Natural Style Expert
Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters to rise or fall;
Or helps the ambitious hill the heavens to scale;
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods. And varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs the intending lines;
Paints as you plant and as you work designs.
What is an enhanced, ecologically based natural style planting?
Wildlife friendly planting, natural habitat style, wildscaping, ecological based planting; these and other terms are all becoming more and more popular with garden owners. There are an increasing number of books on the subject but here my aim is to give anyone with little knowledge of natural or wildlife planting a ‘brief’ overview of the subject. By clarifying the principals behind the concept and hopefully whetting their appetite to get them started and continue to learn this very enjoyable, beautiful, fulfilling and immersive art.
Traditional mixed border planting displays are often done by grouping specimen trees and shrubs together with blocks or drifts of forbs (flowering herbaceous perennials) and grasses into visually pleasing compositions, focusing predominantly on flower colour but also leaf colour, texture, shape and overall form of the plants, either individually or as in groups. This and other displays such as shrub beds, rose beds and herbaceous borders are not only very high on maintenance but also, especially in the case of the latter ones are lacking in interest for much of the year when not in flower.
The traditional high maintenance neat border with mown lawn and tidy edges
Most known natural style planting schemes are large open ground plantings as seen in green spaces, parks and estate sized gardens. They rely heavily on space to immerse and captivate the observer in the beautiful flowing rhythm of harmonious plant density and diversity. The seasonal maturing and waning of these plantings are generally not seen by the visitor or passer by as they are usually observed when reaching their best point such as masses of colour from spring bulbs on a woodland floor or a mid summer flowering meadow planting.
Translating long season dense and diverse natural planting schemes to the average sized garden requires a little adaptive ingenuity. The garden setting has to capture the immersive experience on a smaller scale whilst also catering for functional needs such as privacy, adult and child play as well as not requiring too much garden owner technical knowledge, time and actual inclination in it’s upkeep. A major benefit of natural style planting, apart from maximising wildlife friendliness, is that most of the work once planted, such as cutting back and weeding is done out-with the main warm growing season. From late spring through summer into autumn the main activity for the garden owner is to sit back, enjoy and immerse themselves in their garden leaving the plants and wildlife to look after themselves and the garden.
Natural style immersive planting slows the pace and relaxes the mind maximising the experience of connecting with nature.
Traditional garden practices rely on a lot of human input (feeding, pest and disease control, weeding, splitting, adding new plants etc) and costly products to ensure each individual plant or group of plants look their best. In Natural and semi-natural habitats; man made products and input or interference are not required, they are self regulating and sustaining. Semi- natural habitats are habitats that have at some point in their existence had some form of human interference, most habitats today are in fact semi-natural.
A ecologically based natural planting style aims to be guided by and learn from natural and semi-natural habitats to create attractive planting compositions which require less human intervention and in turn this reduction of on -going disturbance benefits wildlife density, diversity and sustainability. In this way natural planting styles become eco-friendly or greener than traditional gardening practices; they are ecologically based.
So natural style planting is ecologically based in design as opposed to aesthetically based although to be truly appreciated, enjoyed and desired an artistic approach to the planting composition is necessary. In natural and semi-natural habitats there are usually one, perhaps two points in the year where the planting reaches its aesthetic peak, usually in terms of flower colour, as spring bulbs on a deciduous woodland floor before the leaves regrow on the trees and in the autumn when the leaves take on their autumn colours before falling to the ground to decompose and continue the circle of life. In the landscape and especially the garden setting visual appeal throughout the year is demanded.
This is where the word ‘enhanced’ is often placed before ‘natural habitat style planting’. The term does not propose to ‘be better than nature can achieve’ but to use plants from different biogeographic continents but similar biogeographic habitats and place them in the same composition and extend the season of colour for the observer to enjoy. We can, however, look at an attractive colourful composition of flowering plants in a natural or semi-natural habitat, roughly copy the plant percentages and make it even more attractive by adding or deleting percentages of certain species. For example, a semi-natural river banking dominated with white flowering meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria (90%) with a scattering of pink flowering ragged- robin, Silene flos- cuculi (10) could, we think, look even nicer with more ragged -robin, increasing the percentage to a 75%/ 25% mix. Beauty, however is in the eye of the beholder.
Which plants to use in a planting scheme?
Because Scotland is in part of the Northern Hemisphere (latitude) which has in the main mild to cold windy winters and summers with warm rather than hot weather and frequent rainfall (although extremes are acknowledged but less frequent and often short in duration) it makes sense to choose plants from continents with similar soil and climatic conditions. European, Asian and North American plants are more suited than plants that originate from other Southern Hemisphere continents such as Africa, Australasia and South America. There are caveats such as altitude; for example some plants growing high in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa can tolerate lower temperatures common at lower altitude but higher latitude levels of the UK. Another example is being inland; Moscow and Glasgow share the same latitude but being inland Moscow regularly experiences temperatures of -25°C whereas Glasgow with its Gulf Stream influenced maritime climate rarely exceeds -5°C.
