What is Natural? by Emma White

April 1, 2014

in Articles, General Interest


We love to talk about ‘natural’ gardens – but what does that mean? If anything?

Anne Wareham, editor

Cowslips in meadow at Veddw copyright Charles Hawes


Emma White:

I find myself in a bit of a quandary at the moment. I’ve spent the past three years looking at how the natural elements of gardens can improve psychological well-being; the subject of my doctoral thesis. But it seems that the more I read about natural features and environments, the more I realise that nobody actually knows what they mean by ‘natural’. Does natural refer to an aesthetic? To the presence of natural elements like plants and water? And are all plants natural?

In the world of psychology, where the majority aim to be as scientific as possible, striving to define each term and concept clearly, the lack of description for the word ‘natural’ seems most worrying. Many gloss over what they mean by it, comparing the reactions of people to some vague concept of a ‘natural environment’, like a park, garden, or tree-lined street, with a stereotypical urban environment, devoid of greenery and characterised by tarmac, concrete and cars. Unsurprisingly, they find that the natural and green environments are more attractive and psychologically beneficial than the urban ones. But few attempt to figure out what it is about so-called natural places that is so beneficial, and equally few to determine what makes places natural.

There is even disagreement amongst psychologists over what word they should use to describe natural. Some say ‘natural’, some say ‘nature’, and others say ‘green space’, ‘wilderness’, or ‘naturalness’. The trouble is, once you’ve focussed on something, you start to notice it everywhere. And I’m afraid I’ve realised that the problem is as rife in the gardening world as the psychological one.

Looking over the garden reviews written on our own, excellent, ThinkinGardens blog, I spot the terms ‘natural’, ‘nature’, ‘naturalistic’, ‘naturalism’, and ‘green space’, all used more or less interchangeably to describe the style or feel of a garden. I sympathise with Michael King in his distaste of the term ‘naturalistic planting’ (see his ThinkinGardens piece from April 2012); it seems to have penetrated the language of almost every gardening magazine over the past few years (and indeed my own articles), without any explanation of what it means.

So what exactly does ‘natural’ mean? Well, it is clearly something which the majority feel they intuitively understand, conjuring up strong images at its mention. The word, and indeed, all of its synonyms, are instantly recognisable, and have some sort of shared meaning that we have unwittingly collaborated on as a society. This societal understanding is created through the discussion of gardens: when, for example, designers comment on the ‘naturalistic’ style of Piet Oudolf’s perennial drifts; when writers like myself praise how ‘natural’ a space feels; and when we see Monty Don talking about the natural-looking planting at the edge of a curved pond.

The more we read about ‘natural’ or ‘naturalistic planting’ in magazines and the more we see it talked about it on TV, the more it is adopted as an acceptable term by both the public and by those who comment on gardens. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, feeding and growing on its own use. And the more we use it, the more we instinctively feel we know what it means; which is, presumably, how our ever-evolving language adds new words and meanings.

But the term often means different things to different people. For some it refers to the unchanged nature of a landscape, where human influence has been kept to a minimum. Yet this is a very hard thing for the untrained eye to judge, given the gradual and relentless historic influence that human activity has had on the world around us. In this sense then, the actual level of naturalness does not matter to the person so much as how natural they believe something to be. Take the landscape below, for example. This place was a fort hundreds of years ago, the surrounding landscape scoured by more recent mining activities. Yet the old stone and the presence of grass and trees, along with the relative absence of very recent human activity, fills it with a sense of naturalness. We must ask then, is there a time limit after which a human element becomes part of the natural scenery?

Natural Scene - Copyright Emma White on thinkingardens


Perhaps the natural elements which have re-colonised the site have disguised many of the human elements, and naturalness is therefore something which (at least superficially) appears relatively untouched by human hands? If we think about gardens in this sense, we can compare the loose and ‘naturalistic-appearing’ perennials in the borders on the left and right of the photo below, with the neatly clipped box hedging at the centre.

Is it simply the perception of human intervention that makes the perennials appear natural and the box more manicured? The gardener placed both there; chose the positions, carefully watered and tended both, decided how they should develop, and removed the weedy competition. The growth and shape of the box hedge has been more visibly constrained, with its leaves regularly cut, and yet it is not as if the perennials are free from human influence. These are deadheaded regularly, perhaps subject to a ‘Chelsea Chop’, supported with stakes, and cut down at the end of the season. The human influence is all in the perception.

Bury Court - Copyright Emma White on thinkingardens

Perennials and box at Bury Court Gardens

Others may consider a place natural if it attracts wildlife. In this way, the terms ‘natural’ and ‘nature’, which are so closely linked morphologically, also betray their overlap in meaning, with the presence of nature making a place seem more natural. Similarly, the interchangeable use of the term ‘green space’ with ‘natural’, shows that plants are at the heart of what it means for a place to be natural. This is often found in psychological research; plants being an important natural element in the improvement of well-being.

But it seems that within plants, there are large differences in how natural they are perceived to be. Native plants, for example, are frequently considered more natural, with the use of the term in this sense emphasising the fact that a plant is naturally occurring in a particular place. In this way then, we are talking about ‘ecological naturalness’ rather than ‘perceived naturalness’. Take, for example, plants like Achillea or ferns (see first photo, below) which appear native to many, and compare them with the exotic blooms of Calliandra californica (below, second), which are likely to appear less natural to most.

Achillea and ferns - Copyright Emma White on thinkingardens

Achillea and ferns

Calliandra californica - Copyright Emma White on thinkingardens

Calliandra californica

Similarly, we can suggest that geraniums would be more likely to be considered natural in appearance compared with their namesake, the Pelargonium, with its gaudier, non-native appearance. And yet these flowers are still natural in that they are elements from nature: compare them to concrete and this becomes clear.

It seems that ‘natural’ therefore exists on a very complex continuum, being influenced by how native a place or object appears, how much human influence is perceived there, and how recent that influence appears. There are many more elements which are likely to influence the level of perceived naturalness, and unfortunately, everyone is likely to have slightly different ideas about what those are.

But does it really matter if we don’t understand what ‘natural’ means? I would suggest that in some senses it doesn’t. We can create an overall aesthetic of naturalness, conveying whatever it is we wish to in a space, and it can be shared by the majority without ever needing to define it.

But in other cases this is simply not enough. If I am, as a psychologist, to be able to say that natural spaces are good for our well-being, then I need to be able to classify something as natural, and to know what makes some places more natural than others. Likewise, if we as gardeners want to understand what it is that makes a garden so beautiful or so relaxing, and to be able to properly compare and discuss gardens, surely we need to know what we mean when we call a place ‘natural’?

Is it time to rethink the language we are using? Could this be the end of the term ‘naturalistic planting’, or least the end of its ambiguity? It’s up to you.

Emma White –  website

garden writer, designer, photographer and environmental psychologist

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