Naturalistic plantings are not just prairie and meadow species, yet there’s a perception that woodies aren’t included in those designs.
Photos by Esther Westerveld

I had the privilege of speaking to the International Plant Propagators’ Society Southern Region meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last October on my teaching the concepts and installation of naturalistic plantings to students at Stephen F. Austin State University. I knew this group was a stronghold for the production of evergreen and deciduous woody species, but I wanted to share my experiences in the classroom, as well as teach them some novel ecology concepts. While many people passing in the halls and on tours had compliments on my herbaceous plants talk, I became aware during question and answer periods that not everyone in our industry was as on board with this nature-emulating approach as I thought they were.

My friend and colleague Todd Lasseigne [president of the Tulsa Botanic Garden] brought this different perspective to the forefront by asking the question, "Are shrubs dead?" at the end of my talk. I'm not throwing Todd under the bus, as I think it is a question that deserves to be asked with the rise of the new perennial movement. I, of course, said no, that I was one of the members of the faux Hydrangea quercifolia Appreciation Society (why don't we have one yet!), and one only has to look at the High Line where trees and shrubs played an integral part of the design. My presentation was based on how to teach naturalistic planting and how to apply ecological concepts in horticulture, and the confines of the semester made it easier to use herbaceous material. Also, it was an herbaceous plants class. But this question made me realize that some have the perception that naturalistic design is all about perennials and all about meadows and prairies.

I was surprised because most conferences where I attend and present, I've found naturalistic planting is the in-thing with no push back. I'll also briefly note that I'm defining naturalistic planting as using inspiration from nature to plant functional flora (woody and herbaceous) that sustain an ecology and reduce conventional landscape maintenance. It's not just prairie and meadow species, yet those seem to be connotations that arise from this word because these habitats do offer long-term season interest, a characteristic very desirable to the designer.

Since the meeting I've asked myself why was there resistance to this idea? Or, have I just been insular, that this technique is just a fad and I've surrounded myself with like-thinking people?

I don't think it's the latter. Just read about how the High Line had 7 million people visit in 2017. Or, look at the success of Five Seasons. I also see interest from students. They see horticulture as opportunities in conservation and they write essays and do presentations on this forward-thinking approach to design.

So why was there push back against this approach of planting? Noel Kingsbury has written about why naturalistic planting hasn’t quite caught on yet from the gardener side. I was able to see it from the production side. I think a couple of factors were at play and all of the following were discussed during the conference either in general Q&A sessions or in small conversations I had.

1 ) I SENSED THAT SOME WERE RESPONDING AS IF WE WERE THREATENING THEIR EXISTENCE.

It's as if I got on stage and said, "Crape myrtle bad, coneflower good." That by talking about naturalistic planting we were threatening to tear at the fabric of southern gardening, woven by the threads of deciduous and evergreens woodies like Camellia, Hydrangea, Rosa, Nandina, Ilex, Loropetalum, and others. Perhaps we were being lumped in with the native plant Nazis?

Within this response I think was also the frustration that these wispy, green things are having their heyday. I mean, what have you heard more enthusiasm around in the past few years; herbaceous or woody species? I think most of us would say herbaceous, and if I were a woody plant grower, I’d be wondering when the pendulum will be swinging back.

I think part of their popularity is because we're finally realizing how to appropriately use annuals and perennials. We are no longer just mulching around Phlox and wondering why the phlox falls over. We are learning that stress is our friend. Ecological terms like the survival strategy trio — competitor, ruderal, and stress-tolerator — and sociability are entering the mainstream conversations in horticulture. And, let's pause for a moment and appreciate that the little underdog Carex which is everywhere on this continent has now become a mainstream plant. We are learning that plants are part of a community instead of thinking about them as individuals occupying a foundation planting. To accept that the producing and growing and using the herbaceous layer is part of the horticulture industry community, too, takes a shift of mind.

2) THEY HAD VALID CONCERNS FROM THE CUSTOMER PERSPECTIVE.

"Our customers won't plant this because it looks like a snake den." True, but there's plenty of Carex out there as lawn alternatives. Plug some bulbs and away you go.

"How can a homeowner buy enough gallons when a coneflower costs $20 for a one gallon?" That's a great point. We discussed this issue in the Cultivate town hall a few years ago suggesting that a new model for selling plants might be 50-cell, 5-inch-deep nursery trays. A prairie, groundcover, or shrub cuttings in a box would be an interesting model to evaluate, especially with online sales.

"How do we grow in small plugs?" Well, that's just adapting your approach. Faster turnover. They are glorified liners.

Kevin Parris commented and I think it’s appropriate to consider for today’s homeowner. Paraphrased, "The issue is not between woody and herbaceous. It's between plants and mulch." Maybe there needs to be an effort to teach woody plant growers how to integrate perennials into traditional plantings to show them that they, too, are part of this planting approach. Mulch has to be replaced every year. A thick carpet of Carex, Glandularia (Verbena), Eragrostis, etc. doesn’t. And, if people buy more plants instead of mulch, that’s certainly a plus.


Trees and shrubs played an integral part of the design of The High Line in New York City, a site that gets millions of visitors each year.
Photo by Acroterion

3) IS NATURALISTIC PLANTING JUST FOR THE WEALTHY?

Is it something that can only be done by the elite? I have pondered that in the past, and Noel Kingsbury’s piece I mentioned delves into this topic.

At one point the comment about naturalistic design being an approach for “coastal elite” came up in the Q&A. Horticulture is a field that is connected to disposable income. And, it might, and I stress might, be harder up front to buy plugs to cover the same area that a truckload of mulch would cover.

However, I chuckle a bit at this suggestion because naturalistic planting arose from trying to reduce costs. Pat Cullina made a great point during these conversations about the maintenance costs. So many landscapes have money up front to do the installation, but there’s little if any financing to cover the care afterwards.

I would really like to see some economics on this approach, especially for the up-front cost. With that knowledge we would be able to adequately compare the cost with the installation of a traditional landscape versus a naturalistic planting. I know it exists for the maintenance break down of x labor per square meter per year. Seed certainly reduces the cost. And, I do believe that naturalistic design can be started on the small scale and then increased in size by bulking up propagules. Heaven knows that's what I'm trying to do at my house as I collect germplasm from local flora and propagate more from them.

But, back to the coastal elite comment. I do recall that the audience engaged with this label, as if outsiders were trying to come in and tell them what to do just based on a fad. Yes, while the prairie/grassland archetype that inspires many naturalistic designs primarily originated in the center of the country and not the coasts, it was recognized as a phrase to indicate the discomfort that if the rich are doing it, then the commoners should, too.

As someone who loves studying patterns and trends, I often ask, "What's next?" to prognosticate for students and audiences alike. Where do we go from here? Are we going to be mulching around perennials and shrubs the rest of our days in horticulture? Or mowing the 5 acres out back every week? I don't think so. Earth won't allow it. To me naturalistic planting isn't a blip that's going to vanish. It’s not a rich versus not-rich. It’s new, different, and an approach to horticulture that we must adopt to make the world a better place. I see more places adopting this design in the future. So, why not get on board while you can?


Simple conversations between propagators, finished growers and designers can help end perceived problems about naturalistic designs.
Photo courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

4) NATURALISTIC PLANTING WASN'T WHY THEY ATTENDED, AND THEY DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO DO THE DESIGNS.

I was one of six speakers who had something to share about some realm of naturalistic design; plants for pollinators, green infrastructure, design projects, cajun prairies, and native plant propagation were also on the docket. As a lifelong student, I was thrilled to hear these other presentations just as I was the one on drones and embyro rescue of Stewartia. So, why weren't other members of the audience? Even in my presentation I tried to make sure that even though the audience was more woody plant growers, that they would take something away like Grime's triangle application on why ruderal weeds grow in pots or the competitive nature of Rhus.

One person revealed that while he liked my talk, he would have gotten more from me if I had talked about nursery production. No offense there. I knew coming in that this was a woody production-minded audience. He made the case that his company paid him to come and he had to have new knowledge to take back. Fair enough.

Another individual said that his focus was making $10.25 off this plant, $8.75 off this plant. That's it. He didn't care what it was. At the end of the day his focus was the business. This approach is perfectly fine, and we need more business-minded people in horticulture. The funny thing is that I know nurseries where naturalistic design is their main focus, and their businesses are growing and expanding.

There was this merry-go-round discussion where one of the speakers said, “I’m telling you, there is a market for this stuff,” and a few growers replying with some version of, “We can’t sell it, and we can’t design it.” The solution I said was do what many businessmen and women do. Hire people so that you're the dumbest person in the room. Have someone else who is an expert design these plantings so that you can sell kits together and then someone else market the plantings for you. My friend and fellow presenter Pat Cullina suggested having a day at a nursery where you teach people more about this approach.

I will close this section by saying their lack of knowledge about the plants and design did reaffirm one of my professional goals: finding flora that work for these plantings for the Southeast. Noel Kingsbury also discussed how many people are uncomfortable viewing plants as communities instead of individual round pegs in round holes. So, maybe we need to help growers with this area of marketing and design.

Planting ideas

The good thing is that these presentations did make waves and made people think — even me. They got conversations going, and some people seemed to express interest in doing some trials with growing more herbaceous species.

So, is the interest in shrubs and woody plants dead? Certainly not, and it was fascinating to be asked this question which I believe embodies some frustration with naturalistic planting I’ve outlined above. I wanted to share these thoughts with you so that we can better see the perception issues with naturalistic plantings from a production point-of-view. I was glad to see the push back to these designed plant communities because it helps me see the holes. This experience was a good reminder that maybe we need to talk up the taller counterparts more. Not just the Schizachyrium, but also the Callicarpa interspersed between them. Not just the Carex, but the Camellia they surround. And not just the ferns, but also the Quercus, Nyssa, and Taxodium that create the shade they need.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GIE Media Inc. This piece originally appeared in Barnes’ blog and has been edited for clarity. (meristemhorticulture.com)

Jared Barnes, Ph.D. serves as an assistant professor of horticulture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. His love of gardening began around age five. meristemhorticulture.com