Building Natural Spaces and Gardens, No Matter Where You Live

While manicured lawns and perfect gardens are the norms in cookie-cutter neighborhoods, many people want more natural-looking landscapes these days. These gardens mimic wild spaces such as meadows, woodlands, and streamsides, are low-maintenance, and help increase plant and animal diversity; just what the doctor ordered! 

New Naturalism

New Naturalism (January 2, 2021, Cool Springs Press) is a recently-released book inspiring gardeners to make the change. Written by horticulturist and modern plantsman Kelly D. Norris, the book features planting recipes for building natural spaces, even in small, urban areas, along with ideas for upgrading existing plantings or turning shady landscapes into nature retreats. 

This beautiful book is undoubtedly worth a read, but to help get you started, we picked Norris’ brain about this “natural” way of gardening!

Do you see “natural” gardening becoming a trend as we move forward?  

I think we’re headlong into the trend already. The broad cultural awareness of pollinators and their plight in the last five years underscores a societal pivot towards thinking about the garden as more than just a pretty place to spend time and harvest a tomato. As a matter of language, I think it’s interesting that we have to qualify gardening with words like “ecological,” “natural,” and “naturalistic” to ascribe new meaning. What does it say about gardening when we don’t assume these to be part of the definition in the first place? Especially after a pandemic year and longer stays at home, I see and hear different ways people have engaged with a bigger idea of nature through their gardens. I hope that only continues to trend towards a greater nature.  

I’m all about low-maintenance landscaping and gardens. What’s the first step in getting started?

The first step is to take stock of where you are and embrace the power of place. Often, we try to imprint this idea of a garden on the land rather than cultivate plantings that reflect the nature of place. The soil, contours of the topography, weather, climatic trends, natural history, and land use within the last 100 years all influence our gardening success. These should be our starting ground. 

Some might associate “natural” gardens with “wild” and “unplanned,” but that’s not necessarily the concept.

Not at all. In fact, I hope people might achieve a greater nature in gardens through very careful planning and thought. Understanding place is only the first step. Understanding plants and making thoughtful decisions about how to relate them to each other and the site’s conditions will determine the trajectory of the planting over time. The capacity for gardens to change and evolve with time is actually the source of our greatest art. Plants respond and adapt to place, and will no doubt surprise us.  

Can you create this kind of garden even if you only have a balcony or small patio?

Absolutely. No matter the space you have, you can take steps towards resiliency with smarter planting choices that do more for your environment’s greater ecology, whether that’s urban or rural. Nature isn’t really something we have to coax closer to our existence. We exist within nature, if even sometimes by the barest threads. Small gardens can act as little stitches that connect plants in gardens to larger green spaces like parks, public gardens, and wild areas.

What are some of your favorite plants?

I love grasses—they are the most economically and ecologically important family on the planet. They are hugely diverse, and nearly every ecosystem on earth features at least some species performing fairly fundamental ecosystem services. Building gardens from these sturdy foundations help relate them to the local ecology. 

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.