Natural gardening: It’s not about growing weeds. And it’s not just about ‘going organic’ either. Rather, natural gardening can be simply expressed as gardening and garden making in tune with nature. Gardens billowing with naturalistic ‘new-perennial’ prairie-like planting – the key landscape design trend in the last 20 years – might spring to mind but nowadays many sleek and sharp, formal or modernist garden designs embrace a more natural approach.
1. Natural inspiration:
Plant according to the garden, not the gardener, is the ethos at the heart of the natural garden and looking to nature will provide inspiration and a template to follow. For damp shade embrace woodland plants and those that grow on woodland margins. For hot sunny slopes consider Mediterranean plants like rosemary, juniper, bay and sage – plants with silvery or blue-grey leaves that have naturally adapted to such conditions. Waterlogged soil? Choose wetland plants! Work with the characteristics of your garden, not against them. Not only will your planting design visually sit more comfortably, but also happy plants are healthy plants and inevitably suffer fewer pests and diseases.
2. Go Native:
Native plants have never been more popular; the show gardens at Chelsea and Hampton Court this year were full of them. Why? They’re tough, easy to grow, easy to raise (usually from seed), and provide food and valuable habitats for wildlife. Using them also helps preserve our threatened plant heritage and of course they’re ideal if you want a more relaxed, natural looking design. Favourites include spiky teasels (Dipsacus), gunmetal coloured cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium), hardy cranesbills (like Geranium sanguineum and G. pratense) and valerian (Centranthus ruber) in particular. Quick to colonise poor soils and sunny walls – especially near the coast – valerian’s red, pink or white flowers are stunning and last for ages. Like many natives it can spread tenaciously but I rather like this, as rogue seedlings are easy to control. At home I’ve planted it with dusty miller (Cerastium tomentosum) Macedonian scabious (Knautia macedonica), orpine (Sedum ‘Matrona’) and blond feather grass, (Stipa tenuissima).
3. Just add water:
Ponds and pools are essential in the natural garden, being a magnet for newts, toads, dragonflies, birds and mammals. The bigger the pond, the better. Wildlife ponds made using a butyl liner topped with earth or upturned grass turves (to hide the edge of the liner) are easy to create (look online for instructions). Be sure to allow plenty of space for planting around the outside so animals and insects can find protection and shelter. And at least one shallow slope is essential so visitors can get in and out easily. A semi-sunny position away from dense deciduous trees is best or leaves will spoil the water in autumn. Plants have a key part to play in enticing visitors. Deep-water plants and marginals like yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) planted on the boggy fringes provide food and refuge for pond life. If the soil outside the pond is dry choose plants with similar characteristics like eulalia (Miscanthus sinensis) that will cope with drier conditions, but won’t look out of place.
4. Meadow marvel:
Large lawns are a pain to mow so why not let part of the sward grow long and create your own mini-meadow? It can look great, especially when creatively dissected and defined by mown pathways. This won’t just cut back on mowing time, but also encourage wildlife. If you fancy a wildflower meadow – rather then a long-grass meadow – either plant some wildflower plug plants throughout or sow one from scratch. There are plenty of suppliers online selling special seed blends, just pick with your soil type and aspect in mind.
5. Cut back on chemicals:
Pesticides don’t discriminate; they kill both beneficial wildlife as well as pests like the whitefly you’re trying to eradicate. There are plenty of natural alternatives available. Choose natural biological controls instead of insecticides, thick mulch instead of weedkiller. Never use slug pellets containing metaldehyde – they’re deadly poisonous to cats, dogs and birds. For me copper slug rings and Growing Success Organic Slug are effective alternatives.
6. Love your soil:
Add lots of compost and/or well-rotted manure when planting to get plants off to the perfect start. Mulch regularly with compost or composted bark every spring and autumn to condition the soil and top up background fertility levels too. A 6-8cm thick layer is ideal.
7. Delight in decay:
Leave some parts of the garden untidy; nature likes it messy not neat and tidy. Gather piles of leaves in odd undisturbed corners and collect, rather than burn, logs and branches (if they’re not diseased). You’ll encourage thousands of insects, not to mention foraging birds. Hedgehogs find such spots irresistible as a place to hibernate.
8. Bring in the birds:
Keep the hordes happy and top up feeders and bird tables regularly, especially in winter when natural foods are scarce. Some birds only feed on the ground; blackbirds, wrens and collared doves will pick up bits that drop from feeders above. Put out food especially for them. Grow berrying shrubs too – firethorn (Pyracantha), cotoneaster, mahonia and holly, which are all loved by birds, and offer protection from predators. Hedges and climbers (especially ivy) make perfect camouflaged nesting sites too so don’t trim them during the nesting season, instead do this overwinter. Trees are perhaps best of all, providing both food and shelter for a staggering range of different birds, animals and insects. Even in tiny gardens there are plenty of options available.
9. The Bees Needs:
Lavender, Michaelmas daisies (Aster), golden rod (Solidago) and butterfly bush (Buddleja), to name but a few, all attract bees, butterflies and aphid-eating hoverflies. Simple open-faced flowers are best; avoid highly bred cultivars with big, blowsy or double flowers, most of which contain little or no pollen or nectar, nor allow insects easy access. For a huge list of plants perfect for pollinators check out the following link on the Royal Horticultural Society website – www.rhs.org.uk/science/pdf/conservation-and biodiversity/wildlife/rhs_pollinators_plantlist.
10. Compost is key:
The compost heap is a key source of food and shelter for numerous insects, invertebrates and hedgehogs, and compost is prime in sustaining the natural garden. Lawn clippings, hedge trimmings, veg peelings, old egg boxes, leaves (in moderation), shredded newspaper, even the contents of the vacuum cleaner can all be composted. Only cooked food, meat, cat & dog faeces, and magazines should be avoided. It takes time to build up stocks of suitable materials so perhaps buy peat-free multipurpose from your local garden centre while you wait. The bins themselves can be uncomplicated pallet structures secured with thick wire, clever-but-costly compost tumblers (ideal if rats are a problem) or just an old carpet covering a pile behind the shed. For the style conscious, or those with small gardens where everything’s on show, ‘beehive’ composters come in various colours. Even if you only have a tiny courtyard or basement garden you can try a wormery or Bokashi bin.