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Natural gardening


Natural gardening is a welcome trend in garden design.

Welcome... because it encompasses an attitude which allows for a more diverse community of plants and animals. From an ecological perspective, this diversity sets the foundation for a more sustainable ecosystem which will thrive long after we are gone.

Trend...because we are in the midst of a naturalization "movement" rather than passing fad. And if naturalization is here to stay, this has implications for all of us -- home gardeners, nursery owners, landscape designers and garden centres.

Garden design... because, not unlike fashion, art or architecture, garden design has many styles, and the natural look being one of them.

Other names for natural gardening you may hear could be ecological gardening, wildflower gardening, low-maintenance gardening, or heritage gardening.

The essence of a natural garden is an interaction between ourselves and nature.

It is a movement away from fussy, formal and high-maintenance flowerbeds. It moves toward a more unfettered, dynamic, low-maintenance natural plant system. In a natural garden there is an appreciation for the total life cycle of plants.

In natural gardening, plants overlap, they harmonize, relax into each other and, as in nature, there is an appearance that it is effortless and inevitable that the plants ended up where they are.

There is a welcoming of life and activities in a naturalized garden, with a greater diversity of plants and the inclusion of the entire life cycle. In a naturalized garden, habitats are created for many animals, insects and micro flora - the basis for a stable ecosystem.

How to get a naturalized garden started

I love to garden. The thing I like most about my own garden is that it will accept as much input as I am willing and able to give it. I take no credit for the result in a naturalized garden, positive or negative. It's the plant community which does all of the work.

My approach to gardening is very much to live and let live, with a bit of editing.

As the gardener you hold the position of editor. To have a pleasing garden, you MUST cut, add, encourage, discourage, replace, enlarge and change the balance of power!:

The challenge of naturalization is to create an environment which is aesthetically pleasing, which consists of native and non-invasive exotic plant material and will consequentially be the home for a diverse community of both flora and fauna.

We must be p a t i e n t with the development of a naturalized garden. There is a transition period between a highly manicured garden to a more free form style. In urban gardens the use of annuals along side perennials, ground covers and grasses can help in the early years of development until the others take over.

In some municipal areas such as Toronto, there are attempts being made to convert portions of urban parkland into natural areas. To a large extent these areas are being allowed to sort themselves out with minimal input --- finances being part of the driving force for "naturalization".

The species selected by the Parks Department in a park I saw in Toronto was mainly weeds surrounding native trees. The trees which were planted by community groups. How this evolves over time is difficult to guess but as more and more municipalities become involved with naturalization we will learn more about how to take the proper steps to convert highly manicured areas into aesthetically pleasing natural habitat gardens.

Naturalized gardening is not simply:

  • abandoning a site,

  • stopping spraying,

  • stopping mowing,

  • letting unmanicured unsightly weeds take over,

  • with the expectation that a Carolinian forest or whatever it was which existed before urbanization, will emerge within a season.

    Naturalized gardening encompasses more involvement but on a different level. Rather than the "mow, blow and go" type of gardening, it is cultivation, experimentation, involvement and diversification.

    The disruption of the land through urbanization and agricultural development requires our input to put it back into balance. Native plants, seed stock and soil have all been removed and or disturbed requiring human input to get back on track.

    Growing from seed:
    collecting, sowing and enjoying

    Plants from seed are better than cloned varieties because (1) there is an overall increase in the genetic base of plant material in your garden, and (2) there is less chance of devastating loss of one species because of pests when there is a diverse gene pool. 

    Collecting seeds

    I encourage wildflowers to seed themselves in my garden. Y e s, I do tend to have more weed problems than my neighbours but I also have a more diverse garden. I am interested to see how successful I am in encouraging the dispersement of wildflowers which initially introduced themselves to the garden.

    I have experimented with many different techniques for doing this. One of most successful happens every fall. I cut the tops off a percentage of desirable "wildflowers" which have found their way into my yard. I turn them upside down into a large tub and store them in my basement. Early in the spring, I separate the seed from the plant stalks, refrigerate for 2-3 weeks and planted them on a site prepared as outlined below.

