A Beginner’s Guide To The Naturalistic Garden
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A Beginner’s Guide To The Naturalistic Garden

Love the frowzy, painterly aesthetic of a wild-looking garden, the latest trend in landscaping, but unsure where to begin?

By Catherine Romano
Thu, Aug 25, 2022 9:28amGrey Clock 2 min

LANDSCAPE DESIGN continues to grow less formal—more prairie than pruned, more meadow than managed. Adhering to the practice of “right plant, right place,” even to the point of choosing only native flora, promises to better support birds and bees, and to require fewer resources, including water and the sweat of your brow.

To aid gardeners interested in dipping their beaks in the loose look of naturalistic planting, we asked two experts how to get started with 500 square feet of terrain. They observed that squeezing the style into that space was much like covering this complex topic in these 500 words, but they were game, suggesting ways to simplify down to fewer species and layers.

The best way to begin: Lay down what Benjamin Vogt, author of “Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design” (University of Illinois Press, January 2023), calls the matrix level, and Adam Woodruff, a landscape designer in Marblehead, Mass., refers to as the ground cover or base layer. Not to be confused with the layman’s idea of ground cover, such as ajuga or English ivy, this foundational layer, from 6 to 12 inches tall, is meant to function like a canvas, accounting for about 50% of your plant material. “There’s a uniform green in the landscape that ties it all together,” said Mr. Vogt, owner of Monarch Gardens, a landscape design firm in Lincoln and Omaha, Neb.

For the novice, an ideal base layer is a perennial bunching grass planted 12 to 16 inches apart on centre. Mr. Vogt said he might opt for a short variety, such as the native Little Bluestem shown in the photo at left. In the photo at right, Mr. Woodruff used suitable but non-native Sesleria, or Autumn Moor Grass.

In a 500-square-foot plot, Mr. Vogt would restrict the second layer, often called the seasonal theme layer, to plants 24 inches to 30 inches tall and, for the sake of scale, forgo the typical third layer of larger plants. Optimal for the second layer: groups of perennials or self-seeding annuals with light and water needs similar to each other and to the matrix plant. A good mix: one species that flowers early in the season, one later. Ideally both have leaves that contrast with the grass and (come fall) pretty seed heads so your garden is attractive year round.

Plants can be quite close. “Density is very important to the success of this style of planting,” said Mr. Woodruff. Mr. Vogt goes so far as saying “Throw plant tags away.” If planted densely, the garden knits together more quickly, usually within a year. Weeds are suppressed, and mulching becomes a thing of the past.

Parting advice: Before you put spade to earth, “research the heck out of plants,” said Mr. Vogt. Mr. Woodruff recommends “The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden,” by Roy Diblik (Timber Press, 2014).

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 13, 2022.

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