Native Plants & The Wild Look: An Argument for Design

Marcus de la Fleur's design for a residence using native plants prompts the question: does using natives in wild patterns help or hurt the native plant movement? Image by Marcus de la Fleur
I have a conflicted relationship with wildness.

When I think about the sea of lawns and generic plantings that dominate our built landscapes, when I reflect on how quickly our native woodlands are disappearing, I yearn for more wildness. In many ways, our landscapes are too tidy. Our shrubs are too clipped, our lawns too manicured, our planted spaces too restrained. Despite recent progress with more sustainable gardens, the McLandscape is still the dominant form in our country.

"Yard of the Month"
Just to get a sense of what’s considered beautiful in our country, try this experiment: do a Google image search for the phrase “yard of the month.” The aesthetic is clear: tightly clipped evergreens smashed up against the house, an endless expanse of weedless lawns, and—for landscapes with a special flourish—a floating bed on annuals around the mailbox or a tree.

So in this context, wildness is desirable. How liberating is it to banish lawn altogether from one’s yard? How delightful is a project like the Highline that has an elevated meadow that winds between skyscrapers? How welcome are spontaneous, self-seeding wildflowers in an institutional landscape? Wildness adds an element of drama and dynamism sorely needed in our landscapes.

While I praise wildness on the one hand, I am concerned that it has become the de rigueur of native gardens these days. It is as if a native garden, by definition, must be wild and sprawling. To create a native garden is not only a statement against exotic plants, but it is a statement against traditional garden forms altogether. Almost all of the sustainable landscape techniques, including rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs—have adopted a wild aesthetic.

So what, you might ask? Don’t we want to import not only native plants to our built landscapes, but the patterns and forms of our native landscapes? Yes, but I want native gardens to embrace a diversity of design styles. I have a couple of problems with a “natural only” look.

An advertisement for native planting, or an argument against it? Rain Garden.  Photo and design by Marcus de la Fleur
First, designing a garden or landscape with a wild look takes quite a bit of effort and planning. There’s a difference between a carefully crafted wild look and sloppy planting design. Too often, sustainable landscapes emphasize plant selection at the expense of overall composition. Plants are not massed, so they don’t have visual impact. Small wildflowers are placed next to towering prairie plants, creating a chaotic scene. Lines, form, and order are banished, so all sense of relationship to existing structures is lost. Herbaceous plants are often placed too far apart. In our effort to imitate nature, we’ve turned our back on the forms and meaning of 4,000 years of garden history.

I was recently reading Christopher Lloyd’s book Succession Planting for Year-Round Interest. Lloyd was one of the last of the great British border designers, a person rigidly trained in the horticultural arts. In it, he chronicles how he maintains year-round color the legendary border at Great Dixter. What was remarkable to me was how much effort, art, and skill it took to create a border with year-round interest. A thought occurred to me: have we as a culture lost these horticultural skills? Or even still, did we ever have them?

In my dreams, if I were to create a curriculum for future sustainable gardeners, I would have them first spend a year studying and drafting the great gardens of history. They would study the geometry of the Egyptians, Persians, and the Greeks; the proportions and perspectives of Italian renaissance villas; the craft in combinations mastered by the Arts and Crafts gardens; and the asymmetry of the great modern gardens. Only once they were proficient in these forms, could they create naturalistic landscapes. Before you break the rules, you must first know the rules.

My second problem with the wild look is my fear that we’re turning the public away from using native plants. When native plants are associated with a wild, chaotic landscape, we narrow their potential adoption in built landscapes. Yes, I do think the American public needs to adopt an aesthetic that permits a bit of wildness, spontaneity, and heck—even a bit of sloppiness. But the way to do that is not to replace our front lawns with a tall grass prairie. We do that by creating native gardens in that fit into traditional or contemporary garden forms.

That might mean placing naturalistic planting within a clearly defined framework. Even the reigning king of naturalism, Piet Oudolf, uses clipped hedges and lawn to set off his herbaceous plantings. It might mean using some native cultivars that are more compact and colorful bloomers. It might mean that we keep lawn in some contexts, though smaller, more defined, and less manicured. It might mean creating highly artificial lines and edges to make sustainable gardens related to its built environment.

Even a naturalistic designer like Piet Oudolf sets his naturalism within a strong formal frame that relates it to the build landscape.  Image and design by Piet Oudolf.
The art of native gardens is not in how well we imitate nature, but in how well we interpret it. Native gardens can still reference their community of origin; in fact, it is better that they do. But when we reference nature, it should be a clearly abstracted, stylized version of that plant community. Dotting wildflowers together just like you saw them on your hike is arbitrary when you do it in your backyard. What does it relate to? We give it meaning in human landscapes when we take natural pattern and connect it to the built environment. Distilling the essence of native landscape patterns and applying it to our yards, streetscapes, and parks is no easy task. But it is an art worthy of pursuing.

Roberto Burle Marx used plants from his native Brazilian rainforest, but he abstracted them into distinctly modern, artistic patterns.  His work is one model of how native plants can be used in contemporary landscapes.

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