'New Naturalism' Author Kelly D. Norris Says Your Garden Should Have a Mind of Its Own

Naturalistic landscape designs are more than just aesthetically pleasing—they're better for the environment, too, the expert explains in his new book.

kelly d. norris new naturalism garden
Photo: Courtesy of Kelly D. Norris

With the right flowers and plants, your garden can serve as a sanctuary for native floral and fauna. "Even in novel environments as contrived as cities, our gardens can serve as refuges for wildlife in its many forms," says horticulturist Kelly D. Norris. "Planting thoughtfully only encourages the evolution of our gardens as homes for more life."

In his new book New Naturalism ($25.24, amazon.com), Norris explores the ways gardeners can design more naturalistic gardens—inspired by meadows, prairies, and woodlands—by embracing and supporting the local ecological landscape. "New Naturalism encourages gardeners to tap into the ecological reality of our landscapes as interventions with wildness," he explains. "In essence, gardens tended to with these strategies (and, yes, this is an approach, not simply an aesthetic style) are perpetuated as resilient systems, instead of merely as collections of planted things." Curious how you can promote biodiversity in your own backyard by allowing your garden to naturally reveal itself to you? From planting native groupings to minimizing your use of hardwood mulch, Norris shares his best advice, ahead.

Plant native plants and groupings that benefit the ecological landscape.

By simply planting native flowers and plant groupings in your garden, Norris says you can create positive environmental change while providing food and shelter for local birds, bees, butterflies, and more. "Build your garden from a sturdy foundation of natives and near natives," he advises. "From there, just keep planting and increasing the overall diversity and complexity." If you're unsure about which varieties are indigenous to your area, Norris says checking in with a nearby native plant society or conservation group is a great place to start. "Borrow ideas from your native flora or local wild plant communities," he says. "You'll be surprised just how many native plants are out in [your local] nursery or available via mail-order sources."

Forgo hardwood mulch.

As a rule of thumb, the less you interfere with the natural growth of your garden by using inorganic matter and fertilizers, the better for the environment and the more you can allow your garden to reveal itself to you—which means you need to rethink what you use to mulch your beds. "Strive to minimize or eliminate the use of hardwood mulch wherever possible," Norris advises. "Use green mulch instead (for example, more plants) and bulk up the ground plane with low-growing varieties that complement their taller neighbors."

kelly d norris new naturalism garden
Courtesy of Kelly D. Norris

Get grassy.

Dreaming of a grassland-inspired landscape, but stuck in an urban setting? Norris says planting certain grasses or grass-like plants (like sedges) that scale with your architectural surroundings can help you forge a similar look in a small outdoor space. "In other words, find shorter grasses that won't overwhelm your house, walls, or fences so that they relate to one another (instead of one dominating one other)," he explains. "If tall things shade out everything else, you won't end up with much visual variety, so try to remember that it's important to capture as much light as possible nearest the ground when putting plants together."

Observe plants closely (but don't coddle them).

While pampering your plants might seem like it will help them grow, Norris says it can be counterproductive in a naturalistic garden. "Plants give all sorts of clues about how they adapt to their environment just based on how and when they grow," he explains. "Coddling plants might feed a gardener's tendency to nurture, but if a plant isn't well adapted to that place, embrace something else. Difficult conditions like dry shade and clay can at first feel delimiting, but actually challenge us to expand our plant palette and get creative."

Document your garden with a camera, or even your smartphone.

Norris says keeping a visual record of your garden's growth is an easy and effective way to track its changes throughout the seasons. "This can help us appreciate the little moments and remind us that the garden is constantly changing," he explains. "It also is the best journal we can keep, so we can reflect on our planting decisions (and watch our successes flourish!)."

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