This guest post by Kelly Norris is excerpted from New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden by Kelly D. Norris (Cool Springs Press, 2021).
History is full of great visions about landscapes that rest on the mantle of place. The Romans had a phrase —genius loci—that quite literally referred to the protective spirit of a place. American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was often called a “genius of place,” the literal translation of said Roman phrase due to his uncanny ability to depict scenery in the most disarming and convincing ways. Yet for all this fascination with wild scenes and natural constructs, gardening is so often disconnected from nature’s mechanics despite our most earnest convictions and intentions. Nature, if conceived as some mothering spirit, would seem to surround us anyway.
The present state of the world calls for a dramatic rethinking of gardens as critical strands of the natural weft, patches in nature’s quilt. It requires seeing gardens as more than beautiful garnish to the architectural entrée. It’s time to get curious about how they work and what they do. The horticultural surroundings of our homes and communities are inscriptions into a greater order, an intervention with place through the medium of planting. We need not forego earthly pleasure for we are rich through belonging. The landscape for tomorrow is a community of plants and people, a beautiful entanglement with trowels and the natural world. Most importantly, an ecological garden isn’t an attempt to recreate some pristine version of nature but, rather, to embrace the nature of the garden.
At first, this could seem like a fairy tale about an Eden of promises and dreams. In fact, it’s merely a recalibration of what a garden is and how we keep it. Traditional horticulture of the last several hundred years in the Western world has grown from a superficial, if not agronomic, foundation. Through exacting cultivation, regimen, and protocols, gardeners can produce the biggest pumpkin, the greenest hedge, or the lushest florals akin to yields in a field of commodity crops. A single plant or an artistic idea dominates our focus at any one time. In this paradigm, plants exist somewhat statically as if they were furniture in a beautiful room. This beauty flourishes on account of a resource called “the gardener.” Planting, fertilizing, weeding, pruning, cutting back or tying up, dividing and replanting sound like the seasonally ordered to-do lists that govern the lives of many gardeners, one plant at a time. It’s farming on a smaller scale, regardless of the crop or whether we’re feeding anyone. This human-derived and human-focused landscape comes at a considerable cost, paid in dollars, sweat, and tears.
But what if we changed the objective and the rules of the game? Instead of arriving at a finish line at the end of the growing season, what if the garden became a place where a nearly infinite number of life cycles took place season after season if we’d only begin with informed planting choices? More than a parade of flowers and fruits, a cadence of life drives the rhythm of the seasons. We needn’t observe the rituals of specimen care quite so carefully. In this paradigm, our role is to manage resources and apply them thoughtfully towards something more than pretty. Planting is an act of commencement. Weeding, pruning, and cutting back are editorial gestures that adjudicate the trajectory of the garden. Fertilizing as we know it is largely unnecessary. This garden isn’t a hungry cause that we must slave over or that requires constant life support. It pays dividends and grows capital through perpetuation and persistence. It’s a system that sometimes requires optimization even as it’s responsive to change or disturbance. This richly complex garden doesn’t exclude or except beauty—it exudes it.
At first, this might sound incredulous—whatever will plants do if you’re not there to keep them in line? But if you can suspend disbelief that plants can’t get along without you, you can start to see the garden as a dynamic place instead of a static assemblage of plants that need individual care as if they were patients in a hospital ward. Wild plant communities offer endless opportunities for learning these lessons, revealing visual patterns for how plants interact and how they respond to environmental processes. Plants occupy niches based on their unique abilities to exploit available resources and complete their genetically programmed life cycles. We can translate these insights into the linchpins for success. In the garden, as in the wild, plants reflect site conditions including soil type, topography, aspect, climate, and ultimately our gardening activity. A “misbehaving” plant is merely a reflection of our matchmaking, not some pernicious biological threat. In order to cultivate a designed plant community of the greatest integrity, it’s important to match plants to the conditions of the site and relate them to one another in an ecologically thoughtful way. Forcing our ideas or tastes against the grain of terroir only sets us up for heartbreak and failure.
Traditionally, a garden was only bounded by human creativity: imagine a color scheme or conjure up a theme, pick your favorite plants, and voila! But why should we ever let the color of the living room walls determine the construction of the house? What if, instead, we flipped the script and discussed how to plant a garden that works from a sturdy, functional, and site-appropriate foundation upon which we could layer boundless creative thought? While wild nature might be the master, we can pursue a more ecologically conscious gardening that grows harmoniously between our artful yearnings and the nature of place. In this way, a panoply of good planting choices—added up, multiplied, and extrapolated across a landscape— results in the kind of ecologically vibrant, beautiful garden worth living in. This is a garden you want and that works, with more carbon captured, more buzzing and flitting, and an inherent appeal to the curious experiences with wildness we all need more of. This is the kind of garden to spend more time making: one that after some initial effort continues to remake itself.
It’s that dynamic, self-perpetuating quality that gives wilder gardens a sense of authenticity and constant reinvention. Most gardeners wisely acknowledge and marvel at change in the garden, but readily resist challenges to our notions of control. The biogeographic history of landscapes like tallgrass prairie were heavily informed by mammalian disturbance. We don’t have to adopt a preservationist mindset to create space for greater ecology. We can and should be involved in our landscapes—we are nature, too. But we don’t have to control them as a puppeteer with a marionette. Lean in for a closer look and you’ll find that plants are up to something. Absent our machinations, landscapes remain alive and in motion.
You should know at this point there are no mistakes in wilder plantings; rather, there are only lessons learned. Some lessons are worth repeating. Some are worth learning never to repeat. Don’t expect the police of prudent horticulture to haul you away for your shortcomings or deputize you for your successes. Imagine most of all a world with more plants that we’ve taken notice of. Plants run the world and look pretty good doing it. We don’t have to personally covet them all, but we should want abundance, the mothering force of ecology even if it’s not gregarious or seen. Abundance is captivating and enthralling, the kind of experience that our brains struggle to make sense of instead defaulting to awe, a feeling of reverence and wonderment. What if more gardens, no matter their size, struck people with awe for all the nature they fostered? Plant one and find out.
You can order signed copies of Kelly’s books at https://kellydnorris.com/books.
Kelly D. Norris is one of the leading horticulturists of his generation. An award-winning author and plantsman, Kelly’s work in gardens has been featured in The New York Times, Organic Gardening, Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Fine Gardening and Garden Design and in numerous local and regional media appearances. Kelly also presents plants for Cottage Farms Direct on QVC and lectures widely to consumer and industry audiences.
His passion for planting at the intersections of horticulture and ecology has culminated in his new book New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden.