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While spending some time in the Northwest recently, enjoying mountain views and cooler temperatures, I also admired the many structured gardens with their bonsai-looking pruned evergreens and sharply defined garden beds. They are beautiful to look at, but they don’t invite you to enter their space, and my first thought is always how much effort, time, and money it takes to maintain them.
Formal gardens often include large expanses of annual introduced species, arranged in geometric shapes, and when it comes to vegetable gardens, the traditional approach often means neat rows and precisely spaced plants.
While structured and meticulously manicured gardens have their appeal – but for most of us are just an aspiration – I share the growing appreciation for the charm and advantages of a less structured garden.
During the Maclay Tour of Gardens each spring, it’s always the whimsical informal landscapes that attract me. They invite us to relax and enjoy them and are filled with many different plants defined by small grassy areas and winding mulch or hardscaped pathways accented with natural and found materials used in creative ways.
Consider the benefits of embracing a more relaxed and natural approach to gardening, where the focus shifts from strict organization to creating an attainable and thriving, productive garden. Areas of lawn and defined beds are still pleasing but use less lawn. Within larger beds or areas, a more diverse, natural, and unstructured look can prevail, providing many advantages.
A less structured garden provides a haven for a larger range of plant and animal species. By incorporating a variety of native plants, wildflowers, and grasses, we create an ecosystem that supports a wider array of wildlife, such as birds, butterflies, and bees. In addition to assisting pollination, these creatures contribute to the overall health and balance of the garden environment. Biodiversity can create a landscape that is not only lovely to look at, but also helps to restore the natural balance in your garden and the area ecosystem.
Soil health and water conservation
A less structured approach promotes healthier soil, efficient water usage, and less need for fertilizer. Traditional gardens often leave bare soil exposed between plants, leading to increased moisture evaporation, nutrient leaching, and soil erosion. Incorporating a larger variety of plants in closer proximity and using organic mulches – such as leaves, straw, or wood chips – helps retain moisture, suppress weeds, and enhance soil fertility.
One of the primary advantages of a less structured garden, and this is a big one, is reduced maintenance requirements. Formal landscapes often demand extensive upkeep, including regular pruning, weeding, trimming, and mowing. A more relaxed approach allows plants to grow and evolve naturally, reducing the need for constant maintenance. A variety of plants can provide a changing year-long display of textures, blooms, leaf color, plant shapes, and pleasure. This allows us to spend more time enjoying our outdoor spaces rather than constantly tending to them and is an ideal choice for those with busy schedules or limited gardening experience.
Maximizing space and yield
A less structured garden allows for more efficient use of space, and in a vegetable garden, enables us to maximize our yield. Rather than confining vegetables to straight rows which are necessary only if you do mechanical tilling, interplanting and companion planting mix different crops together in beds. Space is utilized more effectively, and plants can benefit from mutual support and pest control. This not only increases the overall productivity of the garden, but also creates a visually appealing and diverse landscape.
Pest and disease management
A less structured garden can help manage pests and diseases naturally. Intermingling a diverse range of plants and flowers attracts beneficial insects and predators, creating a balanced ecosystem that helps control harmful pests. A varied plant selection also reduces the risk of widespread damage caused by specific pests or diseases, as they are less likely to spread rapidly in a mixed planting system. The use of natural pest repellents, such as strongly scented herbs or flowers planted throughout your garden area, can help deter pests without the need for chemicals.
A more natural garden design embraces the inherent resilience of nature. By allowing perennials to reseed and spread freely within a chosen area, they can adapt to site conditions and better withstand various weather events, pests, and diseases. Allowing perennials to decompose naturally also provides habitat for overwintering native bees and other creatures. The goal is a self-sustaining ecosystem that can thrive with minimal intervention.
Natural is beautiful
We set aside time to visit forests and natural spaces. Why not create them at home? A less structured garden offers a unique aesthetic appeal. With its more natural and spontaneous nature, it creates a sense of freedom and harmony. The interplay of various plant heights, colors, and textures produces a visually attractive landscape. The presence of wildflowers, meandering paths, and gentle curves adds a touch of whimsy and romance to your yard. This more natural look can blend with the surrounding environment, creating a seamless transition between the cultivated space and any natural space beyond.
A less formal landscape provides an opportunity for personal expression and creativity. We can experiment with unique plant combinations, create naturalistic habitats, and incorporate artistic elements such as interesting rocks or artifacts, sculptures, or water features. This freedom allows us to express our personalities and create a space that reflects our own unique taste and style.
We can create personal havens which support biodiversity, require less maintenance, and exhibit resilience in the face of environmental challenges. So why not embrace the beauty of nature’s wild side and enjoy the rewards of a less structured and more natural garden.
Janis Piotrowski is a Florida Master Naturalist, a Certified Permaculture Designer, and a Master Gardener Volunteer with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. She hosts a blog about gardening and sustainable living in North Florida at https://northfloridavegheadz.blogspot.com. For gardening questions, email the extension office at [email protected].