Originally published March 13, 2016
By Valerie Easton, former Natural Gardener writer
TAKE A CLOSE LOOK at the scene in this photo. No foundation plantings, pathways or flower beds. No mowed lawn or hardscape, except for some hunks of rock. The casual air of abandon, sliding into weediness, seems to reveal the lack of a controlling human hand, which might make some gardeners nervous.
But not the judges at the Chelsea Flower Show, one of the oldest and most prestigious garden shows in the world. In May 2015, they awarded designer Dan Pearson “Best in Show” for this naturalistic display representing a wild corner of the Chatsworth House garden in Derbyshire. In effect, Pearson transported a bit of rugged English countryside to London for five days in May. After the show, he uprooted the garden and trucked it back to Chatsworth.
In an interview with The Guardian, Pearson explained his intent and timing: “I wasn’t interested in doing a garden that didn’t have a life beyond a show. In the past 10 years, Chelsea has changed: People are more geared up to the idea of things not being wasted. It’s always been sophisticated in terms of plants, but people have got more savvy to messages about ecology and sustainability.”
This surprising and somewhat controversial win at a show known for its white tents and rows of perfect flowers gives me hope not only for the future of gardening, but for the planet itself. Gardeners, with their great love and respect for plants and soil, are poised to be the eco-warriors the world needs to survive. Hey, if a garden described by its designer as “a slice of nature” beats out dozens of more traditional gardens at Chelsea, we really might be moving beyond the spray-and-tidy gardening that is as harmful to the health of our families as it is to the world around us.
So what does wild gardening mean, really? All too often, the idea is framed in terms of native plant matrices, which isn’t very useful to those of us with small urban and suburban properties.
Our Northwest forests and natural areas, where plants intermingle in layers from the canopy overhead to the duff underfoot, perhaps offer the most satisfying model. Such loose layers can be created on any scale. Your garden’s overstory need not be tall conifers; vine maples, dogwoods or other small ornamental trees work as well. The point is creating a diversity and richness of plantings that support each other as they attract and nourish wildlife.
How to start? Replace lawn with drifts and masses of ornamental grasses, bulbs, perennials and small-scale shrubs. Mix in native plants to nourish pollinators. Define areas of the garden with mixed hedgerows composed of deciduous and evergreen shrubs chosen to attract creatures. Organic gardening and selecting plants to suit the conditions your garden offers are the bedrock tenets of gardening in harmony with nature.
A foray into rewilding is a chance to observe and appreciate nature’s great mysteries. It’s our chance to contemplate the unseen, from soil microbes to photosynthesis, and to be joy-smacked by simple pleasures such as rain and birdsong. Entering into a partnership with nature will enrich your health and maybe even your soul, if you can only get out of the way enough to enjoy the patterns and rhythms of a garden less-tended.