Most of the garden plants commercially available today originate from continents such as Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Australasia and Africa. Depending on where you live and your particular soil and micro-climate certain plants from any of these locations will just not be suitable to your conditions. This is where an understanding of the ecologically based concept comes in. More attention is placed on a plants natural habitats within continents such as open meadow or other grass land such as prairie, woodland or scrubland edge (where light levels allow greater species diversity), sea shore, Steppes etc. The importance of these habitats lies, as in your garden in their intrinsic soil and micro-climatic conditions as well as light levels, herbivore grazing and competitive strategies which determines which plants do well and which ones do not. Natural planting styles take into consideration this ecology. Herbivore grazing is not just confined to animals the size of deer or sheep but also larval stages of insects such as caterpillars or slugs regularly devouring your hostas.
Within each individual garden setting, soil and microclimate can vary, because of soil make up, pH, aspect, exposure etc. Rather than the more costly and time consuming process of changing the soil and microclimate to fit the needs of desired plants, the ecological approach is to fit the plants to the prevailing site conditions. This also ensures a greater certainty of long term planting success or in ecologically terms a more stable plant community (discussed later). These and future changes to soil and microclimate conditions such as shade cast by a hedge, for privacy and to protect other plants as the garden matures is considered during a garden site analysis and user need to choose the appropriate plants, site preparation, planting and ongoing care and development. This sounds a bit complex but is easier and results in a lot less work than a traditional garden layout.
The natural planting style aims to understand how this ecological balance between plants, soil and microclimate work by identifying the specific soil and microclimate conditions within natural habitats and the plant species they support and matching these plants to the most suitable location within the garden setting. By intermingling complimentary plants densely and in layers, the aim is to achieve successful establishment and as far as possible self regulating and sustainable planting by plants naturally maturing and aggregating and gradually spreading around without out competing neighbouring species in the planting.
How we aim to achieve gradual non invasive maturing and spreading is explained in plant strategies below. I just want to mention habitats can be a dense planting compositions such as a wet nutrient rich prairie or semi sparse such as a nutrient poor Mediterranean steppe or totally inhospitable to plant life for all or most of the year such as the Chilean Atacama Desert. Here again one can see the importance of microclimate; high rainfall allows plants to grow and when they die decompose in the soil, releasing nutrients for the next generation of plant growth. In areas with less rainfall, vegetation is sparser which in turn leads to less nutrients being released during decomposition. Natural planting style tends to aim for a denser species rich planting composition as it provides more and longer colour as well as reduces the need for weeding which would occur if one was trying to create a Mediterranean steppe style planting in a high rainfall climate.
Learning from natural and semi natural habitats
In natural habitats, plants tend to arrange themselves, not randomly or evenly, as achieved when scattering a seed mix but according to slight soil and micro-climatic almost invisible variances not immediately observable. The clue that these variances are present and enough to make the difference are in how the different species aggregate themselves. Here is where the ecological observed bases to their distribution comes into play. Any given location has specific nuances throughout the site as mentioned above; damp semi shade, dry dense shade, dry in full sun or wet in full sun, shallow soil, deep soil, differences in pH and nutrient levels, etc.
Semi- natural recolonisation of a semi-natural landscape demonstrating how differences in soil and aspect favour different species from grasses and ferns in the foreground to a mix of competing gorse and broom with braken dominating further back.
From these and added factors mention above such as competition from neighbouring plants and intensity of herbivore grazing (not just from large animals but also aphids, slugs etc) determines where each individual plant successfully establishes itself and thrives, increasing in number or spread to form large clusters and if conditions beyond its root zone continue to favour it, it will venture out as outliers. Ecologists have identified this behaviour in numerous natural habitats. A walk through my local woods provides examples of such plant ecology.
Ferns demonstrating cluster and outlier distribution strategy in woodland habitat.
In the garden setting a plant ecologist/ designer will, before plant selection, identify as many of the above nuances as possible to aid choosing which plants to use in his/her palette and where they will be placed. By ensuring plants are placed in their favoured conditions increases the likely hood of long term successful establishment with minimal human intervention to keep the planting display looking good. Although to the human observer in their average life time, herbaceous and woody perennial plant communities are perceived as being in a ‘steady state’ they are in a state of continuous flux. By understanding how plant species interact with one another in natural habitats, the plant ecologist/designer can put together in the garden setting an artistic composition at a slower state of change.
