The Naturalised Garden

Hakone grass mixes with hosta and astilbe in a shade garden.

The Link, Summer 2019
| by Tanya Crowell |

There’s a new trend in gardening these days that is becoming very popular called the naturalised garden. Inspired by the garden designs of Piet Oudolf and others and the allure of public gardens such as Lurie Garden in Chicago and the High Line in New York City, naturalised gardens mimic the look of a wildflower meadow with long grasses and intermittent bursts of bright flowers.

This change in attitude, from the pristine and controlled border with large swaths of plants each in their own place to a more natural uncontrolled look, is very much in line with a global movement that was born out of a desire to reconnect with nature. Though it may look as if Mother Nature happened by and simply swept her hand over a site to create a pleasing meadow, in fact, a great deal of planning and work goes into creating such a garden.

“…a more natural uncontrolled look is very much in line with a global movement that was born out of a desire to reconnect with nature.”

However, one need not go “whole hog.” We may execute this trend even a little bit and end up with a satisfying display. For example, grasses may be added to an existing bed or border. They mingle beautifully with other perennials and are low care and very hardy, requiring only an annual spring shearing. Their long wispy strands bring movement to a bed as they sway in the breeze and are a wonderful design feature juxtaposed against broadleaved and fleshy plants such as sedums, hostas, ligularia, canna and others. They often take on bright colours late in the season and add to the autumn garden. Leave them standing over winter – they look great in snow!

Another option would be to design a bed that is a predominantly grass bed. Here you must consider either a monoculture of one type of grass or an assortment of cultivars, taking into consideration how they’ll look together. Then you must decide whether to add other perennials to the mix or keep only grasses in this spot. If you are going to add perennials, choice of species is of utmost importance as these perennials need to compete with the grasses effectively. A very good resource, if you are thinking of this option, is a book called New Wild Garden by Ian Hodgson, published by Frances Lincoln Limited.

Although the design and choice process for such a bed requires thought and careful planning, it is a very low-maintenance bed once planted. Mulching in the early stages can control weeds and, once it grows and fills up the available space, an annual shearing in spring is all that’s needed. When well executed, this is a bed that looks very pleasing in all seasons, save a few weeks in spring after it is sheared.

A third option is to simply allow part of your lawn to grow and see what happens. Cordoning off a corner or swath of grass and simply not mowing there gives you an opportunity to see what comes. Will it simply be long grass or will wildflowers such as daisies, yarrow, black-eyed susans and others begin to establish themselves there? Either way, a plethora of insects, bees and butterflies will be drawn to this habitat and you’ll feel you are doing something good for our ailing earth.

If you decide to include grasses in your yard, they can be planted throughout the growing season, but the best time is spring. When you look for these plants at the garden centres you’ll be faced with many containers all comprising sprigs of green grass and all looking very much the same in this early state. They’re usually labelled with their botanical names that can be long and complicated so it’s important to do some research to get to know them by name and have a picture of what the mature plant will look like, including ultimate height and width. This prior research will help a lot!

Here are a few of my favourite species with the cultivars I prefer chosen for different conditions. There truly is a grass for every site. Keep in mind, this is a select few:

For sun and well-drained soil

Pennisetum (fountain grass) cultivar ‘Hameln’; Calamagrostis x Acutiflora (feather reed grass) ‘Karl Foerster’; Panicum Virgatum (switch grass) ‘Shenandoah’

For moist shade

Luzula (woodrush) ‘Nivea’

For moist sun

Deschampsia Cespitosa (hair grass) ‘Northern Lights’

For moist or dry shade

Hakonechloa Macra (Hakone grass) ‘All Gold’ or ‘Solar Flare’

Do you have a gardening question? Find the Northumberland Master Gardeners (Ontario) on Facebook or check out their blog at or visit their website:

Tanya Crowell is a member of Northumberland Master Gardeners. Their mission is to promote the love of gardening and provide gardening information to the public.

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