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Considerations for Natural Garden Design – An Introduction

Lance Lane

There is a wealth of challenges, education and excitement involved when considering various (previous or ongoing) gardening and design projects throughout Southern Ontario. This stimulating hobby and career combines a love of many interests that include nature, art, collecting, garden carpentry and wildlife with limitless possibilities for creativity. Here are some thoughts and ideas to consider whether you have dreams for your own property or a desire to pursue a fulfilling career in natural garden design.

Whether in gardening, the natural world, or one’s own life, variety and diversity are essential to our collective well-being. Therefore, it can be very rewarding to indulge in such an absorbing process. Garden design may involve; searching for natural and decorative features, drawing, observing nature, shaping the land or shopping for native plants and materials, while weaving all the elements together to achieve the desired variety, contrasts, harmony and balance.

It really isn’t necessary to have a complete blueprint for your project as the details or concepts for each garden area may be left open while getting a feel for your property. Take notes, make sketches, clip articles to accumulate your research and ideas. But be ready to take advantage of discoveries along the way that may lead to even better ones than you could have originally drawn up on paper. Besides, we are dealing with nature so it’s best to be prepared for change. Although I usually feel comfortable with a general idea very quickly, each area or project is a puzzle that will evolve continuously until all the elements are in place. For example, occasionally when out shopping for plants at a nursery say, just pulling my cart of plants around I have noticed interesting combinations while my selections were passing by other plants. As this example displays, the most pleasing results can never all be thought of in advance.

A large part of this never-ending education involves paying attention to the details in nature; the sounds, the seasons, of patterns and textures and how they compliment each other or what they may add to our daily lives. Also, it is very important to be aware of what nature and the land around us used to be to help us keep our perspective. Nature is the greatest artist, so be open to inspiration and ideas from pictures, writings and your experiences in some of the remaining woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and parks of Canada.

On one particular property, I was inspired by the feel of aspen woodlands to create a small grouping with blueberry, serviceberry and viburnum bushes mixed in. Within these combinations, there will be shrubs with orange to red fall colours glowing beside the young smooth-grey bark and trembling golden-orange leaves of the aspen trees that will in turn glow against the home set to be painted a light cottage blue-green. In time, the aspens and other trees planted will eventually shade the stifling south and west sides of the house. Further, I may then sprinkle some ferns, solomon’s seal and wood textures of found driftwood and cedar stumps around and within along with other little touches. The gardens are to be wrapped up inside a carefully shaped natural garden edge that contains all of the gentle contours and elevation changes. Boulders [purplish fieldstone will be one of the colours] may border a portion of the edge and be placed throughout the garden. I would always recommend a generous layer of mulch or woodchips for a sweeping mosaic of nice browns and earthy colours that help to tie everything together. Fresh, natural mulches may come in many shades of brown – my favourite colour – and always provides a solid, rich background to enhance the other features in the garden. To build up a good layer beneath, or cover rough, larger areas, I have been fortunate in having access to copious amounts of woodchips from tree service companies where the costs would otherwise be prohibitive. So check out these local companies for availability.

A key element of garden design is to consider our gardens or landscapes as what grows around and above us, views in the distance and the air or space in between that holds a bird or butterfly. Trees can be one of the most important elements with a variety of uses in many garden and landscape designs. Think of woodland gardens, groves of trees, privacy, windbreaks, or simply for cooling our particular environments.

There are countless other opportunities to add interesting features into our gardens and landscapes. We can also do this for wildlife in a decorative way by adding shrubs with attractive berries or bark textures [and fall colours], rock walls, a home-made butterfly trellis, water features, birdhouses and feeders for just a few examples. These touches not only enrich our lives and properties, but they help out our interesting visitors [or hosts] as they go about their pressing business of survival.

Natural wood pieces are a favourite opportunity to add a variety of shapes, backgrounds or habitat features. Some may end up as an outdoor end table or as feeding stumps for birds, chipmunks and squirrels. If there is a need for a piece of driftwood or forest stump of a particular shape, go out and find the most pleasing shape to fit a particular space in the garden. If I happen to discover a nice piece somewhere, say washed up by the lake, nothing will prevent me from finding a way to retrieve it. One time, on my way back from the lake, I ended up entangled with a large piece in a wheel barrel that pulled me right into a creek. Though If I had left it at the lake - to wash away or bury itself - I would never forget it [I have one in mind that I regret not giving the extra effort on a rainy day by Lake Ontario].

And lastly, we can learn a lot from the observations of great people like Grey Owl, Thoreau and Robert Bateman. Their contributions provide inspiration and help us to appreciate the subtle beauty and bounties in nature and gardening. There may just be the opportunity to place some sort of cultural reminder into your garden or landscape such as a wagon wheel, an old jug or other items that will be gently absorbed into your gardens.

All of these are just a few of the considerations that become invaluable as a way of looking at garden design, how to create a richer environment for ourselves, and how we can leave something better behind.