Many Plant ecologists support a plant strategy theory developed by Professor Philip Grime of the University of Sheffield, in his 2006 book ‘Plant Strategies, Vegetative Processes and Ecosystem Properties’. He explains how different plants exist within plant communities. Rather than seeing plants as a number of individual species he sees them as different functional types with different levels of adaptations to two environmental forces that can limit an individual species performance. the two factors are stress and disturbance. Stresses are factors that can limit the growth potential of a plant, such as low nutrient levels in the soil, the soil being too wet or dry or the climate too hot or cold. Disturbances are factors that act on an otherwise strong growing plant species limiting its growth such as damage by strong wind, grazing, land cultivation, flooding etc.
In the traditional garden setting where plants are regularly fed, watered when dry and competition reduced by weeding; stress levels are low, the soil highly productive and stable . This favours a certain functional types over others. In the natural habitat, conditions may favour other functional types, a dry, nutrient and species poor unproductive habitat would still be considered stable but if prone to an outside disturbance such as a bush fire would then be considered unstable.
Professor Grime proposes that plants occupy one of three functional types. The CSR Theory. C (competitors),S (stress tolerators), R (ruderals). Competitors are plant species normally taller growing long lived herbaceous perennials which can grow, spread and dominate an area fairly quickly out competing lower, slower growers and in turn reducing species diversity. They are particularly suited to stable, highly productive low stress habitats. Where stress is higher for example where nutrient levels are low and soil dries out the habitat is more suited to stress tolerators which tend to be long lived slow low growing plants. Ruderals are plant species which are short lived perennials, biennials and annual which can grow and set seed quickly to colonise a habitat which has been disturbed, through time if habitat conditions improve they will be replaced by stress tolerators and competitors.
From this way of perceiving how different types of plant species are better or less suited to different habitat conditions, specifically soil, micro climate, grazing, one can see how in a highly productive garden setting some plants (competitors) dominate others and in the opposite unproductive extreme a habitat can be unsuitable for certain plants to survive but other can exploit the conditions (stress tolerators). In the natural habitat the highest level of plant diversity occurs in conditions with moderate levels of productivity and disturbance.
Planting in Layers
in By following the cluster/outlier principle outlined above a layered rather than block planting composition can be achieved. This is particularly useful in the smaller space of the average garden. Although looking random there is structured organisation providing an attractive rhythmic composition. Interest and unity is maintained throughout the main growing season as different species flower at different times and contribute to the whole planting matrix when not taking centre stage.
In the garden trees and shrubs are needed for screening, privacy and shelter. Unless used as as a hedging their numbers in the average sized garden are limited, Apart from their ornamental value they can be used to exploit vertical space, contribute to winter structure and interest and provide habitat to wildlife. In the traditional garden border where one species ends and another one starts is more abrupt than found in nature where the transition lines are fuzzier
In the natural habitat the area where one habitat, for example a woodland meets another such as a meadow is referred to as an ecotone ; it contains species from two distinct habitats and is more species rich.
By choosing suitable species to complement the herbaceous perennial planting a more diverse, dense and ecologically correct habitat can be Areas containing species from two distinct habitats, such a meadow bordering a woodland are known as ecotones. tree habitats are most commonly referred to as woodlands, forests in Australia the bush which also refers to shrub land scrub. Chaparral, thicket etc. Using such areas as these for inspiration and guidance is particularly use full in the average sized garden for maximising year round interest. In the average garden setting where space is limited I use trees and shrubs which have either a low growing habit so one can see over them or if taller a slimmer habit so you can see around them. Large bulky shrubs tend to use up too much useful flowering planting space as well as obstructing views. Where big bulky shrubs are present and removal is not an option, if feasible I suggest to clients the practice of French transparency pruning, ‘la taille de transparence’. This is where selected branches are thinned out to allow light and air through the structure which also allows one to get glimpses of the garden through the shrub. When done well by careful selection and pruning an extremely natural elegant shape can be achieved with an otherwise bulky monster.
Creating attractive idyllic gardens
I have become fascinated by the concept of what makes a garden look ‘idyllic’ to the viewer. There is a fine balance between the lighter handed, unkempt look of of many wildlife friendly or natural habitat gardens to the unattractive look of complete neglect often associated with a poor understanding of gardening practices. Although undoubtedly good for wildlife and unnoticed and judged in countryside locations, it can and often does look unsightly in the garden setting.
Some scholars have put forward the idea that although we humans have through time moved away and lost some of our links with nature, we still have, in many ways still strong often subconscious ties. We have an inbuilt desire to see danger and stay safe, we will see a dense forest, which is difficult to see through as threatening whereas a light airy woodland is much less threatening. We also like to stand or sit and view areas from safe sanctuaries such as gazebo or tall sheltered backdrop. We like our gardens to have privacy, shelter and a touch of maturity all of these desires contribute to our ‘idyllic’ perception. It is further thought that is why many of us like the idea of ponds and lunch growing plants because we associate this with water and food. To maximise the experience of a natural style garden it is important to design and plant areas so you can immerse yourself and become intimate with nature rather, more than just viewing it in a border.