    It is difficult to know which seeds need stratification (a cold period) and which don't. But for native and naturalized plants, nature plants in the fall and most are likely to need this cold period.

    Seeds finding their own garden

    I don't spray my lawn because the killing of the weeds will also devastate seed resources. Over the last few years there has been an incredible number of native plants which have found their way into my garden. Joe-pye-weed, which is abundant along the shores of the Irvine and Grand Rivers -- in the Elora Gorge --has seeded itself at my pond site.

    Throughout my meadow, mallows, daisies, indian paintbrushes, eastern asters, buttercups, and forget-me-nots have found themselves a home. This nice mixture of both native and non-native but non-invasive wildflowers is delightful.

    The native mullein, a biennial (left), finds its way into my garden. I find it just delightful, and its height makes a nice contrast and backdrop to so many other plants.

    Buying seeds

    More and more, garden centres, nurseries and seed houses are making seeds available that are very suitable for naturalizing gardens.

    One general trend in this industry is making "heritage" seeds available. These seeds are usually seeds for native plants, though there may be seeds for non-native but non-invasive exotic plants.

    Try your local garden centre which may have seeds for your naturalizing garden.

    Buying native plants

    More and more, native plants are becoming available in garden centres and nurseries. Click here for a listing of native plant sources in southern Ontario.

    Preparing the land

    The important thing to remember about planting seeds or introducing new plant species is to prepare the land properly prior to planting. Ideally, the land should be cleared of all vegetation. This can be accomplished by smothering, cultivating, spraying or a combination of these techniques.

    I generally like to use Round-up (in the fall if possible). Round-up is safe to use in a naturalizing garden because though it kills everything green it touches when it is applied (be careful in applying it!), it biodegrades once it has made contact with the and has no effect at that point.

    Alternatively, you could cover the land over with opaque plastic sheets anchored by rocks and leave it for 2 weeks or so. At that time, the underlying vegetation should be dead.

    Whichever way you clear the vegetation, the land should then be tilled or turned, raked and left for the residual weed seeds to germinate. It should be sprayed or covered over again when the weeds are 2-3 inches tall.

    After the vegetation has died (in about 10 days), cultivate the soil lightly with a rake or shallow till. Then broadcast the seed. Cultivating the soil ensures seed-to-soil contact.

    Weeds are likely to invade the area so hand weeding will be required. It is important to learn to identify weeds in their infant stages. The sooner the weeds are removed, the sooner the desirable plants will take over. With this type of soil preparation and the proper seed mixture selected, a wildflower "meadow" will remain for years of enjoyment.

    Mowing, burning and using meadows

    Sometimes things get ahead of you and you have to call in the big guns.

    One spring, I had a controlled burn in the meadow area. It is a good way to adjust the balance of plants which will thrive. I had a group of 12-year-olds helping me. They were curious as to why we were burning the field. I told them we were doing it "to change the diversity of plant material". They were still very curious about how fire would do that.

    Burning is a natural part of the life cycle of a meadow with prairie plants in it. They withstand and rely on burns.

    Everyone is familiar with the natural necessity for periodic forest fires. Old plant material that dominates the land is burned off, and new seeds have a chance to assert themselves. For a meadow, a burn can be part of a transition leading ultimately to a forest.

    Another way of changing the balance of power in the garden is through the use pattern. You have seen paths through meadows worn down by humans or horses. Usual plants for the meadow, such as golden rod will be slow to re-claim the area. I try to mow paths throught the lower meadow from time to time to make sure that there is a pleasant walk through it.

    If you have the space...why not try natural dirt paths through it?

    Season-long delights

    Be sure to consider your garden site and make proper selection of plant material for the garden to be successful.

    Naturalized gardening is very much a style which encourages co-operation, co-existence, and team-playing in the garden. Plants are not all at their best at the same time. Our goal is to have a continuous display of colour and texture. Annuals are excellent inclusions in the garden to help to fill in the gaps where the perennials may or may not be having a bad day.

    If your area is too small, it may be difficult to achieve a succession of colour and show all season as may be desired. A better choice for such an area might be annuals. The naturalized look could be great in the spring but just might not cut it for a September show.

