It’s Everywhere – Michael King on Naturalistic Planting.

February 21, 2014

in Articles, General Interest

Michael King has just stirred things up again by publishing a post on his blog suggesting we may be finding naturalistic planting a little ubiquitous. Is it all getting a bit samey? (Is the classic herbaceous border a bit samey too, though?) And are naturalistic schemes in danger of simply replicating themselves – planting by numbers?

Michael has been kind enough to give me permission to republish his piece here, so that you can all contemplate the issue. Susan Cohan already has, and her view will follow this closely.

Anne Wareham, editor

Broughton Grange, Walled Garden designed by Thomas Stuart-Smith, copyright Charles Hawes on thinkingardens

Broughton Grange, Walled Garden

Michael King:

I have always been uneasy with the term naturalistic planting, not with what it actually means, but with the way it is used in the media to describe any “new” planting scheme in which perennials together with ornamental grasses are mixed in an informal arrangement.

The true underlying principle of naturalistic gardening is the intrinsic chaos that exists in ecological processes that resolve themselves, through a myriad of outside influences, into patterns and plant communities that are distinctive and that can be recognised and categorised by humans. Using the trigger of association, it is possible for us to create planting schemes that recall memories, suggest relationships and aspirations, that together may kindle a host of emotional responses.

When planting schemes succeed in transporting us on such emotional journeys through their associations they earn the title of naturalistic, but not when they simply conform to a look that fits the name.

Broughton Grange, Walled Garden copyright Charles Hawes on thinkingardens

This is the same garden, actually….

Here, for those of you who missed it, is a copy of something that I wrote on this blog two years ago about the underlying principles and practices of what I think is naturalistic planting. My question is -” could the “new perennials movement”  be in danger of carpeting our public green spaces with the same “new” look”? Already here in Holland you can order perennial mixtures by the square meter to decorate any landscape.

Michael King  website

Michael King, portrait

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Deirdre in Seattle March 6, 2014 at 10:50 pm

I know I’m late, but I thought of this discussion as I made the rounds of my garden this afternoon pulling a hundred or so tree seedlings. Except in a few environments which the soil is too dry, too wet, or too poor to support trees, a permanent herbaceous border cannot be a “natural” ecosystem. Meadows are temporary things. The tree and shrubs colonize them as fast as birds and wind can bring in seeds. One can discuss the attractiveness of herbaceous borders, but to discuss their “naturalness” seems frankly silly. I’ve got to go pull more tree seedlings now.

annewareham March 7, 2014 at 12:08 am

O, yes, Deirdre – I live surrounded by woodland and in a garden always desperately trying to beat me and return to woodland. You’re so right! (Anne)

Michael King February 25, 2014 at 9:23 am

Perhaps I should try and answer Thomas and other’s comments. Of course I am trying to provoke a response and get people thinking about what gardens and gardening can bring to their lives. I loath dogma and have become irritated by the manner in which some gurus of the “new perennial movement” present it as the better/correct model for now. Also claims that it is more sustainable, has beneficial impact on the environment, is low in maintenance and ecologically valid when compared with former gardening styles and practices are far from proven.

What I want to point out is that “naturalistic” planting arose as a pragmatic solution for creating low-cost public planting schemes with high aesthetic value. It became a vehicle for communication of a host of ideas related to nature and conservation and as such is capable of going further than landscape decoration.

I suppose that the decorative qualities of naturalistic planting are as good a reason as any for creating it, but I know that it can take us further than just this. In my writing I try to emphasise the possibility of expressing ideas; whether these are for private or public appreciation is not important to me.

Thomas Rainer February 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Hi Michael,

Many good points here. I always enjoy your mix of provocation and instruction; always leaves me thinking.

I suppose I don’t really know what to do with the fact that your critique comes from you. You have a website called “Perennial Meadows” and sell books and ebooks that teach people how to implement naturalistic perennial planting on a variety of sites. Now you criticize it for being everywhere? Isn’t it just a testament to your success? Wasn’t the point of your site and books to help democratize naturalistic perennial planting and make it accessible?

I would think you’d rather enjoy its popularization; it seems from the last two posts, you think its movement into the mainstream is somehow bad. Love to hear your thoughts about that.

Little Big Bushwhacker February 22, 2014 at 10:10 pm

Spot on Thomas. I suspect the next round of naturalistic ‘provocation’ will be a dissertation as to the levels and credibility of ‘wild’ as opposed to control . Mmmm that might be a lark!

Silly Billy February 22, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Spot on T.R. Any form of gardening which at least tries to be less heavy handed in the consumption of finite resources is to be encouraged and indeed applauded.
I like to think that Mr Kings billboard is a kite flying exercise….who knows these days in this world of hard sell everything.

(apologies Ed. for my disorganised posting.I do try to keep control of my naturalism…!)

annewareham February 23, 2014 at 1:16 am

OK, Billy…do you want both of these comments up?

Silly Billy February 23, 2014 at 4:00 am

Ah i thought one got lost in the wash! Leave em be…. file em under futile!

Little Big Bushwhacker February 21, 2014 at 11:50 pm
Little Big Bushwhacker February 21, 2014 at 9:04 pm

And we all shine on.

David V. Bowen February 21, 2014 at 7:57 pm

There is a category of “naturalistic planting” missing from the discussion: as well as plantings that bring an emotional association, and plantings that “conform the a look”, there are some plantings, artfully and carefully chosen, that actually do create a semi-sustainable ecology. These plantings usually produce the emotional association, and have artistic merit, but they flourish almost sustainable, needing little work to prune some species and reinforce or replace others.

Little Big Bushwhacker February 21, 2014 at 10:37 pm

I agree entirely David V. Bowen. I also think there is way too much nit-picking about the branding/boxing and labelling…such a frightful bore! Quite some years ago the very capable (brain and writer) Hugh Johnson (Tradescant for RHS mag) coined ‘Pseudo Ecological’ for what was then the beginnings of the thrust for grasses ( and all that other fluffy stuff) beyond the lawn stuff… for me this summed it all up perfectly and it amuses me greatly to read all this wordy pingpong for a medium that really does not require a shelf (or is it an aisle) in Tesco/Cosco!
Best Oudolpian dreams (or nightmares)

Tristan Gregory February 21, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Any type of planting philosophy when implemented with discernment and discipline has the capacity to fascinate and inspire and for a scientific and refreshing approach to the plant components of this “naturalistic” style I offer my profound thanks to its originators.


When naturalistic is taken as an excuse for a lack of care and artlessness the impression I am often left with is Mandrill’s arse rather than romantic meadow or boundless prairie.

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