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"Possibility and promise greet me each day as I walk out into my garden. My vigor is renewed when I breathe in the earthiness and feel the dirt between my fingers. My garden is a peaceful spot to refresh my soul." Meems

Welcome to my Central Florida Garden Blog where we garden combining Florida natives, Florida-Friendly plants, and tropicals.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tips for Designing A Naturalistic Garden

Thankfully there's an increased awareness of late as to the sheer beauty and practicality of native plants. There are as many Florida natives to choose from as there are colors in a paint store.

Gardener beware :: Just because it is a 'native' doesn't mean it can be plopped anywhere.

Making the correct selection for each garden's habitat is essential for native plants to successfully thrive just like any other plant.

The goal in my garden is to blend as many native plants into my overall design as is fitting for my environment. I'm always looking for the right plant to go in the right place whether it is a native or a Florida-Friendly plant. And mixing them together in a pleasing blend is especially thrilling. It's like working a puzzle and finding all the right pieces to make a beautiful picture as the end result.

In a previous blog entry titled Naturalistic Minus Chaotic I stated, "For a home gardener living in a residential neighborhood it's key to create a sense of cohesiveness to the eye even when your goal is a naturalistic setting." If you haven't read that post it might be helpful in understanding this follow-up; you can catch with that post here.

So here are a few of my tips for creating a naturalistic setting in any size garden without sacrificing order and tidiness altogether:

Layers... layers... and more layers.
Foundational elements of large oak trees and saw palmettos undoubtedly provide the most substantial layer in my garden serving as the background to every other layer. Shrubs and perennials subsequently fall into place with specimen trees/shrubs and dotted throughout. [A smaller garden would use less trees and work with large shrubs or specimen trees strategically placed.]

Continuing to add layers by (appropriate) height all the way down to ground covers often not seen until standing over the bed and edging plants will be the number one element to create a lush natural appeal.

Removal of turf grass. I like a neatly mowed, lovely green lawn. I do. It is calming and allows a peaceful place for the eye to rest amid foliage. But in Florida any monoculture is an invitation for unwanted bugs. Not only that but lawns require too much water and attention.

I've removed all the lawn except what is need for the kids to play. Replacing the lawn with a misture of plants and various ground covers adds to the naturalistic style I want in my garden. I may repeat a particular ground cover in a few places but at the same time I make sure to use a variety of types throughout the garden.

Curvaceous. Mimicking nature means minimizing straight edges. Instead create lots of curves and turns that evoke a sense of wonder and mystery for what might be around the next bend.

Pathways. When grass is absent remember to plan for a way to maintain your planting beds/groundcovers by being able to navigate them easily. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to get to plants in the middle of a jungle too big and too wide to maintain.

Some pathways can be narrow but some should be wide enough for your wheelbarrow and piles of debris when pruning.

Pathways give the eye a resting place among the vegetation when lawn turf is gone. Not only do they provide a way to move through your garden but they subtly delineate space between beds and borders which reduces a chaotic feeling.

Repetition. You will see this throughout my garden. Make use of the same plant as a border or edging for planting beds. You might be surprised how you can get by with mixing lots of perennials/shrubs/trees in a bed that is edged by one variety of plant. I often use flax lily or aztec grasses. Plants as borders add structure (especially in winter) and a sense of continuity that pulls it all together while allowing lots of liberty for creativity (and mistakes) beyond the border.

In some cases such as the privacy berm (above)which stretches nearly the length of the northside back yard (about 90 feet)I blended flax lily into giant liriope at the pathway (a narrow one marked by flag stones that opens up a passage at the widest part) and then switched to variegated aztec grass to finish around the back curve. The back side (not pictured) that faces my neighbor is bordered with a blend of aztec grass, african iris, giant liriope, and fakahatchee grass. Each one in large groups and sometimes in double layers to change it up as it curves and dips along the landscape.

Assymetrical Forms. One idea for a deep (wide) bed is to wind a ribbon of the same plant throughout to create an organic, fluid motion. It may or may not register on your brain when you see it but the feeling is there.