    Ornamental grasses and plants which have interesting foliage are also good choices which offer texture, movement, height differences, etc.

    Plants are good companions for one another if they are able to take turns in the spot light. For example, you could have an iris garden that gives way to a showing of lilies later in the season.

    Here is a variety of plants that provides an interesting variety over time. The monarda (beebalm) and coneflower (echinacea) (at the back, left) outlast the lilies at the front right. The evening primrose (yellow flowers, bottom centre) is a perfect blooming companion to monarda because they bloom at the same time and the colours are lovely together. The miscanthus (back right) gives a tall green display till early fall, when it browns up with a lovely blond tassel.

    I can't stress enough the importance of appreciating the sequences of the garden. I leave the tops on most of my perennials for as long as possible. With the tops on, you can still see where the gardens are even with snow on the ground in winter.

    Moving plants around

    If someone is doing everything right and still has no luck with a certain plant, I often recommend moving the plant to another site. At Glen Abbey Golf Course, where I was involved with the design of the gardens, I had a vision of beautiful roses cascading above a tightly-clipped boxwood hedge.

    The roses were hopeless and we had to resort to planting geraniums so that there was something showy. As a last resort we transplanted them to "the pit", an area which has become the nursery for plants we don't quite know what to do with.

    The roses have flourished, so has everything else we put there: it is the most unlikely area! The best planning in the world will not necessarily mean there is a successful end product.

    Beware the invaders!

     When considering long-term development of the garden, it is of particular importance to avoid using invasive plant material. It forces you to be ruthless and destructive all of a sudden when you realize that one plant is hogging the space.

    When I started my garden, one of the only plants which existed was a variety of Miscanthus. How lovely it was blowing in the wind! But I spend a large portion of every spring yanking it out by the root in areas several metres away from the original plant.

    Oddly enough, there are certain plants which grow within the centre of this variety of grass, for example, peonies. They must have a way of overcoming the persistence of the grass roots. However, I lost several other desirable plants due to its invasive nature.

    Ground covers

    A fundamental principle in naturalization is to increase the diversity of plant material used in the landscape. When dealing with smaller landscapes such as urban gardens, you can incorporate perennials, biennials and ground covers.

    This would be a movement away from the standard 4,000 square foot lawn which classifies a majority of garden styles.

    There is a wide range of ground covers available which can provide excellent green cover, including pachysandra, ferns, english ivy, day lilies, and ajuga (picture above, bottom). Most of these ground covers can naturalize very well.

    Urban considerations

    There are certain selections of trees for example which survive the urban environment better than others. For example, for street trees, linden and honey locust, both non-native, are excellent choices.

    I had a call from a city once who asked me to come down and see the trees which surrounded their city hall. They weren't doing very well. The trees were red maples and were planted in both raised and sunken planters. Within the planters were lights which were directed upwards to show off the "beautiful" specimens. The trees were surrounded by concrete. There was an automatic irrigation system installed which could be programmed to supply water whenever it was wanted.

    The idea was, I'm sure, well intended. The investment was there but the likelihood of a satisfactory end result was minimal. Red maples are beautiful native trees. They are not however good selections for this type of stressful environment. It is difficult to say whether anything can withstand those types of conditions.

    The great debate: native or exotic?

    On one extreme, purists in naturalized gardening will insist upon using plant material which is uniquely native to that location.

    Along with being extremely difficult to determine what truly is native, there is the problem of finding the material. It also denies us of some truly exquisite exotic, non-invasive ornamentals. For me, naturalized gardening encompasses both native and exotic species.

    For example, the HUMAN ELEMENT is exotic, but is really part of a natural garden. As foreign -- and interesting -- as us, exotic PLANTS are part of the naturalized garden.

    We have lost touch with what is native. This is not necessarily our fault. We have inherited the earth from those who pioneered the land, removing the native forests to make room for agriculture and urban development. We have just continued with the removal of natural areas to accomodate for our ever-increasing population.

    Horticultural specimens which we tend to plant in our gardens are selected for their ornamental characteristics. Most of them are decendents from Eurasia Turkey, China and Europe and were introduced into North America in the 1700s and 1800s.

