Naturalistic, perennial and wildlife friendly gardens have now entered the established lexicon of garden design.
Deceptively simple, these seemingly spontaneous spaces are the results of a carefully cultivated (pardon the pun) sense of proportion, a knowledge of garden history and a passionate interest in horticulture.
The natural approach to gardening can be traced back to the Victorian gardener and friend of Gertrude Jekyll, without whom borders as we know and love them would simply not exist, William Robinson. A tetchy and formidable man, Robinson argued against carpet bedding, which he referred to as a “false and hideous art”. Instead he favoured a looser mixture of perennials, shrubs and climbers in the border; a concept unheard of at the time.
This is not the place for a systematic history of gardening, so let’s fast forward to the 1980s. Here we meet Piet Oudolf, a Dutch designer and plantsman, whose own gardens at Hummelo in the Netherlands kick-started another wave of influential naturalistic and perennial planning. This became known as the ‘New Perennial Style’.
Oudolf himself is inspired by three sources: nature, art, and time. These three concepts are interweaved in his garden to create astonishingly complex planting plans, resulting in gardens which are truly timeless and which have a continuous season of interest.
There are no dead or forlorn periods in an Oudolf garden, they simply change their aesthetic. These gardens refocused the direction of gardening to include respect for wildlife and the attraction of insects which, in turn, attracted birds back into the garden. Seed heads are left on perennials and shrubs to act as food and shelter during the winter months, an act that was previously unthinkable. The inclusion of grasses and native plants into the garden plans broadened at a stroke the palette from which garden designer draws inspiration. Oudolf almost single handedly changed the way we think about gardening and what a garden could be.
A great friend and collaborator of Oudolf is Dr Noel Kingsbury. This extract from his website provides an indication of his approach:
People were wanting wildflowers, but often had a hopelessly romantic notion of what that meant. The fact is that we (in Britain) have very few garden-worthy native plants. Indeed, we have a pretty restricted native flora anyway, so I began to be interested in combining natives and non-natives, in combinations which would require minimal intervention from the gardener.
1994 was the year everything changed. I went to Brazil, and met the great Roberto Burle Marx, and to the US where I formed a friendship with James van Sweden. But seeing what was happening in Germany was a revelation, where gardeners and landscape architects were learning from this incredibly rich tradition of Pflanzensoziologie.
Places like Westpark in Munich just blew me away. All the plants there were familiar but used in totally different ways, all informed by ecological science. This was also the year I met Piet Oudolf in Holland, whose combination of real architectural design with a passion for plants has continued to be an inspiration.
Dr Kingsbury studied for his PhD in long-term perennial planting at Sheffield University, a world centre for the integration of ecology, landscape and horticulture. There he continues to lecture and inspire through his planting, gardens and publications.
Arne Maynard is a garden designer who works with the surrounding landscapes in order to produce a strong “sense of place”; a direct relationship or harmony between house, garden, and wider landscape. This is unsurprising, as he originally trained as an architect. Equally unsurprising is that he too has collaborated with Piet Oudolf. He tries to use indigenous plants wherever possible, lifting the “wilderness” by interspersing topiary and pollarding to dramatic effect.
He lives at Allt-y-bela, a medieval renaissance tower house cradled in a Welsh valley between grazed and wooded hillsides. It could not be a more dramatically different setting to his previous garden, which was in the flat fenland of Lincolnshire. Here he has used a restricted palette of his favourite elements – fruit trees and vegetables, topiary and wild flowers, roses and bulbs – but had to evolve a very different way of planting them to suit the garden:
I found my beloved symmetrical formality was at odds with the house and landscape and so I have been prompted to develop exciting new ways of designing. My topiary here are like characters at a party, congregating around the house, and bold new sculpted banks at the back of the house are amassed with jewel like bulbs in long grass. Roses will tumble out of trees and the vegetables are tended in raised oak beds that sit in a simple, almost naive, oak and hazel enclosure.
Tom Stuart-Smith’s interest lie in “landscapes that offer a rich and multi-layered experience – places with an emotional depth that derives from the ideas behind their design.”
