Thursday, August 4, 2011

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.


  1. Interesting post. I suppose it depends on how you view wildness. It's potentially alluring and fun, yet it could be scary and inconprehensible. People who like wild looking landscapes are probably not the ones winning the "yard of the month" contests. If you want the yard of the month folk to embrace native plants, then yes, perhaps one must create an aesthetic where native plants are palatible.

    I like your larger point about design. No matter what style the garden is--formal, modern, or naturalistic--if it doesn't relate to the built enviroment, then it misses the point. I sense a bit of an anti-design bias among the sustainable/native garden movement.

  2. Great post! I wholeheartedly agree. The messiness of many "native plant" landscapes certainly has turned me off to much of the native plant movement, though I think it's very important that we use native plants. But, as you say, in a designed way that relates to place, which includes the built environment but encompasses much more than that alone. I would use something Robert Frost said as an analogy to your desire for sustainable garden designers of the future to first study all the garden styles of the past. You need to know the rules you intend to break before you can effectively break them. Frost said writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.

  3. James, I love the Robert Frost reference. When I've advocated native plants to clients, I often get a reaction like, "Just not sure I want something that wild." Of course, natives don't have to be wild at all. They can fit almost any design style.

    I'm sure there's an argument for a more natural aesthetic with natives. I'd love to hear that as well.

  4. Hi Thomas,

    If you ever get to teach your dream curriculum, I will sign up! I agree that the first picture in your post -- (Marcus de la Fleur's design -- can that possibly be his real name?) doesn't really look designed at all. As a lover of plants, I think I'd probably enjoy having that homeowner as my neighbor, but I'll bet most folks driving by would assume the place is vacant or neglected.

    Mary G.

  5. Hi Mary,

    It's true. Part of me would be enchanted with a neighbor who's yard is so wild. It is delightful. I certainly don't mean to pick on that particular design. But I get concerned when that look has become the look for sustainable gardens. It will make it hard to gain new converts. And I'm interested in broadening the appeal of native and sustainable gardens--not driving it further into a niche.

    WOuldn't that class be fun!? Of course, we'd have to spend a few months in Europe to "study" the gardens ;)

  6. I wholeheartedly agree that the use of natives cannot be limited to a `naturalistic` planting approach. In urban environments in particular, a wild meadow appearance can appear too jarring and not contextually relevant. I aim to include 30% or more native plants (or cultivars) in my designs however I employ a simple modern aesthetic of massing. We need to work to change mainstream thinking that natives are wild messy weeds. I believe by showcasing them alongside the current popular palette of North American plants, we will be able to demonstrate the wide range of applications in our landscapes.

  7. Mary,

    Yes, Marcus de la Fleur is his real name, because he spoke at our local library and I listened to him talk about rain gardens and other water-conservation technologies. (His website is here:

    As his current project is a top-down, environmentally friendly rehab of a 3-flat on the southwest side of Chicago, I think he'd be the first to tell you that garden design is not his forte... but I would be interested in hearing what he actually has to say about it, since he so meticulously plans every aspect of every project in which I've seen his work.

  8. Gabriel, So glad to hear that you are working natives into contemporary designs. That's exactly the kind of projects that will expand their appeal. Natives need great, cutting edge design.

    Rob, thanks for the comment. While I did call out Marcus' project, I have great respect for what he does, particularly how he promotes sustainable design. He's a great communicator and a thoughtful practitioner. I just want to use that one particular example to raise a debate about design with native plants. What does it mean to design with native plants? What should that look like? I fear there is a growing dogma around natives that is associated with a kind of imitative naturalism.

  9. Most people are fairly clueless about using plants period, native or not. People think they are weedy but have no trouble planting ivy. People think they are trouble free, then watch as their Polygonatums become lunch for slugs! I think those in your position just need to keep emphasizing design principles regardless of the plan material. But some people just want the satisfaction of planting natives, I have no doubt about that.
    I will say I'd much rather look at the wild garden than a perfect expanse of lawn--at my neighbor's house anyway.
    I think people will eventually see a native plant as just another resource and not feel like they have to be used in a certain way.
    I feel happy I (accidentally) did something right--I designed my native garden just like I would any other garden. Choosing natives made my job easier as I was working with shade and black walnut allelopathy, but I made sure to use scale, structure, and repetition because that made it nicer to look at!

  10. Great post! This is a subject I've been considering quite a bit lately. Native and adapted plants are a must in the heat and drought of south Texas, but I am determined to avoid either the desert look or the wild (weedy) look we see a lot in native plantings here.

    While the plants in your area may not do well here, good design ideas can be reinterpreted with plants of similar form and scale. Your blog has become a favorite resource for these ideas.