It a) reduces potential chaos with plants seeming like they are strewn in disarray and b) by choosing a cold hardy specimen it offers winter structure (when plants around it may be frosted to the ground) c) the effect creates smaller spaces within the bed for planting more groupings of plants that become beds within the larger bed. Notice the flax lily creates a mini-bed for the agastache and the crimson pentas.

I've used several winding 'ribbons' as structure and divisions in the front lawn renovation. The same flax lily used for the border is curving within the bed also. A 'ribbon' of giant liriope swerves in opposite directions creating mini-beds within the larger bed. And even another row of society garlic mirrors the flax lily 'ribbon'. Each of these elements are subtle to the eye but go a long way toward the organization of numerous plants in a wide space.

[This method works wonders for softening harsh lines we are forced to deal with in home gardens ~~Street side concrete and property lines that create 90 degree angles.]

Taller, Shorter, and everything in between:
Use your imagination to picture the end result for placement. I don't always layer my plants in perfect order from taller to shorter. In nature we often see a shrub where it doesn't belong in terms of size. By adding a few plants here and there closer to the front of the border that typically would fit better toward the back of the border helps toward the naturalistic sort of unexpected sense this type of garden evokes.

I choose plants I know won't overshadow everything else in the blend like this airy-branching coral bean. The limbs reach 'over' lower growing native violets, native petunias, caladiums, and beyond the aztec grass border arching toward the lawn. This plant is one that typically we'd think should be planted further back in the grouping.

The blackberry lilies are taller than the agapanthus they are mixed in with but their final height and width does not overpower their surroundings. Directly around them and behind them another mix of coleus, agapanthus, tropicanna cannas, angel's trumpet, and irises appear as the corner is rounded.

Focal Points: Each area of the garden will feel complete with one (or more)focal points. These can be seating arrangements...some element at the end of a pathway to draw the eye to a destination.

It can be decorative fencing, birdfeeders, birdbaths, walls, fountains or even an outstanding specimen of tree/plant or a large tropical plant. Ask the question: what is drawing my attention in each area.

Spillage: Allow some plants to tumble over the edges or vines to scramble for space beyond their intended borders (within reason). I'm not very good with this one. My penchant for neat and tidy comes to the rescue when plants begin to get unruly.

But I'm trying to get better at this in discreet ways by allowing the front edge by the street to spill over the rock edging.

Or by letting the potato vine ramble as it wills into the circle pathway.

Certainly these basic tips are not comprehensive enough to cover every imaginable situation. And honestly I don't claim to have the ultimate naturalistic garden. But my hope in sharing what I've learned along the way is that something I've created may help you, too.

I've written blog entries on these subjects in the past and I've tried to link to many of them within this writing. Clicking on any of the RED print will take you to even more of my babbling on these subjects.

My desire is to have an artfully designed garden that looks as uncontrived as possible while fitting harmoniously into our natural Florida environment as well as my residential neighborhood. An abundance of indigenous wildlife finds its way to the garden and in my view that's my stamp of approval. :-)

Happy summer gardening (even though I'd be a happy camper if we could skip right into autumn)!


  1. Very timely tips for me Meems! I'm sure I'll be back to reread this post as I did the one on soil. Beautiful!

  2. Funny you should say not ot plop a native just anywhere. I had been trying to grow Butterfly weed in several places in my garden that I thought were suitable. Not until I just plopped one in a totally wrong spot did I get it to grow. I marvel at it every year I have seen it bloom. You have some great tips here Meems. They will apply in any zone.

  3. Your gardens are so lovely...I could amble along those paths all day. Great tips and ideas!

  4. I love your thoughts! I couldn't agree more.I really don't care for a contrived,formal look.I prefer what I call "organized chaos."Love your post.

  5. Darla,
    Oh, good... you know, I find that even if I don't have the same exact type of garden as someone else I can always get ideas from their information.

