Home My garden Naturalistic planting in a small garden

Naturalistic planting in a small garden

Naturalistic planting - sweet rocket, Welsh poppies, Alliums with Euphorbia wulfenii and backed by Weigela variegata Florida
Naturalistic planting - sweet rocket, Welsh poppies, Alliums with Euphorbia wulfenii and backed by Weigela variegata Florida

Blog extra: Go for a mix of native plants and self-seeders for an easy, tranquil display that wildlife will love…

If you’ve been watching the Virtual Chelsea TV programmes this year, you’ll have heard a lot of talk about naturalistic planting – but what exactly does that mean?

It’s basically the exact opposite of a formal garden and instead of neat, staked and clipped plants in traditional borders, the look is wild, with plants merrily growing into each other – annuals, biennials, herbaceous perennials and shrubs.

Paths and hard landscaping are soft – gravel is good (and cheap) and plants can merrily self-seed into it. Roughly mown grass tracks also work well.

You may have heard of the term prairie planting, pioneered by designer Piet Oudolf, using grasses and herbaceous perennials native to the Great Plains of the US – Echinacea, Rudbeckia and the like.

What about small urban or suburban gardens?

Trouble is, this type of gardening looks best on a grand scale in areas with full sun (funnily enough, just like the plains) – in smaller urban or suburban gardens with part shade, plants grow too floppy and need staking, ruining the effect.

So what to do? Easy – use native plants as much as possible in a setting where they would grow naturally. To use my garden as an example, it has a large beech and hawthorn hedge right round it.

This creates the effect of a woodland clearing, with plants in part shade but getting anything from one to six hours of direct sunlight in summer.

I have one area – about 7ft x 7ft – that faces east and is backed by the hedge. It’s awkward to reach and that was the main reason (ahem) for letting it go a bit wild.

Easy-going shrubs

Running into the hedge are three old shrubs:

  • Weigela variegata Florida (pink flowers, cream-edged foliage)
  • Pyracantha Orange Glow (evergreen, cream flowers, orange berries)
  • Berberis darwinii (dark evergreen leaves, orange flowers and black berries).

In front of these is a random assortment of mostly native  biennial self-seeders which I tweak occasionally if they get too out of hand:

  • Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis): Up to 90cm, clusters of flowers in white or lilac.
  • Welsh poppy (Papaver cambricum): Up to 50cm tall, bright yellow flowers.
  • Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum): Up to 3m tall with great seedheads.
  • Wild carrot (Daucus carota): Up to 75cm, large white umbrella-like flowers.
  • Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea): 1m, mostly the wild purple and occasionally white sort, often joined by Candy Mountain and Summer King.
  • Echium pininana (not a native but it’s made itself at home): Up to 4m if you’re lucky.
  • Allium (Ornamental onions): Up to 1m, leftovers from a previous planting scheme.

No need for staking

The beauty of this random mixture is that growing so tightly together, they hold each other up, removing the need for staking.

They also start to flower in May, going right through the summer, hiding the dying foliage of the Sweetness daffodils and Arum italicum Marmoratum and taking over from the massive lime heads of Euphorbia wulfenii.

Even if you’ve never grown anything before, these plants are a doddle. Buy a ready-mixed packet of seeds from your garden centre or mail-order seed company – they can be sown directly into the soil (I have a shady annual mix from Chiltern Seeds I haven’t got around to sowing yet).

They’ll even give you a good show in a large pot if you don’t have a garden. One final bonus – nearly all these plants are magnets to wildlife – what’s not to love?

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Mandy Watson is a freelance journalist and an incurable plantaholic. MandyCanUDigIt grew from the tiny seed of a Twitter account into the rainforest of information you see before you. Gardening columnist for the Sunderland Echo, Shields Gazette and Hartlepool Mail and editor of the Teesdale Mercury Magazine. Attracted by anything rebellious, exotic and nerdy, even after all these years. Passionate about northern England and gardens everywhere. Falls over a lot.

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