  11. Hi Thomas,
    I agree with what you've said but feel that there's a place for both natural and designed landscapes. I favor a naturalistic restoration/design for an existing woodland or set of mature trees. I think that the planted style can be less ordered or repetitive. In my opinon a designed woodland with masses of perennials beneath looks contrived.

    On the other hand, in our midwest landscapes, sunnier areas utilizing prairie forbs and grasses needs to be much more orderly and designed to feature each attribute of plants being utilized, especially on a small scale such as a city lot. On a large scale, I have no problem with enjoying the beauty of a 10 acre restored prairie. That's where you see natural repetitions of plant patterns due to soil, moisture or climatic conditions.

    I have to say from personal experience too, that replicating nature through landscape restorations is much more difficult than planning a designed landscape with the same plants. It all depends on the location and context of the site.

  12. "Before you break the rules, you must first know the rules."

    Amen to that!

  13. Learning the rules before thoughtfully breaking them - touche! I think the US "Stepford Wife landscape" and obsession with fleeting flowers and other fads shows many here have never gotten good horticulture...though some notable exceptions are there. And some places have more powerful senses of places than others do, esp in plants, and the former might be why their populaces "get it" more than in the latter?

    Your balanced points make the case that too many xeriscape / native plant landscapes are their own worst enemy!

    More so in places whose "culture" does not get design; less so in places turned on to good design. Only a small cult group prefer sloppy design, often being *against* lawns more than being *for* stunning outdoor living spaces.

    If nature were as ugly and chaotic as most xeriscapes I see, few would venture into them.

    Photinia spp. and Rosmarinus spp. are native somewhere - just not in Abq - but they far outnumber appealing, tougher native shrubs in our landscapes, and they are also used in more compelling arrangements. Really quite illogical. (that must sound like Spock on Star Trek!)

    Not only does this post cause me to think more deeply on other related topics, but the comments are great blogs in themselves. I wish we were all sitting down in this discussion over a beer somewhere.


  14. Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Thomas. In *Second Nature,* Michael Pollan argues that one of the legacies of Thoreau in the United States is a false dichotomy between culture/civilization and nature/wildness -- but that gardens, by definition, bridge this divide. I actually think there is already a strong movement for integrating native plants into a variety of garden designs, but that movement is probably not coming from garden designers and landscape architects. I'm thinking about influential ecologists/native plant activists like Doug Tallamy, who explicitly say "Hey, you don't have to take out your traditional garden and replace it with something totally different; just replace some of the exotic plants in your garden with suitable natives." I have also seen lists that suggest native substitutes for problematic exotics (like Butterfly Bush) that are often included in gardens. -Jean

  15. Valhalla,

    Great points, and very interesting that using natives in your garden made it easier. Thomas

  16. Heather,

    I totally agree with you. WHile I was a bit hard on wilder looking native gardens, I think they are absolutely appropriate in many situations. Even preferable. I guess I just sense from some of the sustainable landscape groups I'm involved in that the wild look (anti-design) is becoming THE look for natives. I worry about what that will do for the larger movement. Your garden, however, is an excellent example at how a very naturalistic garden can be beautiful. It's quite contextual with your site.

    Finally, doing naturalism well is EXTREMELY difficult. Couldn't agree more. It takes quite a bit of skill and effort to make something look like it took no skill or effort.

  17. Lisa, so good to hear from you. Hope you have been having a good summer.

    David, if I had to pick one person to have a beer with and argue about plants, you would be the top of the list!

  18. Jean,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, as always. I think you're right that the tension is probably more with designers, less with gardeners. Perhaps the tension is between designers and ecologists(or at least, gardeners who lean toward one pole or the other). I could be wrong, but I definitely sense an anti-design strain within some of the larger ecological movement. The preference for nature/natural seems to override some of the aesthetic concerns of the traditional garden. There's no need for that tension at all. My fear is that I hear and sense a backlash against native plants among many--mostly because of a limited understanding of how natives look in a designed landscape. I'd like to see the design world and the ecologically minded come together more closely.

  19. Thomas, I am not sure which of the categories mentioned above I might most fall into; ecologist, gardener or designer. A bit of each? As Mary quoted Rbt Frost above I will offer this comparison; if you've ever experienced the early work of the uber famous artist Pablo Picasso you might be taken aback by the classical realism of his technique in it's perfection when you view it side by side with his more commonly known Cubism period. Before Picasso could DE Construct the human form he learned to depict it with absolute control and perfection. Just as we are proposing here. The naturalistic garden style espoused by grand old doyens of the gardening world such as Wm Robinson and contemporaries would also confess; every "WILD" garden is based more upon acquired knowledge of style, balance and the science of ecology then reckless abandon.
    There is so much to know about gardening, the truth is that it is best learned by practicing the Art & Craft of the Garden. Using the historical knowledge and scientific data amassed through the ages. But mostly just by getting your hands into the soil and watching what happens season after season. It is the fascination of the miricle of life that stirs us as gardeners, ecologists and designers I believe. Plus, it helps to sometimes keep good notes! :)

  20. Bravo, Thomas. Very well written and I couldn't agree more. We need to keep striving for the best use and context for natives and recognize there's not just one way to use them.

