Naturalistic Garden Design

Baroque garden in northwest Germany

Gardens and designed landscapes intend to settle our residences, offices, public buildings, factories and other structures gracefully into an environment that hints, even if sometimes only faintly, at a natural world beyond our human habitations. Within that broad goal of landscape design two different approaches can be distinguished: formal and naturalistic.

In formal gardens the human hand is clearly visible: space tends to be geometrically divided and plants are pruned into topiaries along geometric patterns: hedges, cones, balls, cubes. Paths are straight and angles are everywhere. Formal gardens, often described as architectural, never depart very far from their creator’s conceptualization. The growth of plants as well as the blooming of perennial flowers must be carefully controlled since they tend to undermine the intentions of designers. Thus, these gardens vary little in appearance throughout the seasons.

Iris provide color in May while native plants get ready for flowering

Naturalistic design, on the other hand, aims to create the illusion that human artifice yields to nature. Plants are allowed to grow into their natural shapes and they are arranged in seemingly random patterns. The designer tries to take inspiration from the natural environment that surrounds the garden and to be attuned to the “genius of the place”, as the great eighteenth-century English garden makers would have said. The growth and flowering of plants provide for seasonal change, and a much larger number of different plants can be accommodated, which goes a long way toward assuring a garden’s ecological health. Continuous visual change and rich species diversity enhance rather than mar the aesthetic pleasure a naturalistic garden yields.

I have visited and enjoyed both types of gardens. I was awestruck upon first seeing the royal garden of Versailles, the most elaborate example of the formal approach. I have visited many of its imitations, always with pleasure. I have also taken pleasure in many English landscape parks which aim at creating the illusion of a pastoral landscape with their careful, though seemingly casual, arrangement of trees, shrubberies, lakes and brooks, eventually to blend into ordinary countryside. The addition of flower beds and borders to such naturalistic landscape parks, both in Europe and America, has significantly shaped our current aesthetic sensibilities.

Muhlenbergia capillaris grass the the Botanical Garden near the Capitol in Washington DC

Most residential gardens are not on the scale of these parks, of course, but the concepts of formality and naturalism inspire all garden design. Any individual garden will lean more toward one or the other, depending on the preferences of its owner or designer. In my own garden-making, much as I appreciate both types of design, I prefer the naturalistic approach, because it provides for a greater variety of visual effects. The continuous change in plant forms, textures and colors, experienced at a distinct moment as well as over time, is precisely what gives me the greatest joy in my own garden and makes my work fascinating to me. A rigorously formal garden can be stunning for the occasional visit, but I wouldn’t want to live with it day in and day out.