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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Benjamin Vogt November 3, 2014 at 11:06 pm

Nature does not exist.

Stephen April 11, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Very good, thoughtful essay, Emma – and thanks to others on the thread as well for some acute comments with some good insights. Re this though:

“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?”

I think the answer to that last question is, clearly, “no”.

As linguistic philosophers would point out, a definition is simply the summary of the usage of a word, and the point here is that “natural” and “naturalistic” are simply two of many, many terms in everyday usage where not everyone in the language game is necessarily playing by quite the same rules, with different people using the terms in slightly different ways to connote slightly (or even quite substantially) different ideas. Sometimes as well the very same people uses the term to cover a number of related but distinct ideas. There’s no need to get hung up about this. That’s how language works. Always has. Always will.

The point here is not to get bogged down in semantics and insist on one meaning over another as “correct” – language is democratic: to do that is neither possible nor desirable. The point rather is to tease out the different meanings that are commonly used and then assess each of them for what they are worth, as this thread is usefully doing.

Thus we have native planting; impressionistic planting to inspire recollection of one landscape or another that is commonly termed “natural” (notwithstanding that on inspection the hand of humankind is present to a greater or lesser degree in all such cases – think ploughed cornfields or prairie fires, for example); attempting to create gardens requiring (relatively) little outside maintenance to create self-sustaining ecologies etc etc) – and then try and identify what is valuable and useful in each of those different ideas that gather under the same label….

Of course, I guess we all have to recognise as well (i) that although these terms cover a number of different ideas, they all contain, at least at a higher level of generality, some common threads, (ii) strong enough at least for there to be a reason why all these ideas cluster under the same terms notwithstanding the detailed differences between them, and (iii) probably (in the vast majority of cases at least) someone calling a planting or garden “natural” or “naturalistic” is saying that as a term of approval, suggesting that if we want to understand what appeals to someone about a garden and why it might be beneficial to them or otherwise enhance their experience, that is something we might want to explore and pin down….

Plus the very fact the terms have become so common in recent times suggests as well they touch on some points that are of importance to gardens and gardeners and garden designers in current conditions. Maybe 50 years hence that will not be so. Maybe in other less industrialised cultures its isn’t (anyone know the answer to that?) But as of now, at least in large parts of the developed world, it is. So that in itself is an important signal we need to pay attention and ask why this is so, not try and wish it away.

So no – please don’t bin the PHD!

annewareham April 5, 2014 at 8:39 am

From Rory Stuart:


a. Natural as opposed to artificial.

b. Artificial – the product of artifice.

c. Humankind, the great artificers.

d. Thus humans constantly produce what is not natural.


a. Humans are a part of nature “red in tooth and claw”.

b. Like other animals we are subject to instincts, and to time – “From hour to hour we ripe and ripe,/And then from hour to hour we rot and rot.”

c. So what is produced by a human must be part of the natural world.


a. A command impossible to obey – “Behave more naturally!”

b. Because cerebral activity and self-consciousness inhibit spontaneous naturalness.

c. So the more we think and plan the less natural our planting. Though it may be ‘naturalistic’, meaning, I take it, “imitative of nature”.


a. What is natural obeys its own laws; the fittest in that time and place survive.

b. Our species has survived, and more. Have our pleasure gardens contributed to this survival?

James Golden April 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm

This discussion of what is natural or nature or naturallstic goes way back to the Greeks, and far beyond that if you don’t limit yourself to Western civilization. The word is redefined in every culture and time. I like the thoroughness of your essay and your asking the questions you ask. But I think we can’t really come up with answers that are true for every person, and certainly not every time. When Alexander Pople said “first follow nature,” he was speaking of the innate rational nature of man in the Age of Enlightenment, not birds and bunnies and daffodils. When Wordsworth wrote of nature, he meant something else entirely.

