Natural landscaping: a universal remedy?

Climate change, conservation concerns and Covid-19 are just some of the challenges changing the way landscapers and architects plan environments. The importance of green spaces for mental health was highlighted by the pandemic, while alarming declines in number of native wild birds, animals and insect life make biodiversity and sustainability a priority in many projects. Enter natural landscaping and re-wilding.

Creating ‘natural’ landscapes is hardly a new concept, although it is partly conflated with the modern term, ‘re-wilding’. For specifiers, landscape architects and soft landscapers, utilising both traditional and contemporary natural landscaping techniques must be balanced against practical considerations, including budget, time scales and maintenance. The required functionality and aesthetic of a specific project will guide the extent to which there is freedom to re-wild – but it is perfectly possible to incorporate both formal and naturalistic elements to maximise the health benefits (both human and ecological) in any given environment.

Formal and informal elements can be combined to create a natural landscape for any brief.

What is natural landscaping?

Natural landscapes are planned and created on the guiding principle of working in partnership with nature. English plantsman William Robinson published The Wild Garden in 1870, and his plant-driven approach formed the foundation for natural landscaping, which has since evolved in various directions. In contemporary planting design, natural landscaping has taken on a bold and modern goal – to re-wild urban environments.

The juxtaposition of strong structural design features and wild elements can actually be a great strength

A naturalistic landscape is multi-purpose by nature, able to feed both ecosystems and souls. It can adapt to support the biodiversity of almost any local habitat. Plants are grouped together en masse by common habitat, creating mini ecosystems. This style of landscaping is also highly flexible, working in almost any garden style and with any hardscaping.

In contrast to traditional soft landscaping, the aesthetic emphasis is on structure and form rather than colour, and plants are selected for their hardiness and longevity. Cross-seasonal colour or structure (in the form of architectural seed heads, for instance) is also highly valued. Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf calls these ‘plants that die elegantly.’

Generally, a naturalistic design will favour perennials closer to the original species than highly bred cultivars. These tend to have a higher foliage and stem to flower ratio and  more untamed forms. This may not be suitable for more formal projects, of course, but this does not need to be an obstacle. The juxtaposition of strong structural design features and wild elements can actually be a great strength.

How is a natural landscape planned?

Most natural habitats are comprised of layers of plants and therefore this is a core principle of naturalistic landscape design. Dynamic ecosystems are carefully planned, grouping plants by common habitat in multiple layers. You will need to consider a minimum of three layers – ground cover, companion plants and structural – but depending on the environment others may be added too:

  • Structural layer: trees, shrubs, taller perennials and grasses
  • Companion plant layer: mid-sized theme plants
  • Ground cover layer: dense planting of low-level, spreading plants helps to suppress weeds and retain moisture, acting as a living mulch
  • Vertical layer: Climbers and vines to run up fences, shrubs, and trees, creating ‘living walls’
  • Filler layer: annuals and biennials can be added for seasonal interest, usually in an informal pattern

Layers are densely planted, so that they knit together, preventing weed growth and providing a rich environment for invertebrates. Within layers, a specifier or architect will need to choose plants carefully to ensure a mix of fine and coarse foliage (and probably also considering colour palette and a range of leaf shapes).

How to plant a natural landscape

Perennials and grasses should be planted in small clusters and intermingled with one another, to create a sense of spontaneous flow. Aim for a range of textures and heights – a few taller architectural flowers can be used to great effect. Incorporate a range of flower shapes, from spires, spikes and plumes to globes, buttons and umbels.  

Vines are a simple addition for re-wilding. They can disguise manmade elements, by tumbling untamed over fences or walls, and look delightfully informal when rambling across a pergola.

Even in small landscapes, size and scale are key to success, since a plethora of small plants will create an over-fussy effect. Consider the textural effects possible with particular plants and how they may be utilised in your brief. A solid screen of ornamental grasses could be used to section off an area of the landscape, or a transparent curtain of grasses may be used for a softer transition between zones.

Aim to select as many native plants as possible, looking closely at their attributes. Take into account their shape, flowering season and ‘afterlife’ (in the form of seed pods, berries and so on). From a conversation point of view, considering a plant’s value to wildlife is also a salient consideration – look for plants that attract pollinators like bees and butterflies in particular.

Attracting wildlife

Wildflower meadows are a great place to start when planning for a wildlife-friendly landscape. Avoid any formal rows, and instead lay out single varieties of perennials or grasses in groups of three or five plants. The larger the drifts of one plant, the more untamed the meadow garden will appear.

Wildflower meadows are a popular and attractive method of re-wilding.

The use of a variety of plants, which flower and fruit in different seasons, is key to sustaining wildlife. Trees and hedgerows are fantastic habitats and food sources for birds and insects, and the richer the ground cover, the more invertebrates will be available to attract mammals. Aim to use as many native varieties as possible.

Your aim in a naturalistic landscape is to blend style and function with a celebration of nature left to its own devices

Hard landscaping and formal elements

In a naturalistic landscape, materials such as gravel, local stone and wood blend in well when used for fences, walls, walkways and other hardscaping elements.

Simple water features fit in well with naturalistic-style gardens, adding sensory attraction with their soothing sounds and aesthetic. They can also provide a vital water source for birds and insects. Remember to plant shrubs to provide shelter nearby, and ensure there are shallow sections, for maximum wildlife value. Primulas and hostas create a gentle, natural feel to a water margin.

Understated gravel pathways are a fantastic choice for a naturalistic landscape, as they enable the eye to focus more on the beds than the walkway and allow for sinuous curves rather than straight lines. The organic appearance can be amplified by softening the gravel border billowy plants that overspill their beds.

This curving gravel path is further softened by overflowing plants,
while a colour scheme ties the design together.

Getting started

Your aim in a naturalistic landscape is to blend style and function with a celebration of nature left to its own devices. Below are some simple suggestions that can easily be incorporated into naturalistic landscapes to delight the eye, provide an atmosphere of tranquillity, and allow ecosystems to flourish.

  • Plan clear structural hardscape ‘bones’ – elegantly curving walkways and borders, stone terraces, low-walled beds, water features, pergolas and so on.
  • Make a focal point by planting concentric rings of contrasting grasses, for a structured yet wild effect.
  • Incorporate stylised horticultural features such as shaped ornamental trees and hedging, a row of pleached trees, an arboretum or a ‘wind garden’ of gently swishing grasses.
  • Use colour themes for various zones to tie the landscape together.
  • Try a low clipped lavender hedge for a semi-formal boundary marker that is attractive to pollinators.
  • For a brief requiring greater formality, use boxwood balls or topiary trees alongside untrained shrub roses for a stunning juxtaposition of formal and informal elements.

If you need any further advice or information about incorporating naturalistic elements into a landscape, our experts will be happy to help. While the scope of planning can seem daunting in terms of thoroughly understanding how plants interact, there is also great freedom and flexibility in a naturalistic design. This trend is sure to let architects and landscapers flex their creative muscles – yet another boon for a landscaping style that boasts such a host of benefits to people and environment alike.

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