Naturalized gardening

Naturalized: a definition
  1. To cause a plant to become established and grow undisturbed as if native.
  2. The establishment of exotic species in the wild that can reproduce without human intervention.
  3. A natural landscape is an area which follows the ordinary course of nature

naturalized gardenWhatever your idea of beauty, you can achieve it in a naturalized garden. If your tastes run to a more formal style, you can use native plants in a formal planting. If, on the other hand, you favour a more informal style, you can achieve that look as well. There’s plenty of room for personal expression, just like in nature, where diversity is the key to healthy ecosystems. Naturalized gardening is not simply: abandoning a site, stopping spraying, stopping mowing and letting unsightly weeds take over.

Instead it is a controlled approach to mimicking what nature has perfected in your own yard.

  • Forget the coloured mulch. Your garden will mulch itself with falling leaves.
  • You can use plants that behave like native plants in a given geological region.
  • Bulbs naturalize nicely and create an impressive show of colour
  • Let your plants grow as they would in nature. No master plan, no intricate gardening mapping.
  • Continue weeding.
  • Maintain borders to keep the plants in their beds.
  • You may need some pest control.
  • You will need yearly soil enrichment with compost and other natural ingredients (depending on the habitat you are creating).
  • Do not dead head in the fall, but rather cut back plants in the spring. Leaving the flower stalks on the plants all winter not only creates winter interest, but also provides seeds for wildlife.

Native plants in naturalized gardens are planted in groups or communities rather than monocultures. (A monoculture is a planting of a single species–say, a grass lawn, for example.) The guiding principle of naturalization is the creation of functioning ecosystems or habitats, which includes many different species of plants. The naturalized garden is diverse which safeguards against pests and diseases. A monoculture, on the other hand, is vulnerable to pest invasion and diseases.

Naturalized gardens create a biodiversity of habitat for wildlife. Naturalized gardens provide sustenance and shelter for all creatures from the tiniest insect right up the food chain. Wildlife will build nests or lay eggs, hibernate for the winter or just enjoy the shelter and safety of the garden.

In nature, plants aren’t isolated from each other; they’re part of a community or habitat. In the naturalized garden, you are recreating these habitats using native and non-invasive exotic plants that grow and thrive together in the wild. These communities include woodland, meadow, prairie and wetland habitats.

Woodland habitat

To create a natural woodland in your garden you must have three main layers: the canopy of taller trees, the middle story of smaller trees and shrubs and vines, and the under-story or ground layer of wildflowers and ground covering plants.

  • Natural woodlands thrive in areas with rich soil. Add organic matter to the soil, such as leaf-mould compost to provide a rich layer of humus. Maintain these conditions by adding leaves or leaf compost each fall.
  • Woodland species do best in soil that is not disturbed or compacted. Do not cultivate the site when planting and provide protection around the base of trees with understory plants or mulch.
  • Nothing is wasted in the forest; dead twigs and leaves fall to the forest floor and provide nourishment for surrounding plants. Leave fallen branches as they provide homes and food sources for various wildlife species.
  • Woodland species like to be sheltered and have varying degrees of shade. Shade can be provided by the canopy of just a few trees and by buildings.

Woodland plant list

Red baneberry, Actaea rubra
Wild ginger, Asarum canadense
Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria
Wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana
Wild geranium, Geranium maculatum
Woodland sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus
Hepatica, Hepatica spp.
Great lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica
Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica
Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum
Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum biflorum
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia
False Solomon’s seal, Smilacina racemosa
Barren strawberry, Waldsteinia fragarioides

Prairie and meadow habitat

A prairie is a community comprised of native grasses and wildflowers and less than 10 percent canopy cover from trees. A meadow is typically a transitional community comprised of native wildflowers and some grasses that will eventually be overtaken by trees. Meadows occur in nature when some major event (such as a wind storm, flood, or fire) creates a gap or opening in the forest cover. This allows sunlight to reach the soil and a whole new plant community to colonize the land. A meadow habitat is a good choice in areas where there is dry soil, colour is desired, tree growth is restricted or open views are preferred.

Many meadow plants will grow in full sun or part shade, in moist or dry conditions. They are tough and adaptable, and many meadow plants tolerate poor soil. So, all things considered, meadows make a lot of sense in the urban environment, where conditions are often tough for plants.

  • Prairie and meadow communities are typically found in open, sunny areas with flat to slightly
  • rolling terrain.
  • Prairie communities are typically found on drier, nutrient-poor soils, while meadows are found on a range of dry to moist soil types.
  • Do not add nitrogen, topsoil, compost or manure to the soil as prairie and meadow species can better establish and compete against weeds if the soil is lower in nitrogen.

The hardiness of prairie species offers many advantages to the gardener. In conditions of drought, for example, an established prairie will continue to thrive. And, although it takes a lot of work to establish a prairie garden, once established it will flourish with very little work other than weeding.

Prairie communities typically have 50 percent grasses and 50 percent wildflowers. Meadows generally have 70 percent wildflowers and 30 percent grasses. For more colour in your own garden use a higher percentage of wildflowers.

Meadow plant list

Turtlehead, Chelone glabra
Coreopsis, Coreopsis lanceolata
Showy tick-trefoil, Desmodium canadensis
Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium
Sunflower, Helianthus annuus
Turk’s-cap lily, Lilium superbum
Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis
Beardtongue, Penstemon digitalis
Obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana

Wetland habitat

There are many different types of wetlands in nature, from swamps and bogs to fens, each with unique characteristics. For the home gardener, some kind of water feature, whether it’s a pond or simply a moist area, will add greatly to the garden. A water feature will attract all kinds of creatures, from toads to insects to birds.

If you already have a wet area, or an area with poor drainage, you can work with it rather than fighting against it by planting moisture-loving wetland species.

Wetland plants

Canada anemone, Anemone canadensis
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Spotted Joe-pye weed, Eupatorium maculatum
Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum
Bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii
Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis
Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis
Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus
Blue vervain, Verbena hastata