  21. Nancy,

    A very thoughtful, well written response. The Picasso analogy is a great one. I remember seeing some of his sketches of hands and necks and remarking at his technical ability. Those skills likely informed his later work. I like your point that even wildness is based upon a human construct.

    Perhaps the larger question we're all digging at, is what should naturalism look like? I aspire myself to be a naturalistic designer. When we imitate nature in non-natural settings, how do we represent it? Randomness might be one way of representing nature, but there may be other ways as well. What I would love to see is native plant advocates develop new styles, new abstractions, new interpretations of nature. In the way that William Morris or Frank Lloyd Wright created a whole new style based upon a native landscape. THAT would be interesting. I don't think it is a sin to see the hand of the designer in the work, even a highly naturalistic design. That is the art.

    Many thanks for your comment. Thomas

  22. Carolyn, Thanks for the comment. "Best use and context for natives" is a nice way of putting it.

  23. Perfectly said! As I design gardens for clients, I keeping thinking we can at least use natives in borders--doesn't have to be a prairie, but those plants need a chance to do what they were meant to do ecologically. Italian-like, or English-like, it's the plants.

  24. Thomas,
    As usual, a great post. I think part of the "wildness" of the native plant movement is the idea that if you are helping pollinators and creating space for wild things, it doesn't matter what it looks like--and for many, many people, they don't know how to make it look any other way. When I speak with garden groups or youth groups, I try to emphasize neighborliness. Most of the folks I speak with have homes within the context of a neighborhood, so it's best not to look like the sore thumb. If they are unable to afford design assistance, but still want to support native species of plants and critters, the "wild look" may be a choice because it looks easy. Those of us in a position to educate to native "infill," as it were, should do what ever we can to show that natives function just fine within the "constraints" of a designed landscape.

  25. Hi Becky,

    You make great points about neighborliness and context. I agree and like the way you said it. And just to be clear, I would never criticize a homeowner or amateur garden. First, they are often more knowledgeable about plants than many landscape architects, and second, it's really hard to create a great garden (my own garden is a total mess now).

    My critique was addressed more toward professional sustainable designers who've made the wild look the default look for native plants. I'm advocating for an aesthetic that interprets nature, not imitates it.

  26. Benjamin,

    I'd love to see a gorgeous native border. That would be fun.

  27. Thomas, recently I've become fascinated with Longwood Gardens in the Eastern USA. If you take a moment to consider the interspersment of native plantings in layers which vary through seasonal periods to create an ongoing vision of nature that hardly exists in the wild any longer. It is this type of use of native plantings that most appeal to me, when the hand of the artist is less apparent. Obviously this location allows for quiet a bit more then the avarage garden. But as a model to follow I really appreciate the intellegence hidden therein.
    BTW, Thomas, the Giant Rheum seeds have sprouted. So if you or anyone wants some seeds send me a note! Best, Nancy

  28. Nancy,

    Are you referring to Pierce's Woods in Longwood? That's a great example of a highly stylized, interpreted native garden. It's stunning. That's a great example.

  29. Yes, That's it! I am reading a book now "When Perennials Bloom" by Tomasz Anisko who was or is the curator of plants at Longwood. I saw it on a video and became fascinated, I was so happy to find the book, maybe some day I'll be able to visit. But that would be for me at least the ideal native garden. I knew you would know it!

  30. Great topic and discussion. Clearly this is where we need to be heading. It worries me that the native plant enthusiasts seem to have forgotten important design principles particularly when designing residential landscapes.

    I wanted to mention a book, "Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East" by Carolyn Summers. I have only read the first chapter where she does an excellent job of explaining the difference between using the term 'native' vs 'indigenous'. It looks like at least one chapter, Designing Traditional Gardens with Indigenous Plants, at least begins to address using design principles with natives.

    Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

  31. I love this post! I agree that native plants and gardens have their setting in the home landscape. But can be used with a framework of more tailored hedges and structure. This is how I like to design.
    Thanks for a great article!

  32. This might be my favorite post from you.

    I like a mix of structure and wildness. That's what I've attempted in my yard.

    We did leave some grass in the middle of the front yard and planted the perimeter.

