I am regularly asked by garden publishers why native plant gardens are a mess, and I must say, too often they are right – but native plant gardens don’t have to be a design wreck. Some native plant gardens are simply a hodgepodge collection of plants with no design considerations, but it is also true that we need to change our expectations of beauty. The aesthetic we see in many published garden photograph is too often dominated by an assumption of neatness infused by a European formalism.
Don’t get me wrong, I love gardens with strong geometry. I have absolutely no problem with highly architectural gardens where design is imposed into or onto the landscape, where human statements, whether subtle or bold define a garden. There is majesty and thoughtful provocation in many great gardens. But native plants are usually not important to the design in formal gardens. Too often, the grander the garden, the stronger statement it makes about human control over the landscape.
At the dawn of garden design we tamed the landscape, we walled off nature. Moorish, Japanese, Italian, French, and English gardens all sought control over the wild, which made perfect sense in an age when the world was scary, in a time before man dominated. Now that we are coming close to destroying Mother Earth, naturalism must come back. Man is no longer afraid of nature, indeed we are afraid of what we are doing to it, and need the wild to come back.
Native plant gardens are springing up everywhere we garden. Our small gardens may not be enough to solve global warming as the Third World continues to struggle with survival and subsistence, and population pressures force an exponential depletion of resources, but we need to get back to working with the earth not dominating it.
Good gardens can help us, they can be oases. Many of the gardens we see in publications are contrived, private worlds of lifestyle, lawns, and leisure – which is fine on a human level but gardens can also be oases for nature. Gardens with native plants are particularly important as oasis, as ways to preserve and connect our developed towns and cities to the landscapes they are built on.
Gardens are more than safe havens for humans, more than carbon sequestration tools allowing plants to heal the earth, they connect us to the native soils and habitats, they offer homes to birds and bees, worms and microbes.
Is it any wonder I advocate for native plants ? Native plants are, well, native – they are the natural connection a garden has to its place and the easiest plants to grow. They are adapted to drought, to local temperature extremes, and native soils. They connect to the natural beauty of their surroundings and help us appreciate where we live.
For all these emotional reasons natives are beautiful. So why are they too often not considered aesthetically beautiful in gardens, especially the summer-dry West where I live ? A big part of it can be explained because so many Westerners are not native themselves, and have immigrated from greener climates. That unfamiliarity with the natural beauty is compounded by the modern phenomena of children spending too much time indoors – a nature deficit disorder. Young people don’t appreciate the natural beauty because it is not ingrained into their early experiences of the out of doors.
The beauty of natives is then lost on those who are not connected to native habitat. When new gardeners look for inspiration they go to what is portrayed in the media, a media dominated by publishers outside the West, to styles that are not sustainable or practical. I want to change that.
For better or worse, published photographs validate a garden aesthetic. If we want gardeners to appreciate native plant gardens, publishers need to show them – and they need beautiful examples. But in a garden media dominated by the East Coast, Western gardens often don’t fit. Their beauty seems exotic and unusual, and plants from summer-dry climates often don’t do well in other climates.
So we have come to a vicious circle where gardeners new to the West don’t appreciate the summer-dry landscape and the ones that do can’t find good examples in the gardening books. No wonder we don’t see very many native plant gardens – there are simply not that many, and the ones we do find are often simple collections by native plant enthusiasts without a garden design or structure.
However that does not mean there are no beautiful native plant gardens, indeed as alluded to earlier, the beauty is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. There is great beauty in appropriate gardens that are oases of habitat and reflect the sometimes spare look of the summer-dry climate.
The most photogenic gardens use natives in classic design situations, with purpose and style. The best gardens also use plants from other summer-dry climates. While I am certainly in awe of those gardeners who use only natives, I for one, could not do without daffodils, and the salvias, thymes, lavenders, and oreganos in my garden are both ornamental and useful.
Indeed, many plants from other summer-dry climates prosper here, and as gardeners get more sophisticated with their use, the “look” of a water wise garden changes. I am hoping that look uses many more natives. I have become accustomed to their beauty and intend to publish as many gardens as I can find so that other can become accustomed too.
I think we need to accept that beauty is not in the conquest of plants, molding them into a human structure, but naturalism is beauty in itself. When we look at a healthy habitat garden full of native plants, we should see the beauty within and be glad.
When I see a garden full of natives, I don’t see a mess, I see beauty.
I confess I do look for gardens that incorporate design elements, hardscape, and plant combinations that only a gardener could have put together. They make better photographs. While I am enamored by the plants, I am in awe of gardeners who use plants to in ways to make me think.
The garden above uses only native plants endemic to Contra Costa County, a very severe limitation for any gardener. But the double border, separated by a brick path, using repetitive colors and thoughtful use of plant heights gives enough order to the plantings so that it looks like a garden.
There is no doubt though that many homeowners want some formalism and a more controlled look. Fortunately, gardeners are learning that native plants can pruned and massed together as design elements.
Individual plants can become focal points.
And well chosen natives can be neat and orderly as well as practical.
A key point in all these beautiful gardens is the plants are healthy and well maintained. While I love the look of naturalism, gardens are constructed. Plants are often planted more densely than the wild and we tend to want them to look vigorous and tidy. The art of gardening is knowing each plant’s special traits and cultural needs, and then combining them in attractive settings for our enjoyment.
Mulching and pruning is important to all gardens; just because a plant is native does not mean it will look great in a garden setting without help. While they may survive without any supplemental water, careful irrigation will keep plants looking healthy. While there is no need for extra fertilizers, mulching with composted green waste adds the nutrients a densely planted garden uses up.
Learning to garden with natives presumes learning to garden in general. While some good gardeners don’t know how to use natives, some good native plant people don’t understand gardening.
We are all learning; gardening with native plants is still a young movement. It is an exciting time to be a gardener and a photographer. The times, they are a changing’. We get to redefine beauty.