Wild-ish at Heart: Naturalistic garden hacks

If you’re curious to try out a more naturalistic approach to planting design, here are some practical hacks to help you get the root ball rolling

Since many gardeners are likely working with a current gardens vs. the freedom of a fresh canvas, these ideas can help you test out some smaller projects and experiments over time. 

In Part One of this post, I discussed the idea of seeing plants differently: in terms of beauty and purpose, and the roles they can play within a biodiverse plant community.

Design layers: vertical and horizontal

One can start simply. For example, skip the time-honoured habit of dead-heading spent blooms to instead allow seed-heads to develop. Or leave an entire perennial bed to stand into fall and winter so you can experience each stage of its transition. The cleanup can wait till spring.

Here’s a glowing example taken straight from the High Line with the burnished gold of Amsonia hubrichtii intermingled with Aromatic Aster. 

Amsonia + Aster prepare for fall

Gradually, you can start to frame future plant choices around this wider criterion to source plants that perform on every level.

Without further ado, here are some naturalistic hacks for your delectation.

Plant a micro-matrix

A matrix is the base layer of a planting comprised of low-growing plants like sedges, grasses, ferns etc. into which taller perennials are placed to create a meadow or woodland effect. You can start from scratch or add a matrix to an existing planting simply by threading the matrix plants in and around taller more structural perennials to approximate the same unifying effect.

There are many matrix plants to choose from with low-growing, spreading sedges for shade, or smaller grasses like Bouteloua gracilis or Sesleria autumnalis for sunny and dry conditions.

Here’s an example from my previous garden of creating a micro-matrix with Carex pensylvanica by dotting it around some ferns and woodland perennials. Over time, the humble sedge threads itself in and around the planting to connect all the disparate parts of the planting together. 

Click the arrows or dots to view the slideshow.

  • Micro-matrix: in early spring, I planted the straw-like Carex pensylvanica

For the shady micro-matrix, you can also try creeping perennials for shade like Asarum canadense or A. europaeum, Geranium sanguineum, Sedum ternatum or Galium odoratum (thug alert!) to cover ground as shown below. 

Micro-matrix in action

In sunny spots, you can play with options like Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta ‘Blue Cloud’ for a hazy matrix edging, or Callirhoe involucrata to provide blanket coverage and scatterings of purple flowers. 

Or you can be wild-ishly adventurous and combine a few different species to create a ‘micro-succession matrix’ as discussed a few posts back.

Game of Flags

Be prepared to make field adjustments before you do any actual planting – on whatever scale. This advice comes from prairie whisperer, Roy Diblik and I’ve found it extremely useful. Use different coloured stake flags to roughly position every plant in a new design scheme before actually buying your plants. This hack gives you time and space to move things around, and estimate many plants you’ll need before you dig in with your spade.

Click the to see a slideshow of this idea in action in the planting of my new pond-side garden in Mono.

  • Game of flags: start with colour-coded pin flags

I spent a good few days playing with the flags (each colour indicating a different grouping of perennials or grasses). I marked all the plants in the key structural layer and then planted a randomized matrix plants in and around. It also took quite some time to source some of the more unusual plants and I staked flags to reserve their spots.

I now use flags as placeholders whenever reworking an area to play with different patterns before committing with the actual plants. 

“Stretch it out.”

Sterling advice from the master, Piet Oudolf when laying out a new planting. If you find a great plant combination, keep working it through the area at hand to create flow i.e. “Stretch it out” to create continuity.

Here’s a famous example of the Salvia river from Chicago’s Lurie Garden snapped in full flower by Piet last month. 

A post shared by Piet Oudolf (@pietoudolf) on

The same principle applies to a smaller garden in micro.

Go for asymmetrical drifts vs. choppy or straight lines. I often dot one or two plants at random beyond a main grouping to look as if they’ve self-seeded to flow in with their neighbours. 

Know thy plants:

Research your plant list with due diligence via Internet and trustworthy flip-worthy references like Allan Armitage’s Guide to Herbaceous Plants. Some of my other long-time book faves are Dream Plants for the Natural Garden by Piet Oudolf & Henk Gerritsen, and The Explorer’s Garden: Rare and Unusual Perennials by Dan Hinkley. For a modern spin, I’m much taken with Plants with Style written by precocious mid-West plantsman Kelly Norris. 

The Internet can be a blessing and a curse for accuracy of information. But you can find my recommendations under Plant Resources on the panel at right.

Truth be told, nothing beats growing the plants for yourself: seeing how they thrive or perish over time in your local conditions. That’s been my best learning curve by far.

Please support local nurseries and don’t get fooled by the marketing of the latest “must-have” cultivars, which in the rush to market can be unproven in the field. Your best plant deals are 9 cm pots and buying plugs if possible, especially for matrix planting where massing is important.

Plugs are far easier to source for wholesale than retail customers. Here’s an example of a deep plug I saw growing in a trip to the prolific North Creek Nursery last fall.

Deep plug fresh from North Creek Nursery

Smaller plants or trees will adapt more quickly to local conditions, at a fraction of the price. Depending on the species, try to space small pots or plugs fairly closely (i.e. from 8-12″)  and let them mass in over time to cover ground and create the layers in your garden. Of course, leave more space for future giants. 