    One interesting experience we had, while changing over to a more native landscape, was the reaction of people on the street. We took out the weedy grass around the perimeter of our corner lot in northern Virginia. (Mowing so much grass had been the opposite of fun.) Shortly after that, the zoning office and city arborist, spurred on by neighbors' complaints, got involved and demanded landscape plans. While there had been no issues with weedy grass in the right-of-way, native grasses and shrubs were something else altogether. We supplied the city with our plans and all was approved. Fun times.

    Anyway, I think it looks pretty good now, and the folks who complained probably wonder what they were making such a fuss about a few years ago. That said, making big changes in some municipalities can be a bit of a challenge.

    Really enjoy your blog.

    Kathleen in Falls Church

  33. Linda, Thanks for the reference to the book, I'll definitely check it out.

    Fran, thanks so much. I hope I didn't offend too many native lovers who like it wild; but I think it's good to have a debate about the aesthetics of native plants.

    Kathleen, I really appreciate the comment. Ugh, I can't imagine having a municipality dictate landscaping. I think that might be more offensive than a weedy lot. Sounds like you put together something much better. Thanks for reading the blog. It's nice to e-meet you. Thomas

  34. Thomas, I want to share a quote from another wonderful book I am reading by Edith Wharton "Italian Villas & Their Gardens' written in 1904. This text caught my eye in light of this discussion, evidently it's an age old question in the field of garden design, native plantings or otherwise!
    And I quote "Here,(Ref; Villa Gamberaria) also, it may be noted in its fullest espression that principle of old gardening which the modern 'landscapist' has most completely unlearned, namely, the value of the subdivision of spaces. Whereas the modern (1904) gardener's one idea of producing an effect of space is to annihilate his boundaries, and not only to merge into one another the necessary divisions of the garden, but to blend this vague whole with the landscape, the old garden architect proceeded on the opposite principle, arguing that as the garden is but the prolongation of the house and a house containing a single huge room would be less interesting and less serviceable then one divided according to the varied reguirements of its inmates, so a garden which is merely one huge outdoor room is also less interesting then one with its logical divisions."
    Granted she is not adressing native as we presently percieve it, but native as in the native style of the old world Tuscan Villa which lacked pretense and ingeniusly used space to create varied microclimates to suit the needs of the "inmates" (ie.residents) at the same time merge seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. I found this very amusing.I trust I am not alone?

  35. Nancy,

    Love that quote. I have that book on my shelf, but to be honest, have never taken the time to read it through. Perhaps it's time. Thanks so much for sharing.


  36. I apologize for stumbling in to this discussion after the fact!

    My view is that there is, indeed, a true undercurrent of "anti-design" afoot and that perhaps many of those who are anti-design are also somewhat more likely to be using native plants than most.

    I think this anti-design movement is a reaction to decades of bad design: the homogenous, overly-geometric "design" that so many of us grew up looking at. The most talented designers have not, typically, fallen into this trap but many practicing landscape designers (and, more consistently, landscapers) surely have.

    Even I would admit that if I were forced to chose between the "yard of the month" pictured above and an under-managed native meadow that I'd take the meadow without hesitation.

    And my challenge is that even though I appreciate good naturalistic design, I know that this is quite often the most difficult type of design to conceptualize and implement well. I try, but most of the time I fail. And if I'm going to miss my mark, I am sure as heck going to err on the side of "wild" than on the side of "controlled". Controlling nature is, after all, one of the things I'm working against in my advocacy for increased use of natives.

    My dream is for a day when the native plant movement is full of designers who are so talented that their well-crafted designs don't look all that designed (ala Olmsted or, today, Gary Smith).

  37. Fantastic! You've captured the essence of what I've been trying to convey to my clients and colleagues interested in using natives and a natural 'non-designed' look. I'll be sharing this on my twitter and facebook accounts and to all that will listen.

    Thank you!

  38. I can speak onlly for the west central Florida area - the Tampa Bay Area. The missing link is not design and installation. The missing link is maintenance. Almost all green industry maintenance companies are baffled by native plants. They have no idea about any of their attributes or even their names. So, many give up on native plantings because they never look better than the day that they were planted.
    A skilled care person is too hard to find, and I believe that this is the heart of the question. A skilled native plant careperson is a rare and endangered thing. The industry has a hole that has yet to be planted.

  39. wonderful article. As designers we need to be as responsible in utilizing native and naturalistic plants as any other component. Where and when to utlilize a rain garden, knowing that a rain garden can be formal by design, and that some non native plants are more responsible to use in certain situations than natives...

    On a side note, some clients are more ready for the walk on the wild side than others. If I can get 20 clients tosimply stop or drastically reduce using chemicals or seed the back lawn with a low-grow native lawn mix, for instance, then I'm probably doing as much or more good as the 2 that I got to make the complete switch to all things natural and native.

    Nancy Claire Guth artistic garden concepts


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