Emma Marris’ important book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, makes many good points on this issue, one of which is that human beings are part of nature. Nature is everywhere, even in our cities, not in isolated, pristine wilderness (which doesn’t really exist). Human beings have been manipulating nature for thousands of years.

So this recent discussion seems rather short-sited. Certainly, the words “nature,” “natural,” and “naturalistic” have different meanings for different people. That doesn’t invalidate their use. We should really use them as starting points for discussion, and thinking about what we mean when we use them. I agree with Michael King about much, but I’ve disagreed with him on his website about use of the term “naturalistic style,” because, though the meaning is highly ambiguous, it’s a term that allows people in many parts of the gardening world to better communicate, it conveys a fairly clear idea to many people with different levels of knowledge and different approaches to gardening. Its use will certainly lead to misunderstanding too, but that isn’t necessarily bad if it also leads to interaction and discussion of what one means by the term. I’ll certainly continue to use “naturalistic style” to described my garden and many others, knowing full well that others may agree or disagree, and that by using that term I raise the possibility of finer exploration of what it means (and the meanings will change). I even wrestle with myself about its meaning, and that forces me to think about what I mean, then think again. It’s a never ending process. That’s the way words are.

Charles Hawes April 2, 2014 at 7:31 pm

First thought. With all that ambiguity about terminology that you so clearly identify I guess you are ripping up the PhD outline and starting again with something that you can have more confidence in.Poor you.
2nd thought. The whole concept (of naturalness) is shot to pieces and we ought to ditch it. Really. Refuse to enter into dialogue about such nonsense.
We might get clearer what people mean if they contrast what they want with what they don’t want. Sarah Price clearly likes to arrange a limited range of plants in a way that could be imagined to be closer to that where the hand of woman is less obvious. Maybe.
I want to stop this nonsense. Let’s just stop talking about nature. Please. It just won’t do.

Tristan Gregory April 3, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Nature is a useful tool in both the construction and appreciation of a garden, what’s more it’s a tool that will be employed whether we want it to be or not so we may as well learn to design with it rather than be caught out when it lets rip in spite of our careful considerations; I mean more than a wildlife pond or nettle patch behind the compost bins by the way.

Naturalistic gardening etc. as a pseudo-scientific guilt amelioration device however is something we can very definitely set aside next to heather beds and garden gnomes.

Pierre Duranleau April 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Points all well taken. Of course, there are other concepts and realities to deal with as well, such as permaculture and biophylia, to name but a few. How do those concepts fit into the discussion concerning ‘nature’, the ‘natural’, ‘naturalism’, etc. It also reminds me of John Dixon Hunt’s struggle with trying to define the term ‘Landscaping’ in his work ‘Greater perfections’. Like ‘nature’, it’s a subject so broad and open to interpretation that one doesn’t know how or where to end the discussion. Hunt’s does develop the theory of gardens as a type of ‘Third nature’, which is interesting. I won’t bore anyone with the details, but here is a link of interest: http://some-landscapes.blogspot.ca/2009/06/third-nature.html


Don Statham April 2, 2014 at 12:39 pm

I think each generation defines the meaning of that word for their times. – William Robinson in his book The Wild Garden created a whole movement based on looking at the wildflowers and natural landscapes in reaction to the stilted bedding out plants preferred by Victorians. The Arts and Crafts Movement followed Robinson led by planting in drifts mimicking nature and liked the contrast of the loose planting set against the strong hedged garden rooms; taking many ideas from painting. In our own times the Native Landscape Movement which goes back over 180 years sought to restore and preserve a semblance of a natural landscape. I heard Darrel Morrison say in a symposium in Ithaca a few weeks ago that Jens Jensen, one of the founders of the native movement in Chicago, said you can’t really copy nature, but you can get a theme, a dominant idea, key species and key feeling. I have to agree. I think when we use the word we are trying to capture something that feels like nature. We can’t copy nature but I think it’s something to strive for.