    That's always the way isn't it! Sometimes we DO have to move things around to find the place a plant is the happiest. I've definitely plopped a plant out of frustration. I was addressing the "practice of plopping" more than the occasional plop. :-)

    And I wish you were here to amble with me. So nice to see you.

    I'm of the opinion there is room for every style of garden. My own preference is to break away from the typical Florida garden with hedges trimmed neatly and way too much lawn to care for. Organized chaos... that's one way to describe it. lol

  6. Meems,
    I never miss a single post you write! Every one is so full of information and I never tire of looking at your lovely garden. I love your "drifts" and have been trying to incorporate more into my garden.I got up on a ladder the other day to take some aerial photos (I wasn't game to get onto the roof like you did!)When I publish that post I will link to yours.

  7. Meems: Reading your post and "wandering" your garden is always a treat for me! Great tips, and I hope I can continue learning from you since I often find myself relocate the plants after they were planted, and grow bigger than I imagined, or the location was just not right.

  8. Meems, your posts definitely require return visits to take in all the information in words and photos. Love the photos you take of your gardens. They're so, so beautiful, and I would love to see a few wide shots to get my bearings and to see how it all fits together - even though I know how difficult they are.

  9. africanaussie,
    It thrills me to the core to know I've helped another gardener even one shred. I love sharing what I've figured out with the hope it will encourage another gardener. BTW, I answered your previous question on the earlier post in my reply there. (Not sure if you checked back). I can't wait to see your aerial views.

    don't feel bad... I still do the same thing after all these years. In Florida it is VERY difficult to understand not only how big a plant will get but how VERY fast it will grow. Even most of the "slow" growers exceed our imaginations.

    Ha. I thought these were "wide" views. Did you see the photos I took from the roof in a previous post? I was hoping that would help with getting the overall perspective ... at least in the front. One of these days I'm going to get around to drawing a sketch of the entire garden. One of these days...

  10. Excellent post, Meems, filled with creative/solid advice. Your gardens are heavenly ... and hard to leave!

  11. What a great post filled with wonderful info. I need to print this out so that I can have it on hand.

    As always your gardens are lovely and a fantastic inspiration.

    I wouldn't mind if we skipped summer also. It is miserable out there.

    3 little nubbins of Miss Muffitt are coming up, I'm watching for the other three. :-) Thank you.


  12. Excellent information, Meems. I totally agree with you on mixing the natives in with other a native-only garden looks a bit tropical lushness. Plus there are so many non-native, Florida-Friendly plants that do great here and provide benefits to wildlife.

  13. Joey,
    Florida is its own unique environment unlike any other in our states. Getting the hang of gardening in these conditions is a lot of trial and error... of which I have a few years of error to glean from. :-) Thank you for your always welcomed visits from the northern side of our beloved U.S.

    I hope you got some rain this week. I know it's been hit and miss down there like up here. Glad to hear the nubbins are starting to show up. Soon... very pretty foliage!

    So many great Florida-Friendly plants to blend in with the natives! Isn't it a blast to make it all work together. I know you have this figured out. :-)

  14. Love getting the info in these posts on blending, layering and repeating plantings. Your gardens are looking terrific and lush. Even the newer areas seem to have always been there. Rain is making a huge difference in my garden's happiness - hope yours is getting some too.

  15. Kay,
    Ahhhh.... the rain has come down in heavenly fashion these last several days. It relieves the gardener and the garden doesn't it! A day without dragging hoses is a bonus; a gift of time. I do hope these tips are helpful. It's not always easy to put into simple words. What works for me should work for you! And vice versa. The joy of sharing!

  16. I want to grow the same things in Southern Florida, esp. for the wildlife. I do worry abour having more snakes in there... your thoughts???

  17. Do you ever worry about more snakes in there???

  18. Terri, I don't 'worry' about it so much but every now and then I do remember that there are certainly lots more places for them to hide. I actually like having the 'friendly' snakes around to help balance nature. It would only be the occasional venomous snake I hope to NEVER see. :-)


Have a blessed day,

September 2010

Back Garden: October 2010

Louise Philippe: Antique Rose

Tropical Pathway