Naturalistic style - BOLD VISIONS, GREAT DESIGNS - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Bold Visions, Great Designs

Naturalistic style


Ornamental grasses, such as Miscanthus, Panicum and Stipa, are key elements of naturalistic planting styles, the yellow daisies of Rudbeckia, pink Echinacea and gold Achillea enlivening summer designs.


INSPIRED BY NATURE, gardens created in the Naturalistic style mirror wild landscapes, blending swathes of colourful flowers and textural grasses. Designs complement large, country gardens but can also provide solutions for smaller urban sites, using a palette of carefully chosen robust plants.

Evoking nature

Since their introduction in the early 1990s, naturalistic styles have been adopted by many designers and become mainstream in gardens large and small. ‘New naturalism’, as it is sometimes known, is a movement influenced by natural plant communities, particularly the steppe grasslands of central Europe and the American prairies, although temperate woodland, the Mediterranean garrigue and maquis, and the South African fynbos provide sources of inspiration in some designs. Meadow plantings are also popular, these flowery fields offering a solution for sunny gardens and orchards.

A recent cultural catalyst for the widespread adoption of naturalistic styles is public concern for society’s disconnection from nature and disregard for the ecological well-being of the planet and sustainable use of its resources. Threats to wildlife have also fuelled momentum, as gardens are now seen as essential habitats, with exotic plants, as well as native species, identified as important nectar sources for pollinating insects. In addition, current thinking supports the more sustainable plantings typical of this style, which require less energy to maintain and the use of fewer or no pesticides.

Hallmarks of the style are drifts of flowering perennial plants that possess a wild, natural look. When massed together, they form ethereal dreamscapes of colour, often diffused with ornamental grasses, their plumes of filamentous flowers misting the effect, especially in late summer and autumn. The principle is to create stylised versions of natural plant communities, rather than slavishly copying them, which would be very difficult to achieve.

Designs are composed of plants that come from similar habitats around the world to those being evoked, which won’t flop or need staking. The planting palette is tightly tuned to suit the physical soil conditions and scale of the garden, with larger, more vigorous varieties used in extensive schemes, and less aggressive, more demure plants employed for intimate assemblages in domestic spaces. Plant knowledge is the key, and the most successful schemes are generally designed by experienced practitioners.

Natural evolution

The Naturalistic movement has its roots in the Heempark at Amstelveen in Holland, developed by conservationist and author Jac P Thijsse in the first half of the 20th century. Thijsse was concerned about the loss of native Dutch flora and developed a series of public parks using these plants in extensive stylised plantings. Scientists and researchers also helped formulate a better understanding of how plants perform in communities. German botanist Richard Hansen developed the now-famous research gardens at Weihenstephan in Munich from 1947 and, with Friedrich Stahl, published the seminal study Perennials and their Garden Habitats in 1991. At the nearby Westpark, designer Rosemarie Weisse used these principles to transform a disused gravel pit in the 1980s.

Dutch designer, plantsman and pioneer of the naturalistic style, Piet Oudolf, popularised this form of planting in the late 1980s and 1990s, and introduced a range of exciting new varieties which he has used in many major projects, including the Highline in New York, Scampston in North Yorkshire, and Skärholmen in Sweden, as well as his own garden at Hummelo in the Netherlands. In the United States, the late landscape architects, James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oheme, are widely recognised as the founders of the new American garden style, which combines drought-tolerant perennials from the prairies to create sustainable naturalistic designs.

Developing the style

The term ‘naturalistic’ distinguishes this style from traditional, purely aesthetic designs, such as the herbaceous borders in country gardens. Instead of plants being ordered by height, with the tallest at the back and smallest in front, there is a diversity throughout the scheme, with the spires and plumes of tall plants emerging from a matrix of low-growing forms. The intention for the garden owner or visitor is to become immersed in the plantings, with informal pathways meandering or crisscrossing the floral spectacle, allowing plants to be viewed from different angles rather than from the front, like a picture in a gallery, as is the case with traditional borders.

The complement of plants also differs from the normal retinue of garden flora, with Echinacea, Persicaria and Veronicastrum, together with ornamental grasses, such as Miscanthus, Molinia and Stipa, playing a central role. While naturalistic landscapes are filled with flower colour from late spring to mid-autumn, in the colder months, the plants’ structural shapes and textures take the lead, their sere stems and seedheads providing interest throughout late autumn and winter, when they form landscapes with a completely different character.

In shaded sites, multi-stemmed trees or large shrubs with their lower branches pruned away are used to imitate coppiced woodland, with carpets of shade-tolerant flowers decorating the ground beneath.

The style is constantly being permutated, with new ideas making regular appearances at influential design shows worldwide. Schemes can be contrasted with contemporary architectural features and geometric topiary, or constrained in beds in minimalist designs where the unfettered plantings add exuberant piquancy.

Designing meadows

Popular features in many contemporary designs, meadows look spectacular in large, open gardens and orchards in countryside locations. Imposing when in full bloom and wildlife-friendly, meadows offer a design solution for gardens where regular lawn mowing is not economically sustainable or would be difficult because of the terrain, but where occasional rough cutting is feasible.

Some designers take a traditional approach and seek to emulate hay meadows, while others use Dr Nigel Dunnett’s model to create ‘Pictorial Meadows’. Dunnett has conducted groundbreaking research into plant communities at Sheffield University’s Department of Landscape, and developed a range of annual and perennial seed mixes that offer cost-effective plantings with long flowering seasons that require minimal maintenance.

Exciting effects can also be created by exploiting the contrast between mown turf and meadow. For example, Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith of Acres Wild have cut meadow plantings into geometric blocks, with mown pathways in between. Other designs include sinuous pathways meandering through a meadow of wild flowers to a secluded arbour, evoking a romantic idyll few can resist.

Wild flowers can be combined with more structural shrubs and trees to produce a range of exciting designs. Architectural box, holly or yew topiary dotted in swathes of wild flowers like giant chess pieces will create a dramatic picture, while obelisks made from metal or wood, supporting vigorous climbers such as roses, provide vertical punctuation points. You could also include modest plots of corn, paying homage to our agrarian culture - the contrast between architectural cubes of ripening corn and verdant mown turf creates a startling sight. In orchards, cowslips, primroses and red campion will cope with the dappled shade and draw in insects to pollinate the flowers and tree blossom.


The favourable climate of countries bordering the Mediterranean has for centuries drawn people to this region and gardens that represent these fair weather provinces have become increasingly popular.

Plants from the Mediterranean and countries that share the same climatic conditions, including the Californian coast, southern Mexico and parts of South Africa, have evolved distinctive characteristics to cope with the aridity. Adaptations to drought include hairy or felted leaves, narrow or filigree foliage, and compact or slender habits, while many spring bulbs become dormant in summer to escape the heat. Santolina, lavender, Cistus, and Agapanthus hail from the Mediterranean, and thrive in full sun and the poor, dry soils typical of the region. Cool, wet winters and rich soil will cause these plants to die, but digging grit into clay or planting in raised beds to improve drainage will increase success rates.

To create that ‘holiday abroad’ ambience, designers often include planting from the Mediterranean around swimming pools and patio areas, while walls and raised beds are built from rough-hewn or knapped stonework to lend an authentic look. Laying gravel or pebbles over the soil also helps to evoke the arid landscape. Old, gnarled olive trees, imported from abandoned orchards, imbue settings with a sense of maturity and structure, while the hardier palm trees and potted citrus bushes, which are easily brought undercover in winter, enrich the planting designs.


Mediterranean planting decorates this design by Andy Sturgeon


The wider landscape beyond this wild garden is reflected through relaxed use of perennials, such as fennel, alliums, and phlomis, and drifts of grasses.



Echoes of the Mediterranean infuse a scheme of low evergreen shrubs, including artemisia and lavender.



Sentinels of the upright grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ punctuate leafy ground cover.



Easy-care euphorbias, rosemary, sedum and blue Perovskia atriplicifolia throng a gravel pathway.



A range of grasses, including closely mown turf, long grass with model sheep, and beds of barley, combine to create a dramatic textural carpet.



Ox-eye daisies thrive in the sunny spots in orchards.



Perennials and annuals combine in an explosion of colour.




A naturalistic garden

The Meadow Garden at the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Japan is composed of an intricate balance of shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi developed the park to encourage a largely urbanised public to re-engage with the landscape and nature. Surrounded by forest and farmland at the foothills of the mountains, the growing season in this area is short, with snow in September and winter temperatures dipping to -25°C (-13°F). This garden is one of three developed by Dan Pearson on a five hectare site near the restaurant, and it is designed to provide a visual link with the landscape beyond. It combines a range of shrubs and 35,000 perennials that are related to and emulate the waves of plants that live together in the forest. The plants are mutually compatible, with balanced growth habits, and include tall species, such as Persicaria, Eryngium and Miscanthus, together with lower forms, including Astilbe, Gillenia, Salvia and Veronica.


Trained at RHS Garden Wisley and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Dan became a garden and landscape designer in 1987. He has won a number of awards at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. An early proponent of naturalistic planting and advocate of the use of local materials and techniques in tune with nature, ‘place making’ is a key part of his philosophy. Based in London, Dan has created projects in the UK and in Japan. He is also an author, ambassador for the Tree Council and a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI).



1 Structural grasses

Sinuous swathes of the grass Calamagrostis are used to divide different colour-themed areas and to provide structure in winter.

2 Matrix planting

Groups of perennials, such as Salvia ‘Caradonna’, white Gillenia trifoliata, and Baptisia australis, are randomly positioned on a grid plan to mimic natural combinations.

3 Woodland edges

Native forest trees are supplemented with species such as Stewartia and Cercidiphyllum that offer different seasonal features.

4 Timber trail

A meandering weathered-timber pathway complements the planting, and blends effortlessly into the natural landscape.