Stephen Hackett April 2, 2014 at 9:57 am

This article sent me back to the cultural philosopher Raymond Williams’ “Keywords” (1976). He begins his article on ‘nature’ as follows:
“Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language,” – and he identifies at least three significant areas of meaning. He draws attention to the way that the word has, since the 18th Century, been associated with a moral quality of ‘goodness’ or ‘innocence’, and with that which is not made by humankind. Although – as with ruins, or ancient hedgerows – the manufactured will eventually slip over into the natural, so there is a factor of temporality here too. Thus a highly manufactured 18th century parkland might be perceived as more ‘natural’ than a garden made by Piet Oudolf last year?
I personally tend to think that the cultural priority given to the natural over the manufactured is the really knotty issue – in what sense is nature (morally, aesthetically, spiritually) ‘better’ than the made?
There is an assumption that ‘natural forms’ – ie those which either are, or closely mimic, forms found in the non-human world – are essentially better than those which are not. Contrast the public’s attitude to Brutalist architecture with its appreciation for the Gothic – which was, in the beginning, seen as barbaric and primitive – but also somehow ‘pure’ and unsullied by too much brainwork. The columns, tracery and dappled light of a mediaeval cathedral are often described in terms of woods and forests – which may indeed have been an element of their design, as well as a linkage to (and absorbtion of) pagan iconography.
I believe that what is good for our minds and spirits is connection (however fleeting) with a world beyond ourselves – green spaces, plants, trees, wild creatures can all undoubtedly provide us with such a connection. But so can music, paintings and other cultural phenomena – none of which are ‘natural’. The most intricate and artificial garden can still move and uplift me, whatever its ‘planting style’ – because it is beautiful, because it takes me beyond the quotidian, and – yes – because at least some of its qualities will come from the plants which grow in it.

Paul Steer April 1, 2014 at 6:40 pm

I will sadly miss the next supper, which is frustrating because this is such an interesting subject. The thing that strikes me is that we have separated ourselves from nature when we are as much a part of the natural world as anything else. As is discussed, we have changed the environment ever since we have existed, but the rate of change has accelerated as our population has increased. We are intimately linked to the rest of the natural world and continue to shape it for good or ill and that includes ‘green spaces’ .

Tristan Gregory April 1, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Excellent piece so thank you for that.

From a purely personal perspective “natural” in a garden requires that both the physical forms and the design leave space for natural processes to enhance what was intended. Every year the Greater Spotted woodpeckers take their just fledged brood to drink nectar from the Kniphofias that flower around the same time and while there is little there that may be described as truly natural there the situation is an enhancement in every way you choose to frame it.

Emma White April 4, 2014 at 11:33 am

Many thanks Tristan, I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

I think yours is a lovely take on what it is for a garden to be natural. My parents always garden in the way that you describe – filling the spaces between the more defined borders, allowing plants to take their own course, and seeming only to intervene when they become unruly. This has always been my idea of a natural garden, and I find these spaces, which have been enhanced by the natural process, the most beautiful.

Your point also brings to mind the debate between native and non-native plants – it seems to me that wildlife has the ability to exploit a wide variety of elements which although not native to that place, are nevertheless natural elements. It’s a very beautiful picture you paint of the Greater Spotted woodpeckers too, thank you.

detlev brinkschulte April 1, 2014 at 3:48 pm

great subject to talk about! the same with “nature” itself. people run around in landscapes & call it “nature”. just one closer look (history!) and what seems natural becomes a man made environment… a garden is always an artificial, made or designed space. not much nature left on earth. good designed (or what ever you call it) gardens & protection of what is left of nature!

Emma White April 4, 2014 at 11:16 am

Good point, Detlev. I agree, after such a long period of human habitation, there isn’t much in this world that is truly “natural”, if we think of “natural” as lacking human influence anyway. But as you say, a well designed garden can bring the natural in and serve to protect those valued natural elements that make a place so attractive to both humans and nature.

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