Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Natural" Gardens?

Their really is no such thing as a natural gardener-made landscape. All gardens are constructs made by people, not by nature. Our gardens ultimately serve our needs, our sense of aesthetics. This means every gardener is really servicing their own ego. Our gardens do look nice, but they don’t really look natural. A natural garden would look as if nobody planted it or tends it. Therefore, a truly natural landscape would not satisfy most gardener's egos. If nobody recognizes the yard as the product of another person, nobody gets any compliments. A purely natural landscape would look so naturalized that most people would just walk by without noticing. The ultimate goal of an ego-free landscape designer or gardener would be a garden which no one identifies as manmade. But I've never met such a gardener.

Our gardens will always be a constant dialogue about the following terms: natural-like, naturalized, earth-friendly, sustainable (the latest buzz word), or environmentally-sound. Unnatural doesn't mean malevolent. We can have reasonably natural-like gardens that meet every definition of beautiful. Such landscapes are nice and unnatural.

Given that we are growing artificial gardens, exactly how natural-like can we get? More environmentally responsive than we may think. But the answers are in the details. Here's some pointers:

Gardeners usually try to do too much. Some yards have plenty of natural landscape to begin with. The typical approach is to remove almost everything that's there, buy a bunch of topsoil and plants and put completely new stuff back. Far from natural. And costly.

Don't even think of planting until you've fully realized the potential of what nature already provided. All that's often required is to selectively thin, prune or remove. The idea is to sculpt your existing plants to reveal their hidden form and texture. It's like Michelangelo carving away bits of stone to reveal the magnificence of the David.

Carefully trim limbs from a tree to reveal a serpentine or wonderfully-textured trunk(s). Or, shape existing native shrubs to reflect the line of a nearby tree or a distant hillock. Pull out weedy exotic shrubs to display the curve of a tree trunk, the rugged shape of an immense boulder or the multiple trunks of a large shapely shrub. Weed out exotic grasses to leave behind a scattered pattern of native grasses.

Or, as photographed here, carefully open up an odd-shaped hole in a tree's canopy to provide a slice of the distant horizon, a nearby lake or the silvery ocean. This is a garden in Big Sur, CA that is simply composed of trimming the upper limbs of a native coast oak (Quercus agrifolia) and a planted, but carefully placed Ceanothus spp. (known as tick brush or wild lilac, NO relation to the popular common lilac – Syringa vulgaris). This section of the garden is the closest to a constructed, native landscape I’ve seen.

Let me know what you think.

Visit my web site to learn about my new book on drip irrigation and other gardening books.

NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

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