Natural gardening - the many perspectives

Gardening without chemicals

No-dig gardening

Companion planting



Wildscaping, farmscaping and xeriscaping

So what is natural gardening?

With the Royal Horticultural Society planning to hold a one-day conference on biodiversity in the garden, it is appropriate to revisit our sense of what is a natural garden and how it often becomes a last refuge of the natural order.

Understanding natural processes

The history of gardening is littered with grandiose styles. This is because it was the pleasure of our nobility (or our conquerors, such as the Romans) that first recognised the satisfaction of the senses that gardens brought to their quality of life. Latterly, gardening has been heavily influenced by agricultural practice, bringing crossover use of many aggressive cultivation techniques and of agro-chemicals, and the nonsense of growing of plants in straight rows. Gardening can now often be seen as a conflict between processes (i.e. the use or non-use of chemicals, nurture or over-management) with some gardening movements claiming the use of natural methods. None of them, however, have all the answers – as if we knew all the questions in the first place - and they often neglect what is the aim or purpose of a natural garden, that it should take care of itself while delighting us with its beauty. We shouldn’t have to make a choice between these different movements and then follow some rigid ideology. What we can do is take the best ideas from each, and Mother Nature will be our guide and our judge.

Natural gardeners recognise that most gardens (and farms and landscapes) usually have received visions or off the shelf designs applied to them that are rarely tailored to the various conditions that can be found. These received visions need extensive labour and probably chemical inputs to maintain them. They do not work with natural processes to make a success of the conditions found. Instead, conditions and habitats are changed to conform to the design and to provide convenience and order. As we will see, we need to be more thoughtful than this, more understanding of natural processes and to be creative in as much as we can. To see the influences on what we undertake, we should look at contemporary gardening thought as we begin to follow the natural path.

GARDENING WITHOUT CHEMICALS - or organic gardening - is often thought to be a system of natural gardening. Based on a refusal to use artificial fertilisers or pesticides, it is practised primarily by those growing some of their own food, but can be used anywhere in the garden. There is an infographic that explores many of the strategies and homemade remedies - see DIY Organic Pest Control in the Garden.

This approach though suffers from being just a simplistic replacement of synthetic chemicals with so-called allowable alternatives that are available commercially. Those who feel that there is more to natural gardening, begin to assemble more diverse plantings in the varying habitats so that natural cycles of minerals occur in the soil, and to ensure that a natural balance is created between the pests and predators (and see the infographic). Even more than that, there are concerns about the tendency for organic gardening (and farming) to damage soil structure by its reliance on turning soil over and by its inability to be thoughtful about what it is, rather than what it is not. Thus as natural gardeners, we need to look further than that.

NO-DIG GARDENING A decision faced at some point, particularly for home food growers, is whether to routinely dig their soil or not. The no-dig gardener makes the choice to avoid treading on their soil and to allow earthworms to do the work for them. The concern of no-diggers is that digging destroys soil structure thus disturbing its ecology (soil organisms, fungal mycorrhiza etc.) and so reducing fertility. It also has the drawback of causing soil carbon to be released from soil as carbon dioxide and thus adding to atmospheric change. No-diggers use light excluding mulches to clear their ground, special plants such as dynamic accumulators to break up subsoil and recycle soil minerals, and continuous mulches of organic matter to encourage earthworm populations and feed the soil. Many organic gardeners would benefit from the no-diggers use of mulches.

COMPANION PLANTING Well chosen plants can be grown in beneficial combinations that increase the sense of satisfaction, can increase productivity, and will reduce pest and disease problems as well as reduce external inputs, watering and the work needed to maintain them. While at a simple level, this may be called companion planting, it has wider importance because nature, and we humans, can create plant communities that have a variety of function and which are not bound by the perverse exclusion of perennials from many organic systems.

Companion planting is sometimes clouded with mysticism, but the benefits of combining plants in mutually supporting communities is well explored in Permaculture Design (see next) and in the matrix planting schemes of garden writer Peter Thompson. There is a common sense agreement on what actually works to advantage in these plant communities, based on simple explanations: the use of nitrogen-fixing plants to benefit neighbouring plants; dynamic accumulations that cycle and mineralise the topsoil; root and leaf secretions that repel pests or unwanted plants; plants that provide support, shade or camouflage; and plants providing habits for beneficial pest predators and pest parasites.

PERMACULTURE is a new earth science that arose from Bill Mollison’s protracted observation of nature. He then went on to show how it can be applied, through an ethical framework and with a set of design principles and tools, to build sustainable living systems. There is a strong emphasis on creating diverse and productive landscapes. Permaculture is a contraction of permanent culture and thus it is not surprising that perennial and permanent plantings are preferred. The purpose of plants is also significant with designers seeking multiple function in all that they choose, using them to create plant guilds as harmonious assemblies. Natural processes and resources are carefully and creatively used.

BIODYNAMICS is a science of life-forces, a recognition of the basic principles at work in nature, and an approach to gardening and farming which takes these principles into account to bring about balance and healing. Rudolf Steiner devised its principles seventy years ago. Its strength is in the careful observation of nature so that eventually you learn to read nature’s language and the spirit of the earth. How far you go with this depends on your own spirituality and whether you believe that ritual (cosmic forces, water vitality) and herbal preparations (for compost heaps and liquid feeds) are important in what is basically a sound system of natural gardening.

WILDSCAPING, FARMSCAPING and XERISCAPING are newer ideas from North America, all looking carefully at the types and purposes of plants used in designing and planting landscapes. Wildscaping has come to be seen as a means of regeneration of land by creating wildlife habitats, often as flowery meadows. The key is to use native plants suited to the conditions and which need little aftercare. Farmscaping is the conscious design of farmland to enhance biological (natural) control for pest management. The key is increasing the diversity of plants around the farm, restoring habitats and creating new ones such as bug banks. Xeriscaping (from the Greek Xeros meaning dry) is an approach to landscaping that reduces water consumption. It is achieved through good design, soil enhancement, appropriate plant selection for lower water-use (not necessarily native) and the extensive use of a variety of water retaining of mulches.

SO WHAT IS NATURAL GARDENING? John Brookes, a garden writer, designer and teacher, has a very clear idea. He says it is working with natural processes rather than struggling to master or change everything. Thus you need to know as much as possible about the conditions in your garden – its climate, altitude, soil type, and prevailing winds – and about the kinds of plants that would grow there very successfully if it were left uncultivated. Learn also from looking closely at the surrounding landscape – learn what is unhindered nature there and how it creates its plant communities. Put your garden into this context, remembering that in satisfying your own senses you will too be satisfying the needs of the natural order and the bugs, beasts and plants that are its acolytes.

Mark Fisher, 29 October 2002, 15 March 2016