Adrian Higgins’s Washington Post column this week turned readers on to a wise native-plant designer of such projects as the New Jersey Pine Barrens – Darrel Morrison, now a hearty 84. 

(If you don’t subscribe to the Post, you can probably access it through your public library’s website.) 

Anyone wanting to enhance their home landscapes with native plants could learn a lot from Morrison. From Higgins, too. Here’s the meatiest passage:

In the gardening world, designers turned to perennials and grasses in the 1980s, and this naturalism later evolved into a popular and sometimes simplistic insistence on native plant gardens.

My mantra, as ever, is that gardens don’t need to be native; they need to be objectively beautiful. Great beauty can be achieved with native plants, but planting a few coneflowers here and some switch grass there isn’t enough; you need to plant en masse and in layers, drawing lessons from how these plants grow in the wild.

“People collect native plants and put them in a design and consider that to be an ecological design. It needs to be so much more based on whole communities of plants,” Morrison told me. Why? Not just because they are ecologically sound, but also because they are pleasing to the human eye and spirit. “You can’t really improve on the aesthetics of functioning plant communities, so they become the best models for design,” he says. And we are not just speaking of the prairie.

First, I appreciate both writers citing the importance of aesthetics, affirming that it’s right and natural for us to want beauty in our yards. 

Second, they’ve pinpointed why so many native-plant gardens don’t look very good, why they don’t look like gardens at all. To look their best, native plants need scale – enough space for sweeps and masses, more space than most gardeners have.

Morrison’s memoir is Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature