Your Home Outdoors

6 Ways to Add a Touch of Wildness to Your Garden

And why you should!

August 19, 2022
Photo by Claire Takacs

Even if you’re not an avid gardener, you may have noticed a shift in garden design in recent years. Gone are the perfectly manicured designs of the past—now, wilder, more naturalistic gardens like the High Line in New York City or the Lurie Garden in Chicago are en vogue, and if you love the look of these wild gardens, you should definitely check out WILD: The Naturalistic Garden, a new book by Noel Kingsbury.

The new title gives home gardeners a comprehensive overview of this relatively new approach to planting, featuring more than 40 stunning gardens. (It’s honestly worth buying for the photographs alone!) A lot of the featured gardens are from England—Kingsbury’s home country—and northern Europe, but there are also designs from around the world, including a drought-resistant Australian garden and a northern California coastal garden. The gardeners featured in his book have created landscapes that not only look more natural, but are more biodiverse and filled with native plants that benefit wildlife and environment, too.

While the gardens and concepts showcased in WILD are on the high end of the spectrum—these are serious gardens belonging to career garden designers—the book is a surprisingly useful resource for beginners. Its sheer breadth makes it a great guide to the new style of naturalistic gardening, and Kingsbury also explains whose work influenced the featured gardens. He even includes discussions on topics such as “Natives vs. Exotics” and shares a ten-page directory of key plants at the back of the book. Perhaps most importantly, there are also detailed captions that tell you exactly what you’re seeing in each and every photo, making it easy to recreate the designs at home, if you’re so inclined.

If you’re inspired by natural designs in the book—we certainly are!—here are six easy ways to add a little wildness to your own gardens.

Photo by Phaidon Press

1. Soften The Edges

An easy way to make your garden look more natural is to let plants spill over into paths, walkways, and patios, softening the borders where the garden ends and hardscaping begins. All you have to do is resist the urge to cut back unruly plants and let Mother Nature do her thing. You may also want to select plants that will creep and trail, such as a low-growing sedum or cranesbill geranium, near the garden's edge.

2. Add Native Plants

Native plants—a.k.a. plants that are indigenous to your area—will always read as more natural than exotic options. Plus, they’re extremely beneficial to the local insects, birds, and other creatures. You don’t have to forgo exotic plants completely, but think of ways that you can weave in more flora that would grow naturally in your region. The bees and butterflies will thank you!

3. Don’t Deadhead

While most of the gardens in WILD are photographed in their full summer splendor, they’re also designed to look lovely in the winter months. Left to stand in the garden over the winter, plants like coneflowers and sedums have sculptural seed heads that create visual interest in the off-season. Not only does it save you the work of mowing or deadheading, it also feeds the birds when food is scarce. A win-win!

Photo by Claire Takacs

4. Naturalize Your Lawn

The WILD gardens don’t have much turf—after all, a lot of popular lawn grass varieties are non-native—but if grass is a big part of your landscape, there are ways you can make it look a little less pristine and a little more wild. Try letting your grass grow longer, making your lawn smaller, or creating curved edges instead of sharp lines. You might even want to overseed the turf with clover or plant spring ephemerals in the lawn for a more naturalistic style.

5. Embrace Abundance

Mulch is another garden element you won’t see in WILD. Instead, the gardens are planted so densely that greenery covers all the exposed earth. This dense planting style is a hallmark of the naturalistic style, as it mimics how plants would grow on their own in the wild. You can help your gardens along by selecting plants that re-seed themselves—flowers such as columbine, coreopsis, and lupine will self-sow and spread throughout your gardens each year.

6. Learn to Love Grass

Ornamental grass is a big component of the European prairie-style gardens in the pages of WILD, and they’re also one of the key plants that Kingsbury recommends for the new naturalistic style. Big Bluestem, Tufted Hairgrass, Chinese silvergrass, and Golden Oats are all recommended, and these ornamental grasses are great for softening hardscapes, edging garden beds, or even creating a bit of privacy in your yard.

Do you like the new style of naturalistic gardening? Let us know in the comments!

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Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


susan November 22, 2022
It's just wonderful that you are encouraging native plants. But Please, please when you include non-natives do not promote invasive species! Chinese silvergrass is just awful in the mid-atlantic/northeast. It is invading our native meadows and out competing our native plants. Native plants ( American!) host all sorts of larvae, including butterflies. Non- native plants do not. 96% of seed eating birds need caterpillars to feed their babies, caterpillars only ( well by a huge margin) grow on our native species! Feed the birds, feed the caterpillars, grow natives. AND PLEASE do not plant invasives!
Smaug August 19, 2022
Naturalistic gardening is not in any way new; the whole replacement of gardens with synthetic landscapes designed by others and sub minimally maintained by untrained laborers is a recent and, one dearly hopes temporary, trend. The maniacal pursuit of fallen leaves, hacking of innocent shrubbery into quasi geometric forms with gas powered hedge trimmers and such is the product of the insane notion that a garden can be maintained by a couple of laborers with machines in 15 minutes every couple of weeks, and designs are built largely around the ability to survive such treatment, coupled with choosing plants that don't attract wildlife, or much of any kind of life, which might be a nuisance.