Perennial relationships:

I studied Piet Oudolf’s planting combinations to get a feel for his style but ultimately, started to make it my own. Piet openly mixes North American natives with exotic perennials, but the critical thing is they all share a common habitat and can thus form a designed plant community. I favour this open-minded approach but do what’s right for you – the important thing is to make a garden.

Here’s an example of sun-worshipping perennials drawn from his palette that can all work brilliantly when grouped together by common habitat:

Piet Oudolf's Good Neighbours: Sun

Best practices: Site Prep + Maintenance

• In new site preparation, disturb the existing ground as little as possible. When creating a new bed on existing lawn, use 2-3 glyphosate treatments to first kill off turf and then plant directly into the dead turf to avoid disturbing the seed bank.

• Make best friends with a long-handled Dutch push hoe for season one to keep weeds from gaining a foothold.

• Naturalistic maintenance is more zen that traditional gardening. Piet advises “Experience what happens, act when necessary”. Leave plants standing for winter interest and then cut back in early spring (with mulch mower or weed whacker), leaving debris where it lies to amend the soil. If your planting is dry soil prairie-style, burn the debris or rake it off.

• Accept imperfection. Leave at least one corner of the garden to be messy. It’s great for the wild things that may choose to call your garden their home.

The Prairie: Longwood Gardens

Another moment in the sun

I’m delighted to share news that The New Perennialist has won another Silver Media Award for Best Overall Blog by the Garden Writers Association of North America. Two years ago, it took the Gold as well and that may still happen in August. 

No matter. The future looks bright in any colour.

In the midst of a hyper-active summer,  stay tuned for an advanced deep-dive into High German Planting Design.

I hope to also write about my recent foray to the West Coast where I spoke to 400 people as part of the three-day Hardy Plant Society Study Weekend in Victoria, BC. In August, I’m off Europe with plans to attend the Klinta Conference in Sweden in early September, an event very much focused on the shape of things to come.


Parts of this post first appeared in the Spring 2017 theme issue of Garden Making magazine. Pick up the whole issue online

20 thoughts on “Wild-ish at Heart: Naturalistic garden hacks

    • You’re spot on, Naomi. I stumbled upon the Word Cloud idea as a way to visualize Piet’s notion of plants as “good neighbours”. A great hack for designers too for sure.

  1. Photos are beautiful and accompanying text very helpful indeed. Gives me a good series of ideas/techniques to get started on the blank slate one acre behind our just purchased house. Thanks v much.

  2. Love the John Muir sign. I picked it up on a t-shirt in a gift shop in a national park in Idaho and gave it to my son-in-law for Christmas. Funny how tacky a t-shirt can be without a John Muir saying on it… especially from your mom-in-law……

    Good hacks – or, as we used to call it back in the Middle Ages, “advice”. :)

  3. Tony, if one were forced to get only one how- to book on this subject, which would it be?
    Thank you for your great articles and also the facebook group. I find it all very inspiring.

    • You’re so welcome. Check “Resources” towards the end of the previous post It gives you a pretty good list starting from introductory – like Roy Diblik’s book to more advanced. The right book depends where you’re at in your own learning. If you could have only one, I’d perhaps recommend “Planting: A New Perspective” because it really gets into the details with a great plant glossary at the end.

  4. Thanks for all the information–very honest and straight-forward. Do you have experience growing these types of plants from seed? I thought it might be good to grow a chosen “matrix” plant from seed, but I am not sure how difficult a carex or calamintha would be?

    • Good question. I haven’t grown them from seed but something like Carex pensylvanica will seed about and readily spread by stolons in favourable conditions. I’ve never propagated Calamintha seed before but it can be done.

      Your strategy is sound to start a matrix plant from seed – but it will require planning and patience. The new James Hitchmough excellent new book Sowing Beauty, focuses on this approach for layered complex plantings.

      If you’re going DIY: Look at your habitat and see what might work by cross-referencing on a site like North Creek Nurseries. For example, start with something like Packera aurea.

  5. In this very useful article you mention using glyphosate treatments for creating a new bed and this in order to avoid disturbing the soil. Where square meterage is not too overwhelming, I would recommend using really large sheets of cardboard pegged down with large stones/bricks. The lack of light kills off grass and weed and conditions the soil at the same time.

    Also I was interested in the flag suggestion – I will try this in my own garden instead of drawn plans. Thank you for this and other tips.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Catharine. Your hack sounds like the “lasagna method”, which pops up on the web here and there. The Garden Professors offer a version that uses arboreal wood mulch instead (cardboard is fairly evil stuff): http://gardenprofessors.com/is-lasagna-gardening-really-worth-the-effort/.

      I love the flags. But perhaps should have mentioned I based their initial positioning on a detailed drawn plan. That said, I did a fair bit of improvising when translating plant positions from paper to the actual garden. Of course, you also use the flags to do it all on the fly.

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  8. Last Friday i heard Roy Diblik speak. Today I ‘found’ you. The stars align! Thanks for the inspiration and very useful ideas – now and in the future.

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