How to design a natural looking garden

Gardens come in all shapes and sizes with a myriad of styles and themes, but in reality there are only 3 basic forms. Structured gardens, natural more informal gardens and themed gardens, this week’s post is all about creating a natural looking garden.

Natural Garden Styles

These gardens are by their very nature less ‘built’, with fewer hard landscaped structures. The idea being to create a garden that is easy to look at. It should feel as though you are immersed in nature, with plants all around. It would seem that humans have not influenced the creation – it has all happened by magic (or mother nature)! So what types of gardens fall into this natural and informal design style. Words like cottage, romantic, wildlife, and unstructured conjure a vision of loveliness that probably looks a bit like this.

image of natural looking garden with sweeping lawns and blue flowers

Or maybe your ideal vision is more like this.. either way, in all cases, the sun is shining. If it’s raining, the rain is soft and light and backlit by the morning sunshine, the grass is always green (always). The spiders produce perfectly symmetrical webs encased in dew and all the plants look green and lush and healthy….. and not a single one flops over anything else! Life is good eh?

Small lush green natural looking garden with wooden seat tucked amongst the garden border

OK, so romantic daydreaming finished, what in reality are these gardens and how can you make one if you aren’t an expert gardener or particurly dedicated garden-lover.

Why create a natural looking garden anyway?

The fundamental design principle everyone should follow before you think about any changes to a garden is to understand what you want the garden to deliver to you. How should your garden make you feel when you use it? These natural and informal gardens are very different in feel to the more structured garden, so it has to feel right for you.

The underlying role of these types of garden is one of escapism; the parts of the garden you use the most, the seating areas etc should almost feel as though these have been carved out of the plants to make a space to sit. These gardens are supposed to be immersive, you are walking through a little natural environment and rather than the plants being fitted into the spaces created for them, it seems the other way round. The plants are the important bit.

Now the nice thing about informality, is that there are very few design rules, any shape goes. Colours can be mixed together and plants are dotted about in a seemingly happy jumble – that looks ‘just right’. But is it as easy as just choosing your favourite plants and creating a border and popping everything in – well; I said few rules but not no rules!

undulating garden border, edged with brick and newly planted

OK, here is a newly planted garden, with soft undulating borders and brick edging to the lawn, so will it grow to be a cottage style natural looking border? It ticks the ‘no straight lines’ box, and cottage gardens often edge the lawn with bricks. There are no hard modern shapes; so will it work as an informal garden style? hmmm!

The 3 important Rules to Remember!

Humans are terrible ‘tinkerers’; we always look to tweak things to suit us or our notion of what natural or nature is. Gardens are the prime example of this, we have to create a garden in an image/style that brings flora into the garden – but on our terms. This is what the above gardener has done – interpreted nature in their own way. Now that fne, if this garden floats their boat, but it doesn’t look particularly natural.

Why well 3 reasons, firstly don’t create borders, then you need ask the question ‘what would nature do‘ and then you need to think like a river!

Don’t make a border – make a shape.

not a natural looking garden shape. Weird wobbly lawn cut to fit around curved garden borders

However big or small your garden is, certain areas are going to visually dominate the garden, simply as these are the largest shapes. The lawn, the patio, paths these are going to be the most noticeable shapes, so create these first. The borders become the left over spaces, but plants are brilliant at concealing awkward angles and weird left-over shapes. Lawns are not…

How would Nature ‘do’ the planting

The layout on the left is more natural, the right hand is more planned – the difference is subtle but noticeable

In any informal garden style, the whole idea is to create a tapestry of plants that appear to have grown there all by themselves. So how would that have happened – well, seeds would have been blown, deposited or carried by animals from one place to another. This is how you need to think. How would the plants spread naturally if left to their own devices, you need to replicate this. Take this diagram, the image on the left shows broadly how plants would group together if left to their own devices, the one on the right has had a human intervention. Neither are wrong, but if you want a natural looking garden; you are going to have to resist the temptation to tweak!

How would the wind disperse the plants in your garden, there would be a main ‘clump’ but then the plant would appear in other parts too, but in smaller groups. The main rule to take from this is never buy just one plant… or the planting will always look odd as it will create that ‘how did that get there question’ which is what you are trying to avoid.

Think like a river!

aerial view of meandering river

This relates entirely to your journey through the garden and you need to think like a river. The areas in the garden that are used by you are surrounded by plants, so you have a journey to get there, this is where the river comes in. How would a river get to the a lawn or little patio at the bottom of the garden. Would it flow straight or would it have to go round and obstacle (the border for example) if so, what route would it take?

But it would never meander like this!

It may sound like too large a scale to talk about rivers flowing in a small back garden, but the point I am trying to make is that you have to use natural laws to make the garden shape work. The lawn can be any shape you like, but if it looks like a human twist on a natural flow, you run the risk of it looking unnatural.

Make the journey interesting

This river then provides the route for the journey through the garden and this is the last and final piece of the design puzzle. Natural looking gardens are all about the plants, the bees, birds and insects, you sit in their home. You journey to a part of the garden where you can sit and enjoy the show the garden puts on – so make the journey interesting. The route to your favoured spot has to immerse you in the garden. It should make you stop and look, touch and feel the plants. It is all part of the process of escaping the human world and entering Mother Nature’s.

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