Garden Designer's Roundtable: Designing with Native Plants

Native plants have a particular allure for me. Perhaps they evoke memories of my childhood. I remember drawing Tolkien-esque maps of the forest that bordered our suburban home in the Alabama Piedmont. The thicket of Sparkleberry trees (Vaccineum arboreum) I drew to look like Mirkwood Forest; I sketched the huge Southern Red Oak—the meeting spot for my neighborhood friends—to look like one of the mythic trees of Fanghorn. And while I romped through these woods with a pack of irreverent boys, we all had a certain reverence for a cluster of Beech trees that resided at the intersection of two streams. When the winter sun backlit those copper leaves, that golden grove became our Lothlorien.

But the allure of natives is stronger than just memory; in them, I feel a more primal pull. For me, there is something very powerful about that attraction—something even ancient. I want to articulate why native plants have this appeal and how this can be used to create bolder, more emotionally-rich gardens and landscapes.

illustration by Alfred Parsons for The Wild Garden
Readers of this blog know that I am an advocate for native plants, but sometimes I get frustrated with the reasons I hear for using natives. Yes, the environmental benefits are real: their value to our bees, bugs, and birds cannot be understated. But as a gardener and plant lover, choosing plants based on environmental ethics is kind of a bummer. Life is serious enough already; I want to garden as an escape from weighty moralism.

To understand designing with native plants, you have to understand the garden itself. Designed landscapes and gardens are manipulated fantasies. They are our mental projections, our ideas, and our desires projected onto a piece of land. And gardens and landscapes don’t really live apart from us. Ultimately, without our input and continued maintenance, they would cease to be. That gardens are fantasies does not undermine their value; on the contrary, this very fact is what makes them art. If all gardens are fantasies, then native and naturalistic gardens are a particular kind of fantasy.

A native garden is a fantasy of what used to be. They are green anachronisms. Yes, native plants still exist in the wild, but the concept of using native plants in designed landscapes is connected to a sense of loss. Native gardens as a genre did not really exist before industrialization. They didn’t need to—native plants were everywhere. In fact, the earliest meaning of gardens referenced their enclosure, their otherness from nature. But now we plant native gardens as a memory of what once was. That doesn’t mean that native gardens need to be mournful or backwards-looking places. Pierce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens is one of my favorite native gardens. It is an exuberant celebration of the flora of the Eastern forests. But part of the emotional power—the source of its poignancy and meaning—of any native garden derives from the reality of loss.

Why does this matter? Most of the world no longer lives in meadows or forests. We no longer forage for our food or read the stars to find our way home. As a species we spent thousands of years navigating through native environments to survive; only in the last 150 years have we become removed from these places. But a part of us still longs for this connection. We yearn for a way we used to interact with the earth. Our bodies were not designed to sit in front of a computer for ten hours a day. When we pull weeds or dig in our gardens, we awaken some deep instinct that has long been dormant but still is remembered in our bodies.
Great landscape design—and native garden design in particular—taps into this deep emotional reservoir we have in relation to nature. When a small moment in the garden feels like an expansive meadow or reminds you of a clearing in the woods or gives you feeling of standing by a woodland stream, we have an emotional experience. The great advantage of using native plants is they recall a memory of nature better than some overbred rainbow colored rose. Of course, exotic plants also have emotional associations as well. But I would argue that natives are more closely associated with wildness and nature itself; they are therefore richer materials to explore our relationship to nature.

So how does landscape design create emotional connections? We must embrace the fantasy that is garden-making. The great fallacy of naturalistic design is to believe it is more natural. What is natural about creating some miniature replica of a native environment in our suburban yard? It is better to see the whimsy in this and make them more whimsical. The dark corners of our garden must become darker and more foreboding; our lighter areas must become more luminescent. Lines must be stronger, patterns more exaggerated, and contrasts deeper. Native gardens can have the same imaginative power of fairy tales.

Advocates of native plants focus on ecology—a worthy and necessary goal. But let’s not forget the human aspect. Gardens are for people, too. A return to naturalism’s romantic and humanistic roots would give native gardens an emotional edge they sorely need.

Let’s create gardens like fairy tale landscapes, places that seduce, tempt, and above all, lure the visitor to walk down the path.

For other takes on designing with native plants, check out these great posts from other GDRT members:

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT
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