunning natural style border. However, even with this list there are no guarantees. You will still need some knowledge on how to use the plants. How many you should buy? How many to plant in a group? How far apart should they be? Should they go at the front or back? Which should be planted next to one another? There are a lot of things to think about which is why so many people turn to a garden designer such as myself, to plan all this for them. So with my list I will also try and give enough information so that you can hopefully create something quite special that any garden designer worth their salt would be proud of.

I will start with the grasses. I am only going to suggest two that I think would work in most gardens, even a small terrace such as my own.
1. Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldschleier’– Tufted hair grass. This grass will grow up to 1m tall with a spread of 60cm. It produces a mass of upright stems with silvery spikelet flower heads in summer, turning bronze then hay coloured at the end of the season. It gives the amazing ‘Transparent’ look softening any brightly coloured flowers in the garden. It isn’t the longest lasting of perennial grasses but will self-seed quite freely around the garden. The perfect grass for a natural garden. For a small garden like mine I would suggest buying three of these grasses. For larger gardens then a packet of seeds should provide more than enough plants.
2. Miscanthus sinensis ‘morning light’ – I love this in my garden. I have planted it where it will pick up the morning sun so it looks amazing while I am eating my breakfast. It gives a different texture with its long narrow green leaves that cascade over at a height of up to 1.5m and a spread of around 1.2m. I just have one of these grasses bought from Beth Chatto Nurseries in my garden, and that is enough for me. In larger gardens they can be planted in groups, one plant per metre square, dotted around the whole garden.

Now for the flowering plants. It is important when buying herbaceous perennials that you choose enough variety to give a range of textures, colour and foliage for all year round interest, as well as providing pollenating insects with a balanced diet throughout the growing season. With all this in mind, here are my suggestions:
3. Verbena hastata ‘Pink Spires’ – I love the Verbena in my garden, and those of you that were there last night would remember the Hummingbird Hawk Moth that has frequented my garden on a daily basis this year. Verbena bonariensis has been quite fashionable over recent years but there are other species and varieties around. This one is a stunning plant that can be used as a ‘theme’ plant throughout the garden. They produce lots of flowers on each plant so for a small garden you only need a few to create a sense of rhythm in the borders. I would say 3 to 5 plants dotted around would be perfect. Larger gardens would obviously require a few more.
4. Echinops bannaticus or Echinops ritro E. ritro is the shorter of the two but either should work well. These globe thistles will grow almost anywhere as long as they are in full sun. They are much loved by our pollinating insects and the globe seed heads look amazing even after flowering. They give great winter interest, as long as the finches don’t eat them first! I would plant these in a group of around 3, 5 or 7 plants, depending on the size of the garden. (7 plants per square metre). They have a height of around 1m. If you don’t want them so tall then why not try giving them the ‘Chelsea Chop’ and cut them down by half at around the time of the Chelsea flower show.
5. Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Taiga’ – This variety of Russian Sage is a lot less floppy than other varieties. It is a fantastic plant that I would try and fit into any garden if possible. The flowers produce a brilliant lavender-blue haze from July to early autumn. Some think they have a similar look to Nepeta flowers. While the flowers will attract the bees and butterflies the leaves can be used as a tea with additional medicinal benefits too. It is used in herbal medicine to soothe the stomach, treat fevers and help relieve cold or flu symptoms. A must have plant!
6. Helenium ‘Rubinzwerg’ or ‘Moreheim Beauty’- An abundance of red-brown daisy like flowers from mid-summer to early autumn. Rubinzwerg is a little shorter so is less likely to need supporting. They can suffer a little from wet, probably more from the snails that are more prevalent during rainy summers as they are quite fond of eating the flowers. However, there are so many of them this shouldn’t detract from the overall display that is simply stunning. Again they should be planted in groups of up to nine plants per square metre.
7. Astrantia major varieties – Another extremely useful theme plant. There are many varieties but I am particularly fond of the deep rose pink flowers of ‘Primadonna’. They are excellent ground cover plants and there is the added benefit that the slugs don’t like them! Some gardeners even use them as an organic method to protect plants such as hostas from slug damage by surrounding them with Astrantia. I will be experimenting with this myself next year. Watch this space for the results.

So there are my seven sublime suggestions for a naturalistic garden. If you are going to have a go yourself, then make sure you prepare the ground properly first, removing all weed plants then topping off with a soil enriching compost. Before planting why not add plenty of bulbs first. You can buy packets of mixed bulbs this time of year that will give a boost of colour in spring right through summer. Allium selections are excellent additions to any garden. Bulbs are a relatively cheap way of adding a lot of plants to a garden. Check the heights of all your plants to make sure you have the tallest at the back of the border, although I do like having tall plants near the front too, as long as they don’t flop. Whatever you do, enjoy it. If you use the plants above you will have a great looking garden with very little maintenance for you to enjoy for many years to come, and the bees are going to love you for it too!

Naturalistic garden design

Planning a new garden planting scheme using Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen’s book ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’