What’s Your Yardenality™?
Yes, you can create any garden style with North American native plants.
Here’s the question you haven’t asked that I want to answer:
Dear Avant Gardener, I’d like to do more to support birds and butterflies, but the prairie look isn’t really for me. Can I make a more traditional garden with native plants?
OMG, yes!!! You can create any style of garden with American native plants. And although some styles are easier to express in certain regions — e.g., Italian country in California and Parisian city gardens in Philadelphia, it’s possible to create any style in any location with plants native to that region.
What’s the style you want for your current yard? See style images below and respond to the poll. Next week, I will write about how to create the most popular style with native plants from each major U.S. region.
Lead with style and structure
One reason you can create a style with plants from any region is that structure is a stronger style cue in the garden than plants. That’s why landscape architects focus on structure — layout (what I’ve been calling the master plan) and hardscaping. In fact, most landscape architecture curricula have only one required course on plants, usually taken toward the end of the program.
Unfortunately, most residents who want to support bees and butterflies skip the structure and style steps and go right to plants. They focus on perennial wildflowers rather than more structural shrubs and trees. And too often they plant one of this, one of that — not enough mass, too little repetition. The result often looks messy and feels uninviting.
Naturalistic style vs. native plants
It’s pretty much just a coincidence that both native plants and naturalistic garden styles are trendy right now. On the one hand, entomologist Doug Tallamy and others have issued a wakeup call about the need to replace non-native turf and other plants with locally native ones in order to reverse the dramatic decline of native bees, butterflies and birds. On the other, Piet Oudolf and other naturalistic designers are highlighting for a global audience the underappreciated beauty of American prairie plants.
Oudolf’s intent in creating naturalistic landscapes was aesthetic, not ecological. In the U.S., horticulturalists and garden designers like Ben Vogt and Kelly Norris — both of whom live in prairie states — are creating naturalistic landscapes for both aesthetic and ecological reasons.
However, most natural areas are not prairies — or meadows, a regional variation on the same thing. Most of the East Coast, for example, wants to be a forest. Maintaining a meadow here requires regular maintenance to keep down the shrubs and pioneer tree species that naturally move in.
Picking a style muse
As a serial renovator passionate about interior design, I have honed how I think about inspiration. Seventeen years ago, I created an entire scrapbook with details for each room of our new Park Slope home. Jonathan Berger’s moderating influence fortunately saved us from a mish-mash style disaster. His hard work and unmatched eye made an extraordinary home that landed on the cover of House Beautiful.
What I do now (with Jonathan’s encouragement) is pick a single designer, house or even a single room as inspiration. The inspiration for my Florida home is Albert Hadley’s Naples home. It’s more about spiritual guidance than imitation. “What would Albert do?” In Florida, that means sticking to yellow as the sole color — as in, yellow kitchen cabinets — against a background of neutrals.
To help you identify your style muse, I’ve created six Yardenalities, pictured below. Which is yours?
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Native plants essential to the survival of our ecosystem are being displaced by development and invasives. Unfortunately, many people think native plants are ugly. Do you?
Almost half of the 48 Ohioans who responded to an open-ended question about why they would not plant native perennials said they were not appealing visually, according to a study published this year in Land.
The most oft-stated reasons respondents mention why not to add the plants shown in the survey are a general dislike for the appearance of the plants (especially for A. syriaca and E. purpurea), that the plants require or are perceived to require more maintenance than the respondent is willing or has the ability to expend, that the plant(s) spread too much on their own, and for A. syriaca that it is considered a weed or invasive plant. — Barriers to Native Plantings in Private Residential Yards
The authors point out that these perceptions are bad news for monarch butterflies, because 1.3 billion new milkweed plants (including Asclepias syriaca) are needed to support their populations.
The good news is native trees and shrubs provide substantial ecosystem benefits and are more consistent with a traditional yard. Several of the Yardenalities below can be executed with only trees and shrubs, without any wildflowers.
The best style for your current yard reflects a combination of factors:
Your style preferences
The architecture of your house
How far your current yard is from your goal
The time and/or money you want to devote
Your tolerance for untidiness while it’s establishing
For example, my Rhode Island house is a modest Cape Cod style, cedar-shingle cottage. Although I love more formal Parisian gardens, an English garden style is more appropriate to the architecture. My inspiration here is Vita Sackville West’s Sissinghurst, which combines French-inspired symmetrical structure with a profusion of colorful blooms.
My plan is a total transformation of the property we bought, which was mostly turf yard with overgrown and invasive shrubs and trees. Like two thirds of you, Pete and I are doing the work ourselves, but only enjoy spending a couple of hours a week on it. We are prepared to endure messiness and neighbors’ raised eyebrows as perennials establish and shrubs and trees mature.
These gardens demonstrate the range of styles achievable with native plants. More than two thirds of the vegetation in each is native to their North American region.
Extensive, designed perennial flower beds defined by paths or fences characterize the Blooming Romantic style, inspired by traditional English gardens.
Symmetry, varied deep-green leaf textures, few flowers in a cool palette, and a feeling of enclosure define the Chic & Private style, inspired by the private gardens of Paris.
Aromatic herbs with blue-gray foliage and gnarly trees — often with seating for a large group or family underneath — characterize the California Dreamin style, inspired by Italian farm gardens.
A limited selection of evergreen grasses, shrubs and trees arranged as sculptures within strong, geometric hardscaping characterizes the Zen Modern style.
On the Wild Side landscapes emulate local wild areas, including the prairie and meadow looks of the popular naturalist movement, as well as locally characteristic woodland and shrubland habitats.
Parklike lawns, foundation shrubs, clipped hedges, and plenty of small and large trees characterize the American Traditional style. Usually expressed with exotics, American Traditional can be created equally easily with native trees and shrubs.
Ready to work on your garden structure? Start with 3 Steps to a Master Plan for Your Property.
Want to see an actual example first? See How to Design a Landscape Where You’ll Want to Spend Time.
Curious about my design sense? Check out my daughter Eva’s recent Instagram reel.