Designing the Natural Garden

by Elaine Rude, Master Gardener

Are you getting ready to plant your home garden? Choosing which plants and flowers can be a challenge if you’ve never gardened before. Home owners new to gardening often struggle with choosing plants that are hardy for our climate. There are plenty of choices available but care must be taken to ensure the right plants are put in the right place. Well-designed gardens have a balance of key elements including sun exposure, soil and seasonality. We’ve put together a guide to help you plan the design and layout of your garden that will look beautiful all year round.

1. Sun Exposure

First, assess the garden’s exposure: how much sun does it receive, which direction does it face, is it exposed to lots of wind and what is the soil like? Full sun is considered 6-8 hours. Afternoon and late day sun are much hotter so choosing plants that enjoy lots of heat will hold up well. Part sun is 4-6 hours with shade less than 4 hours. Full sun plants include such varieties as roses, potentilla, sedums, veronicas, and ornamental grasses.

2. Grouping & Layering

Plants always grow in layered communities with each layer supporting the others. Slower growing trees and shrubs should be underplanted with a mix of perennials, annuals and groundcovers to keep soil covered while the woodier members get established. Pair plants that enjoy growing in similar conditions such as sun, shade, dry or moist.

Plants are usually chosen for their extravagant colourful blooms but perennials have a relatively short blooming period so look at what else they can offer. Plants with interesting foliage, when intermingled together, can create season-long interest in between bloom phases. Interesting seed heads are attractive with most holding well over the winter. Grasses add lots of movement and some remain upright throughout the winter. When making plant selections avoid buying one of everything. Choose one or two architectural plants but the rest of the supporting characters should be planted in multiples.

3. Plan for Maturity

Trees and shrubs are an investment so take some time to research potential candidates. Try and view mature ones to see what their ultimate shape and size will be. That little nursery pot specimen is going to grow so it’s important to choose ones that will not outgrow your space over time. Adding dwarf conifers to the garden is a great way to create winter interest. Just be aware that though slow growing they will also mature to be much larger so choose with care.

4. Create a Healthy Ecosystem

A diverse mix of plantings creates a healthy ecosystem that is able to support itself without lots of interventions. Including plants that flower early in the Spring to late in the Fall will make the garden interesting as well as help support bees and butterflies. Use a mix of native and non-native perennials. Native perennials are acclimated to our climate and provide pollen and nectar to native insects. Non-native plants extend the bloom season thus increasing the amount of food available throughout summer and fall. The majority of insects are generalist feeders so will happily visit both. Avoiding herbicides and pesticides will keep these creatures healthy and happy.

We hope this guide will help you start your gardening project this season! When you take the time to build a strong foundation and design, your garden will look beautiful all year long. We would love for you to share your gardening journey with us as you learn new things and watch your garden grow. Tag us on Instagram to share your garden!

Images courtesy of Elaine Rude