Wild Inspiration – Creating a Naturalistic Garden

Over the last few months as I’ve been out and about in enchanting areas photographing and observing wild flowers, I’ve been struck not only by the fullness and colour of our wonderful landscape but also by how naturally occurring scenes are more than capable of inspiring a naturalistic garden design. I should stress that I’m no expert in garden design, however I am familiar with some basic principles and so as I’ve reminisced about gardens I’ve visited over the last few years I couldn’t help but compare them with what we see in nature.

Subtle and understated, a patchwork of ragwort, thistle and grasses growing naturally in the Welsh countryside – the colour, shape and structure of this expanse of meadow struck me as being great inspiration for a prairie style garden. It’s message is simple – you don’t need to cram multiple plant varieties in, just a few effective combinations will do the trick.

A scene to brighten anyone’s spring day! However, whilst you wouldn’t want to introduce cow parsley into your garden, there are alternative plants to choose from to create a similar effect in a darker woody area, orlaya grandiflora, anthricus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ and ammi majus to name but a few.

Walking through a natural landscape, I was moved by the energy of this meandering stream. Inherently romantic, it’s a lovely scene on the edge of woodland at Coed y Foel in Llandysul and its grasses, fluidity and billowing flora certainly inspire me. With care and a little imagination a garden pond fed by a well constructed stream and discrete planting could emerge as a creation in this theme.

The estuary at Rye in East Sussex makes for a great day out – not only is it exceptionally beautiful, it’s a birdwatcher’s paradise! I was struck by the shoreside ‘beach’ – inspiration for a gravel garden perhaps? (minus the water of course!)

Designing a naturalistic garden

Not surprisingly, many garden designers are inspired by nature and natural scenes, for there’s such a magnificent canvas to work from! Historically and probably most notably, Capability Brown’s grand gardens are based on naturalistic landscapes, whilst more recently, Piet Oudolf is described as ‘this generations leading exponent of naturalistic planting’

Trentham’s Floral Labyrinth

One of my favourite gardens to visit is Trentham in north Staffordshire and I love the Piet Oudulf Rivers of Grass and Floral Labyrinth in particular. Inspiration is taken from a natural scene and enhanced with colour, structure and careful plant selection to produce prairie style schemes underpinned by huge swathes of grasses intermingled with tall perennial plants – to fabulous dramatic effect!

A short drive from Coed Y Foel in Llandysul is Farmyard Nurseries, where in addition to the plethora of plants available to buy, a stunning woodland garden has been created with a wholly naturalistic feel and with its water, existing trees and sympathetic planting, it’s absolutely stunning.

So, once inspired, how can we translate the naturalist theme into our own gardens? The principles of garden design are adaptable to any type of garden and so rather than over complicate things, it’s always prudent to ensure that you consider what the garden needs to provide you with, that your plans flow and are uncluttered by hard material and most importantly, the plants you choose are suitable not only for the design, but also your soil conditions.

  1. Function

Grand ideas are all very well, but considering the requirements of the garden owner must be the starting point. Are you looking at a whole garden transformation or a smaller area in a wider garden scheme; are there children who enjoy playing in it, is a quiet spot for peace and contemplation needed, are friends and family to be entertained? You may need to adapt your ideas to suit, but when you’ve made your decision on function – try to stick to it!

A small area of a garden could be ‘meadow’ planted

2. Design flow

Preparation and planning will reap dividends – but be mindful of the basic principles of garden design: 

  • Space
  • Simplicity
  • Proportionality
  • Balance
  • Colour wise
  • Line and scale
  • Transitions
  • Unity
  • Harmony
If you’re lucky enough to have a view like this one at Rhyd-y-Groes in Pembrokeshire, make sure your design makes the most of it!

3. Stimulating the senses!

Touch, sight, smell, sound; your garden will benefit from a scheme to stimulate more than one sense – grasses mixed with specimens that attract bees, birds and butterflies is an attractive option, for who can resist running their hand along the stem and flower plume of a silky miscanthus, whilst surrounded by the rustle produced by a gentle breeze, busy insect activity and the intoxicating perfume of sweet rocket?

The floral labyrinth at Trentham Gardens – simple and understated

4. Materials

Great care must be taken to ensure that materials; for paths, seating, and ornamentation are selected according to the function you’re aiming for as well as complimenting the planting scheme. There is also a practical aspect to the selection process which should not be overlooked, for example if you are ensuring paths are wide enough to accommodate your wheelbarrow and mower, then subtle shades should be selected in order to avoid a situation whereby the thoroughfare draws the eye away from the flower beds. In the same way, raised beds should not be constructed from materials that overpower the overall scheme. 

5. Plants

And so to the planting and for a plantaholic, this is the best bit! Rather than concentrating on listing plants suited to a naturalistic garden, you will have fun making your own choices I’m sure – this section is about underpinning planting principles. 

There is one overriding principle to keep at the forefront of your mind as you start planning – ‘right plant, right place’ . This requires a strong knowledge, not just of individual plant characteristics and requirements, but the conditions they’ll be planted in – soil, light, climate and scale. Calamagrotis is a fabulous grass for a naturalistic scheme, but it would be disastrous to select an exciting variety and then plant a swathe of it in waterlogged clay soil in a shady garden. 

For a harmonious and visually stimulating effect, it’s a good idea to use large numbers of a small variety of different plant combinations in a swathe rather than one of each of a wide variety in small pockets.

Anemone ‘September Charm’ planted en masse at Trentham

Remember though, to take account of the height and spread when selecting your plants, as a unified result is what you’re aiming for!

I’ve certainly been inspired by nature this summer, it’s been a most welcoming distraction from the problems we’ve all faced this year. The restrictions on garden visiting have resulted in my revisiting favourites – through photographs I’ve taken over the last few years. The naturalistic gardens I love fill me with the enthusiasm to improve our borders at home, albeit on a much smaller scale – just got to get on with it!

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