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Smart Garden

Natural garden design ideas to turn your backyard into a dreamscape

Backyard into a dreamscape

Gardening trends change slowly—plants take time to grow—but one landscaping approach has clearly grown in recent years: landscape garden design. Inspired by the legendary Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, a new wave of American garden designers are applying the principles of his sustainable, wildlife-friendly approach to landscapes of all sizes. Here's how to weave key natural garden design ideas into your own backyard in ways big or small.

1. Prioritize natives and perennials

Natural garden designers use plants that feel at one with their region, as in the lawn-inspired Iowa front yard of garden designer Kelly Norris, author of the book New Naturalism. Those plants are often native (meaning they have evolved naturally in the area), but they can also be perennials that are well-suited to that particular area. This approach has many advantages: it creates a unique space, it supports local wildlife, and it is more sustainable because it reduces or eliminates the need for additional water and fertilizer.

2. Pay attention to plant shape and form

Natural gardens often place more emphasis on plant form and texture than color. That means a thoughtful, well-balanced mix of feathery and structured perennials, as in this Iowa backyard garden designer Austin Eischeidt, heavily influenced by his time working with Piet Oudolf. Natural gardens lack color, but the palette is tighter and more subdued.

3. Take planting tips from the wild

A natural landscape in the Southwest can be very different from a Northeast woodland garden or Midwestern backyard. Get ideas for a natural border or garden from wild landscapes in your area.

4. Create an organized plan

Although natural gardens evoke the feeling of an unruly landscape, they are actually very carefully organized. In landscape designer Adam Woodruff's Massachusetts garden, an approach called matrix planting—an organizational strategy that creates a structure of plants with similar light, water, and soil needs—creates a pleasing rhythm. Similar to how plants coexist in the wild, this approach creates a highly successful, low-maintenance garden.

5. Plant densely

Like this landscape at Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisconsin, by garden designer Jeff Epping, naturalistic gardens feature plants placed closely together and clustered in waves, creating a veritable sea of ​​texture, color, and pattern. This approach also has a practical upside: it helps keep weeds out.

6. Insert breakpoints

A successful landscape garden may have an abundance of plants, but it also benefits from some visual interruptions and structural elements. Adding container plantings like these to Woodruff's backyard, a bench or water features, creates a peaceful moment and a sense of sophistication.

7. Lose the lawn

A natural garden plan can replace a conventional lawn—which requires frequent mowing and isn't very beneficial to wildlife—with a landscape that's more enjoyable and better for the environment. The plants for this California lawn garden by Terremoto were chosen to bring soft color to the front yard and attract lots of birds, bees, and butterflies.

8. Allow for self seeding

Forget the neat, manicured garden borders of yesteryear: nature-inspired designs allow for spontaneity as they evolve. In this backyard, the white pom-poms of 'Alpha' sea thrift will have a charming effect wherever they appear, even in the middle of a path.

9. Avoid deadheading

Part of the goal of natural garden design is to allow plants to do their thing as they would in nature. That is, for example, leaves the flowers after they have been spent so that the birds can enjoy their seeds.

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