So what is this 'naturalistic' or 'New Perennial' planting - isn't it just a load of weeds?

Wild carrot - Daucus carota, Helenium autumnale and Helianthus mollis in a meadow area, midsummer.

You can always tell a plantsman's plot because it is often a fairly random collection of the plants that the owners loves most - planted, generally, with the best interests of the plants at heart - with sun, shade, moisture and pH all managed to the best of the gardener's ability. Any keen gardener does it - its hard not to - 'Oh I'd love to grow that, I can slip it in there'.

At the formal end of the scale this is developed into the large borders of herbaceous plants with groups of 3, 5, 9 or more plants all bunched together, or the traditional rose garden with collections amassed for impact or perhaps the woodland garden of Rhododendrons and Camellias maintained to the exclusion all but the desired cultivars.

Of their kind they can make exceptional and memorable plantings yet is seldom the way that natural plant communities develop. OK, you may get an almost pure stand of one plant when conditions are just right for it to thrive and yet not good for their competitors - big stands of Calluna vulgaris heathers on the tops of our moors or marram grass on unstable seaside sand dunes spring to mind though closer examination will reveal that there are many other plants growing there too.

Using similar numbers of plants to a more formal planting, if you start to intermix them in a way that suggests they have grown that way then the effect immediately becomes more relaxed and indeed . . . naturalistic. Here early in the season with Anemone x lipsiensis pallida ann Omphaloides 'Cherry Ingram'.

Those formal borders will always need weeding and many of those weeds are a real nuisance - in our case its the bird carried seeds of Elder, Bramble and Hawthorn and the seedlings of Oak and Hazel planted by small mammals and Jays. Its also the self sown seeds of Goose Grass and Dandelion, Birch, Hogweed and Ash trees. For others it might be Ground Elder, Couch and Bindweed. All of these will wreck our best efforts if we let them take over - they have little or nothing to add in terms of their own beauty and they will change the habitat and smother our cherished plants.

But what about our native Black Bryony? - a climber with delightful glossy leaves and bright orange red fruits in the fall. It seldom crowds out other plants in the way native ivy will do. Cow Parsley and Rough Chervil too - delightful umbels with short lives and graceful transparent habits so that other plants are visible in combination with them. OK the population may get too large at times but do you need to weed out all of them?

Black Bryony - Tamus communis in November and climbing up an otherwise dull rose stem

Chaerophyllum temulum - Rough Chervil - a native which looks wonderful with the planted Thalictrum aquilegiifolium

Surely there are exotic plants which similar attributes which we can use? Plants which grow wild in other parts of the temperate world and would compliment our existing plants. And there must be some garden selections which retain the best characteristics of wild plants - the transparency and the poise, no highly breed doubles, no wierd variegated plants and no dwarf forms with a two dimensional covering of blooms and which might look great in parks bedding but would look bizarre in our plantings.

Here's the wet garden at sunrise in September with some species Rodgersia and Dipsacus from Asia, Carex muskingumensis and Helenium from North America and Stipa gigantea from Southern Europe.

Stretching a point in late May with Rosa Gertrude Jekyll just about as highly bred as I'd want to go with a planted colour form of foxgloves Digitalis purpurea 'Sutton's Apricot' AGM and native self seeded Silene dioica - Red Campion and the first blooms on Geranium 'Orion' - a newish selection but still retaining that wild charm.

The Tulip 'Little Princess' was chosen because it is close to a species, it is planted from bulbs and the conditions manipulated with rocks and sunshine so they grow well. The grass Anemanthele lessoniana and the Cowslips - Primula veris and Snakeshead fritillary - Fritillaria meleagris self seed and make the area look more believably wild

So these are the some of the thought processes we have gone through over the last 30 years or more. Many many mistakes and so much to learn but so many surprises when we start to intermingle plants - both self seeders and others deliberately planted to look like they just turned up. No formal blocks of 9 or 15 but that sort of number planted in an open matrix that might just have happened when the wind blew the seed there or because the soil is wetter there.

Trying out a new plant - Cirsium heterophyllum with creamy umbels of Cenolphium denudatum

Getting intimate

Traditionally a garden border is observed from a distance- you are a looker-on and walking along a path or viewing from a lawn - the plants are in an area you would not normally visit other than to weed and prune. When we walk the rocky tracks of Baggy Point in north Devon we have to scuffle over clumps of sea thrift and tread over carpets of wild thyme.

Many of our paths are more like tracks through the plantings - if you tread on seedlings it does not matter.


The stone garden in August - the path runs right through the middle of this lot, you cannot get much more intimate than that.

I can see right through you!

The transparency of a planting is very important - it allows for wonderful interactions between individual plants and helps to create the impression that there is a great deal going on. Big solid clumps of plants which block out views of the plants behind need to be very very good to justify their inclusion.

Heleniums and Bronze Fennel work well together and have that 'see through' quality

And later in the season big grasses - Stipa gigantea and Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' compliment Heleniums beautifully and still retain transparency.

Pulling it all together

These 3 shots combine native plants with the required qualities, some exotics which also have desireable attributes and the transparency which allows for spontaneous and unplanned interactions to take place.

Part of the stone garden in early summer with the native Geranium pratense - Meadow Cranesbill, self seeded Knautia macedonica in various shades of purple and pink and Rough Chervil - Chaerophyllum temulum. Later on some the Geraniums will be pulled out to prevent them dominating the planting but enough left so they do it again next year!

This is an experimental meadow area during early September with Wild Carrot - Daucus carota, Solidago 'September Gold', Aster 'Little Carlow', Helianthis mollis, Helianthus 'Lemon Queen', Helianthus microcephalus, Helenium autumnale

Echium vulgare, Orlaya grandiflora and Cirsium rivulare atropurpureum in early summer. The white Orlaya has to be planted yearly because it is an annual but the other two maintain themselves.

And in the end

As the garden year draws to an end and the light becomes softer, the dews heavier and mists are commonplace the some of the lovliest effects of all are created. Annuals such as Cosmos and Rudbeckia hirta will help extend the season - these were planted in late spring and intermixed between the perennials.

Aster laevis, Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea 'Moorflamme', Coreopsis 'Full Moon' and Rudbeckia hirta 'Indian Summer'

Salvia uliginosa and Verbena bonariensis and Aster 'Little Carlow' The stamina of Salvias comes to the forefront later in the season. Salvia uliginosa is still going strong well into November until smashed by frosts. Rudbeckia subtomentosa and Helianthus microcephalus add yellow and some height.

At season's end much of the structure is left standing for as long as possible - for example in the stone garden shown above - this will be mid February so that the undercanopy of small Tulips can come through unshaded. By leaving the structure in place the stems provide winter interest - particularly when frosted and help feed and provide cover for our large populations of small birds - Tits and Finches in particular.