hat is a natural garden? Ken Druse, author of ‘The natural Garden’, describes it as “a garden planned and designed to work with nature, rather than against nature”.
To us it is a philosophy, allowing for time to enjoy your gardens, rather than slaving in them. Mother Nature is our teacher, our inspiration. We learn from her and try to recreate some of her beautiful features in our gardens. There are no strict rules, just guidelines.
If you are interested in creating a natural garden, it is important to look around you and take note of the existing vegetation. Also pay attention to rock outcrops, wet spots and slopes on the property and think about how they can be incorporated into your garden.
The backbone of the natural garden is made up of plant species that are natural to their environment. They are generally long-lived and easier to maintain. However, it is not necessary to limit yourself to the selection of native plants. Many other plants have been introduced into our landscapes and they are very well adapted to the local environment. The key point is to select plants that are long-lived, well adapted, easy to care for, and not so aggressive that they may interfere and even eliminate the native vegetation (e.g. purple loosestrife).
Choose a good variety of plants from the native as well as the introduced species. This will surely enhance the beauty and the health of your garden. Even hybrids may find a spot in your natural garden, as long as their characteristics fulfil the ‘idea’ of the natural garden, such as ease of maintenance and disease resistance. The more subtle colours are usually preferred as they blend in better with the natural surroundings.
Grass should be kept to a minimum in the natural garden. However, families with children may opt to incorporate some lawn area in the more intensely used part of the garden for the children’s play area.
In Muskoka, we are very fortunate to be surrounded by woodlands and lakes. If you look at the forest, you will notice that it is mainly made up of three layers: the canopy, understorey and floor. The canopy is made up out of trees, their crowns forming a roof and sheltering the plants underneath. The middle layer, the understorey, consists of woody shrubs, and the floor is covered with wildflowers, ferns and mosses. Fallen logs and stumps also have their place. In copying Mother Nature, we try to establish those different layers as they all play their role, providing food and shelter for various forms of wildlife.
The woodland garden is a peaceful place where different textures play an important role. The selection of plants is important and so is their placement. Groups of plants usually flow gently from one group into another. Plants that thrive in woodland gardens require a soil rich in organic matter with good moisture retention. Some plants we choose for their attractive flowers, others we select for their foliage. A combination of plants with different sizes, shapes and colours of leaves can create a visually pleasing scene. The following plants are good choices for the woodland garden:
Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) grows about 30 to 45 cm tall and has an abundance of blue flowers in the late spring-early summer. It has a creeping habit.
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a native groundcover. The foliage is dark green and aromatic. The small white flowers appear in July and are followed by red berries. It only reaches a height of 10cm and is fairly slow growing.
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is another native plant with attractive nodding, yellow and red spurred flowers in late spring. Hummingbirds are particularly interested in this flower.
Some of the hardy perennial Geraniums (Geranium spp.) make a very attractive groundcover in light shade. The flowers appearing in June and July range from soft pink to blue tones, depending on the variety. They grow 20 to 50 cm tall.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a native plant with very delicate white flowers. It is one of the earliest plants to bloom. The flowers close up at night. After the flowers disappear, the large foliage opens up.
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) makes a very good woodland groundcover, growing about 20cm high. It has white flowers. The closely related Tiarella wherryi has pink flowers in late spring. The foliage has an attractive maple-leaf shape.
Dwarf Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spp.) are valuable additions to the woodland garden, mixed in with other wildflowers. They grow 30 to 40 cm tall and have a fern-like appearance. The flowers are heart-shaped, white, pink or red and appear in late spring-early summer.
Lowbush Blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolia) make a good native woody groundcover. They require an acidic soil and need enough sunlight in order for them to bloom and produce fruit.
Some of the Beardtongues (Penstemon spp.) are attractive plants for a well-drained location. They flower in summer with white, pink, red or blue trumpet-shaped flowers.
For a moist location in the garden, try the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). The leaves are green and glossy and are held umbrella-fashion. They can measure 30 cm across. The nodding, white flowers are hidden by the foliage and appear in late spring. They are beautiful plants but should be planted with strong growing companions such as ferns.
Another plant with very impressive foliage in the shape of a hand is the Rodgersia. Rodgersia pinnata has rose-bronze foliage and pink flowers in June-July. They prefer to be planted in moist conditions, near ponds or boggy locations.
Astilbes come in a large selection of colours and heights and are very attractive in the natural garden, providing splashes of colour. Their foliage is beautifully dissected and the flowers form lovely spikes. They need to be planted in a consistently moist soil in light shade.
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) makes a low, native groundcover in open, deciduous woodlands. White flowers appear in the spring, followed by showy clusters of red berries. It is fairly slow growing and is best used to cover small areas.