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Naturalistic Gardening

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Ann Lovejoy
Photographs by Allan Mandell
Publisher: Sasquatch Books, Seattle 
ISBN 1-57061-120-3

For those of us who love the Northwest out-of-doors and strive to create similar native-style gardens at home, Ann Lovejoy’s newest book, “Naturalistic Garden: Reflecting the Planting Patterns of Nature” is the tool to get us there.

This is the kind of book which should be read like a novel, on a comfy couch before a warm fire with a hot cup of tea in the middle of winter. After reading it through, the ideas will begin to sink in, and soon, we’ll find ourselves thinking of how to best incorporate them into our own gardens. At 160 pages, “Naturalistic Gardening” features more than a hundred full-color photographs by Portland’s Allan Mandell, as well as the usual poetic-yet-informative prose from Seattle-area garden columnist and educator Ann Lovejoy.

Divided into topics such as “Gardening in Layers,” “Stroll Gardens,” and “Naturalistic Gardening in the City and Suburbs,” the author offers examples of how to achieve the naturalistic garden without giving us the exact specifics of how to get there. This is more of a feel-good book, filled with plenty of colorful examples and the many variations that make this kind of a garden what it is. Actually, it’s a very broad style.

Early on, Lovejoy talks about “layering,” the idea that even ornamental gardens are designed to follow a pattern in nature: high trees in the background “soar above intermediate shrubs,” with “clumps and flowing masses of perennials” in front. To see the naturalistic style, think of walking in the woods. Native trees, shrubs and ground covers work together in a natural design of nature, with sword ferns and mosses aplenty beneath our feet. This, combined with the colorful blossoms of candelabra primulas (Primula beesiana and hybrids), create the first real example of the naturalistic garden (photograph by Mandell on p. 16).

But Lovejoy quickly urges us to move beyond our comfort zones, to try new things and “grow along with our gardens.” In a final chapter, entitled “Tropicalismo for Temperate Gardens,” she even goes so far as to recommend the use of tropical plants for a naturalistic garden with high contrast and drama. “In the Pacific Northwest, where many native woodland plants have decidedly tropical-looking leaves, devotees of this young genre have enthusiastically embraced both the imports and the local flora,” she says. She further explains, “Part of the point here is to break away from old visual templates that have shaped our internalized, often subconscious, concept of what a garden could and should be.”

A similar statement can be made of incorporating tropical-like plants into European- and Asian-style gardens. But Lovejoy adds that the Northwest “naturalistic” garden is the one that curiously lends itself most to the incorporation of tropicalismo.

As with each chapter before, a final, two-page section entitled “Plant Portrait,” offers specific examples of using a tropical effect in the Northwest garden. In this final piece in the chapter on tropicalismo - a fun and fitting end to the book as a whole–Lovejoy profiles tree ferns (Dicksonia species) and wild sumacs (Rhus glabra).

There are no step-by-step instructions included in “Naturalistic Gardening,” no list of resources or nurseries or tools or planting charts. It’s just full of ideas and examples, all beautifully described and illustrated.
In a recent announcement, publisher Sasquatch Books described the look of naturalistic gardening as “relaxed and soothing to the soul as it incorporates the flowing lines found in the wild, rather than the hard edges derived from geometry.” They also called it a “revolutionary new way to organize beds, borders, walkways,” etc. Admittedly, this new style of garden is a far cry from the English-style, well-defined, bordered gardens that have permeated our gardening consciousness for more than a century now.

Naturalistic gardening is a style that can be incorporated and used in conjunction with many others. In our Pacific Northwest gardens, it’s a natural.

NWGN archive story published January 1999

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