    Plants readily available in a nursery or garden centre are primarily non-native species. They are often grown because of their:

  • ease of propogation

  • flexibility in the landscape and

  • suitability in urban gardens.

  • We must consider the value of utilizing native plant material in the landscape. Why?

  • Native plant material has the capacity to support 10-50 times more local animal and bird species than exotics.

  • Native plants and animals have evolved not only to survive the climatic conditions of the area, but also have developed a co-dependency on each other

  • For example: the survival of the Monarch Butterfly depends on being unpalatable to birds -- from toxins ingested from milkweed.

    Traditionally butterfly bush (Buddleia) and fuschia -- both exotic -- are used to attract butterflies. Native alternatives would be columbine or butterfly weed (a native milkweed). The butterfly at the right is visiting my garden, to taste one of my butterfly bushes.

    We are only just beginning to understand complex relationships such as this. But the matrix of the plant material will support a greater biodiversity when the plants are native.

    The invasive exotics:
    purple loosestrife and other invaders

    Some introduced exotics have a tendency to not co-habit well with the natural environment. Some selections may become invasive and others are notoriously difficult to grow because they are pre-disposed to disease and insect damage.

    Purple loosestrife is a perfect example of a non-native which has "escaped" from cultivation. It was introduced to North America in the early 1800s and kept a low profile until about 1930. It was first reported in abundance in the early 1930s in wetland areas along the banks of the St. Lawrence River. It seeds prolifically---up to 2.7 million seeds a season from each plant.

    In Europe, where it is native it makes up 1 to 4% of the vegetation in it's natural wetland habitat. In problem areas here in Canada it can make up 75% of the vegetation. It is clear that we have something missing in our habitats which can keep loosestrife in check.

    There are many opinions about what should be done about loosestrife. In my view the invasion of loosestrife into our wetlands is a mere symptom of a much bigger problem. It is an indication that the balance has been disturbed in some way: changes in the watertable, changes in the grade of the landscape, or changes in the kinds and numbers of co-habitants.

    All of these disturb the ecosystem and pre-dispose it to problems.

    To a large extent, Mother Nature is tremendously resilient, more so than we give her credit for. In the case of purple loosestrife, the loosestrife is winning.

    There are proposals to introduce a non-native parasitic or predaceous weavel which allegedly would only attack loosestrife and to say with such a solution that the problem is behind us. In my view, this is incredibly short-sighted and completely misses the point.

    I am uncomfortable with the uncontested endorsement of the introduction of insects en masse. It is impossible for any biologist to truly understand the complex relationships that will be created and be upset.

    The Norway Maple has to be one of the most widely-used trees in the urban landscape. It was introduced from continental Europe and was and is a preferred selection for the urban landscape because its mature height is 35-40 feet versus 80 feet or more for the native sugar or red maple, and it thrives in a very diverse range of climatic conditions.

    Naturalists are very much opposed to the use of Norway Maple due to its invasion of native woodlots. It is a prolific seeder, has a dense canopy which does not allow for natural succession of a woodlot to take place.

    Many naturalists say that Norway Maple along with Kentucky Bluegrass should be included in the list of noxious weeds under the Weed Control Act of Ontario -- think of the implications of that!

    Austrian Pine is another example of a widely used non-native tree which is pre-disposed to disease. It seems crazy to continue to plant Austrian Pine en masse, knowing that it is highly likely to be infested with Diplodia Tip Blight unless growing conditions are perfect. It's almost prohibitively expensive to treat for Diplodia. Why not make a native selection?

    Only in recent years has there been a resurgence of interest in the trees, wildflowers, ground covers and other plants from our own woods, fields and meadows. We are now free to choose the best of both old and new worlds. You will be successful in your own garden if you carefully choose plants that are genetically programmed to succeed in our climate -- native plants and their domesticated relatives.

    We should allow ourselves to be inspired by nature. With a gardener's input, truly magnificent gardens will result!


    For more information about Daisy's style of gardening and expertise:

  • take a tour of some of Daisy's work.

  • To contact Daisy,

    send e-mail, or

    phone 519-846-9743.

















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    Daisy Moore 2005