What do you think about the planting below?

A corner of my own garden

Hopefully you like it; it’s a bit of my own garden so feel free to be complimentary…. Do you think the plants are too close together, possibly even overcrowded?

We’re taught as gardeners to give plants plenty of room to grow and develop. It’s so ingrained in our collective gardening psyche that even after more than 20 years of success the ‘New Naturalistic’ or ‘Dutch Wave’ planting is still seen as revolutionary. The idea of specifically not giving plants lots of room to grow into big specimens is seen as strange, possibly even horticulturally dangerous.

We like big plants and little plants growing together, but it takes courage to actually do it

I’ll confess that it’s something I’ve only recently had the courage to do myself. We want the best plants for of our hard-earned money, and it seems disrespectful to the growers and even the plants themselves not to allow the plants in our gardens to reach their full potentials.

Outside the garden…

Step into nature, into the most iconic natural garden in the world, and you see quite a different dynamic to the ones we nurture in our own gardens. We lovingly plant our treasures in the best soil we can provide, we lavish them with feed and water, and we fight off anything that dares to upset the balance in our idyllic world.

Vegetation along a road near my home

Nature, by contrast, is a hard parent; germinating seedlings must immediately deal not only with the vagaries of weather and climate but also well established plants looking to rob the seedling of its meagre resources. Only the tough survive, a far cry from the cosseted world of the garden plant.

Logically after millions of years of this battle royale the plant world should by now be dominated by a handful of species. Logically… but the natural world is illogical.

The majority of species on this planet are adapted to occupy a niche that isn’t occupied by something bigger and more dominant, and we see that in the way plants behave with each other. Climbing plants, what I believe in the US are referred to as ‘vines’, are adapted to use other species as frames so they don’t have to support themselves; it’s a neat trick to avoid competition between plants on the ground and exploit a niche.

Different hedge plants find their own niche, making a mass of vegetation

Bringing order

We train our plants up man-made structures so they can be enjoyed, while in nature the same plants (or their wild ancestors) will use trees and shrubs as supports… but we don’t want to risk our treasured vines ruining our treasured woody plants.

However by understanding the relationships between plants in nature we can hope to gain insight into how we can nurture greater harmony in our gardens. Taking inspiration from nature, good and bad, we’re emboldened to break many of the rules of horticulture.

Yes there are complications. It’s important to take time to understand that it’s the pace of growth that’s important when selecting plants, not simply the possible height and spread. Two plants might have the same dimensions on paper, yet if one grows far more quickly than the other plant will suffer if they’re grown together.

‘Butterburs’ are usually too big for gardens, but Petasites paradoxus is, as the name suggests, a paradox

We mustn’t be afraid to act as referee or editor in our gardens either. Nature is cruel but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be benevolent; occasional editing of a fast-paced species to redress the natural balance is something we shouldn’t be reluctant to do.

Whatever we grow and however we grow, we must remember one key thing: a garden is not, and never will be, a natural space. As soon as we plant something (whether native to us or not) or make an alteration, we’re making a garden.