Juxtaposition and contrast, simplicity and complexity, the modern and the romantic, subtle intervention and decisive statement.
Our work has a richness of form and texture which belies the economy of means by which this is achieved.
As with all of the designers discussed here, Tom Stuart-Smith begins by looking at ways to develop the relationships between people, buildings, the garden and the surrounding landscape, including the extension of habitat for established wildlife.
As evidenced through their website and the many books in which their work has appeared, the practice follows an ethic of sustainability and seeks to increase the ecological diversity and richness of any landscape in which they work. They use local materials wherever they can and select plants fitted to their surroundings, which will endure over time. They are particularly interested in planting schemes inspired by plant communities as they occur in natural and semi-natural landscapes.
As important as these principles is the idea of the garden as a place that quietly articulates emotions and ideas. The designer’s role is to set the scene without imposing a story. A garden should not bind its inhabitants to a narrow vision. Rather we want to make it a place of imaginative possibility.
This is particularly noticeable in the garden they designed at Broughton Grange, where the clipped topiary is directly in scale with trees seen across the valley and the garden is a sort of “compressed microcosm” of the landscape, feeling both completely natural and absolutely designed in equal parts.
Christopher Bradley-Hole and Brita von Schoenaich formed Bradley-Hole Shoenaich Landscape Architects (BHSLA) in order to provide design services – including ecological and sustainable considerations and recommendations – within the context of usually large-scale contemporary landscapes.
The practice begins by strengthening the relationship between the building and its surroundings. The BHSLA approach is to create landscapes with mathematically precise proportioning systems aligned to a underpinning philosophy of pure space. This rigorous approach leads to a clear expression of form which is entirely in keeping with the associated architecture. The detailing of key elements within the garden reflect, wherever possible, the detailing of the architecture.
Their extensive horticultural expertise then allows ecological and environmental considerations to add richness to the landscape, in many cases creating a better habitat for wildlife than previously existed.
Sarah Price believes that the best gardens are beautiful places that elevate the senses and inspire deeper connections with the natural world. Her work begins with a sensitivity to the specificities of location: the climate, ecology, history, and culture of both the site and its wider surroundings.
She likes to keep hard landscaping to a minimum. Instead sje uses plant forms for the underlying structure that is essential to the garden’s atmosphere, describing her work as “gardening in the round.” Rather than offering pre-formulated, static views, she believes that gardens should invite active engagement and exploration.
Her work evokes memories of idyllic landscapes teeming with wildlife and wild plants. She begins the design process by studying the natural habitats around the site. This is a passion that she indulges by going on walking holidays, often alone, to study wild areas around the world.
She identifies plants that like to grow near each other and looks at natural distribution patterns. She then draws cross-sections of her proposed design, incorporating spires, domes, dots and other shapes, checking for balance and non-uniformity. She says that “variety is the key to an interesting composition,” a philosophy she applied to great effect when designing the Olympic Park gardens.
Finally, I would like to close with a list of wildlife-friendly plants courtesy of Dorset Wildlife Trust. Even a few of these in a garden – whether your own or your client’s – will, collectively, make a huge impact on wildlife diversity, extending the range and number of “visiting” creatures that make a garden so delightful with their movement and sounds. They also, of course, attract birds into the garden, without whose song a garden is never complete.
Early season nectar plants
* Aubretia (Aubretia)
* Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)
* Grape hyacinth (Muscari botryoides)
* Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp)
* Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
* Sweet violet (Viola odorata)
* Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri)
* Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)
* Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)
* Yellow alyssum (Alyssum saxitile)
Mid season nectar plants
* Buddleia (Buddleja davidii)
* Heather (Calluna vulgaris)
* Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)
* Lavender (Lavendula spp)
* Mallow (Lavatera spp)
* Purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea)
* Rock cress (Arabis caucasica)
* Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum)
* Verbena (Verbena bonariensis)
Late season nectar plants
* Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
* French marigold (Tagetes spp)
* Golden rod (Solidago candensis)
* Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp)
* Ice plant (Sedum spectabile)
* Ivy (Hedera helix)
* Meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale)
* Michaelmas daisies (Aster novi-belgii)
* Perennial sunflower (Helianthus spp)
* Red valerian (Centranthus rubra)
Evening nectar plants
* Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
* Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)
* Night scented stock (Matthiola longipetala)
* Tobacco plant (Nicotiana spp)
* White campion (Silene latifolia)
Herbs are great for attracting a variety of insects in the garden, such as day-flying moths and hoverflies.
* Angelica (Angelica spp)
* Borage (Borago officinalis)
* Catmint (Nepeta spp)
* Chives (Allium shoenoprasam)
* Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
* Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
* Mint (Mentha spp)
* Rosemary (Rosmarimus officinalis)
* Thyme (Thymus spp)
* Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)
Butterfly and moth larval food plants
We love to see butterflies, but we would not have them without their caterpillars. So why not try planting some of the following to help them out:
* Alder buckthorn – brimstone butterfly
* Birds foot trefoil – for dingy skipper butterflies and burnet moths
* Common nettle – for red admiral, comma, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies
* Cuckoo flower – for green-veined white butterfly
* Garlic mustard – Orange tip butterfly
* Grasses – speckled wood butterfly
* Holly and ivy – holly blue butterfly
* Rosebay willowherb – elephant hawkmoth
* Thistles – painted lady butterfly
Tom Stuart-Smith: Berkshire Garden [Online Image]. Available from: http://www.tomstuartsmith.co.uk/projects/private-gardens/berkshire-garden [Accessed 08/03/16]
Planting Plan by Piet Oudolf [Online Image]. Available from: http://oudolf.com/process-of-making [Accessed 11/03/16]
Piet Oudolf Garden at Hummelo [Online Image]. Available from: http://oudolf.com [Accessed 08/03/16]
Piet Oudolf Garden at Hummelo; Winter [Online Image]. Available from: http://oudolf.com [Accessed 08/03/16]
Piet Oudolf Garden at Hummelo; Summer [Online Image]. Available from: http://oudolf.com [Accessed 08/03/16]
Noel Kingsbury’s Garden I [Online Image]. Available from: https://wellywoman.wordpress.com/tag/noel-kingsbury [Accessed 08/03/16]
Noel Kingsbury’s Garden II [Online Image]. Available from: http://www.noelkingsbury.com/57/The_Garden.aspx [Accessed 08/03/16]
Noel Kingsbury; Bexhill-on-Sea, Promenade [Online Image]. Available from: [Accessed 08/03/16]
Arne Maynard: Devon Farmhouse [Online Image]. Available from: http://arnemaynard.com [Accessed 08/03/16]
Arne Maynard [Online Image]. Available from: http://arnemaynard.com [Accessed 08/03/16]
Arne Maynard’s Own Garden: Allt-y-Bela [Online Image]. Available from: http://arnemaynard.com [Accessed 08/03/16]
Tom Stuart-Smith: Broughton Grange [Online Image]. Available from: http://www.tomstuartsmith.co.uk/projects/private-gardens [Accessed 08/03/16]
Tom Stuart-Smith: Norfolk Garden [Online Image]. Available from: http://www.tomstuartsmith.co.uk/projects/private-gardens/norfolk-garden [Accessed 08/03/16]
Bradley-Hole Schoenaich Landscape Architects (BHLSA) [Online Image]. Available from: http://www.bhsla.co.uk [Accessed 09/03/16]
BHSLA: Crockmore House [Online Image]. Available from: http://www.bhsla.co.uk [Accessed 09/03/16]
BHSLA: North House [Online Image]. Available from: http://www.bhsla.co.uk [Accessed 09/03/16]
Sarah Price: Garsington [Online Image]. Available from: http://sarahpricelandscapes.com/?page_id=56 [Accessed 09/03/16]
Sarah Price: Olympic Gardens – North America [Online Image]. Available from: http://sarahpricelandscapes.com/?page_id=12 [Accessed 09/03/16]
Sarah Price: The Chain [Online Image]. Available from: http://sarahpricelandscapes.com [Accessed 09/03/16]