University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Perennial Publications : Book of the Month

Natural Gardening in Small Spaces.
2003.  Noel Kingsbury.  Timber Press.  176pp, hardcover.

This popular British author of many articles and several books now shows in his latest book how in even small spaces gardeners can recreate the look and ecology of natural areas.  Such gardens will be aesthetic for those desiring such a garden, and both functional and hospitable to many forms of wildlife.  He begins with some basic terms and issues related to natural areas, then goes into more depth on characteristics to consider in natural gardens.  A considerable part of the book considers six main natural habitats.  Extensive lists of plants and their features for these areas are listed at the end.  One chapter also explains how to create natural plantings in containers, on walls, and on rooftops-- one of the first garden books to focus attention on the latter.  There is of course another chapter on the practicalities or gardening techniques for such gardens such as watering, weeds and soils.  Beautiful color photos illustrate the various chapters.

In the first chapter, the author discusses what a "natural" garden means to various people, some associated terms, and touches on issues such as native plants, sustainability, and if such gardens should be organic and what this means.

In the design chapter he discusses the basic principles necessary for wildlife of variety, connections, gradients and seclusion.  The design principles to give us that desired aesthetic are complexity, coherence, legibility and mystery.  Other aspects in this chapter include low-maintenance aspects, choosing the plants, and dealing with problem sites such as less than ideal soils.  There are tables throughout, such as difficult situations, and natural habitats one can turn to for inspiration for such sites.  For instance, if dry soil look to steppes and short-grass prairies.

Other design aspects for such natural gardens include how to design the plantings to look, natural, the role of spontaneous plants, and developing a sense of place.  For the latter, of course ferns suggest woodlands; grasses suggest prairies; yuccas and gray foliage plants suggest a semi-desert.  The six main habitats the author treats, as to characters and plants, include woodland and shade, woodland edge, grasslands-- both meadows and prairies, wetlands, dry and exposed, and open borders.

The guiding techniques to creating such natural gardens, in whatever space available, are summed up in the opening to the chapter on practicalities.  "By working with the existing conditions rather than trying to change them, by using wild plant communities as our guide as to what will work in the garden, by tolerating imperfections and by accepting a more naturalistic look, we not only make the garden more sustainable but also reduce the amount of work we have to do."

Each chapter has an opening paragraph on the relevant philosophy or approach.  The opening to the practicalities chapter sums up the difference in philosophies between natural gardens and conventional ones.  " In practical as well as design considerations it [natural gardening] seeks to work with nature wherever possible, looking for the potential of a given situation and recognizing the constraints that nature can impose.  Whereas conventional gardening is oriented towards techniques and practices, natural style gardening is perhaps more about developing intuition-- particularly about whether to intervene or just to let things develop.  It recognizes that nature is dynamic and has its own agenda."

Concerning the continued care and maintenance of such gardens, the role of the gardener is also different between the two garden types, and pretty much sums up the whole way we should view such gardens.  "Once a natural-style garden has developed, the gardener becomes a conductor rather than a master, a guiding hand rather than a controlling one."

If you are at all interested in natural gardens, whether amateur or professional, and are not already quite experienced with them, you should find this a very readable and useful reference.  It will give you the necessary and relevant ecological foundation without having to study a text on ecology and try to apply it to gardens. This book is not a hard sell on having natural gardens, rather their benefits, why one might want such a contemporary naturalistic planting, and how to go about having such.  Much of the information, although considered from the limitation of small spaces, can be applied to larger ecological garden habitats.

Where am I?  Perry's Perennial Pages | Publications | Book of the Month