If you're a regular reader of this column, you may have the impression that as a designer I favour a formal, controlled style in the garden, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. But I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to putting together a landscape, no one does a better job than nature.
In the urban context, where most of us live, creating a “wild” garden is a deeply difficult and fundamentally contrary business in which contrivance attempts to mimic artlessness—a paradox compounded by most gardeners' firm preference for a cleaned-up version of the real thing.
The designer will start planning the wild garden in the usual way—by establishing the paths, paved and planted areas that provide the framework upon which everything else will hang. The task is complicated because the built elements must play a double role: setting the mood and providing the context for the plants, while appearing to have been there forever. Like the perfect dinner party, everything must be just right and still seem completely effortless. The naturals, such as wood, local rock, flagstone and terra-cotta, are ideal building materials, as they settle in well, quickly taking on the patina of maturity.
Understanding and working with the soil is fundamental to success in a garden in which plants are to do their own thing. Before planting a wild garden, it's essential to get to know your soil, checking its pH, mineral elements and tilth (how well air and water move through it). Soils that have been overworked and poorly nourished will need organic matter to make them friendly ground for native plants.
And so to the plants—the stars of the wild garden. Observe and read up on the indigenous flora; choose plants as close as possible to what might have occurred naturally to improve your chances of achieving the artlessness you seek. Develop a small, modest plant list and be realistic about the mature size of everything you select, from trees to groundcovers. Wild plants need room to spread and will rapidly colonize, given a chance. When possible, buy from a local grower whose plants will be acclimatized to your area's conditions.
After experimenting with different ways of creating a natural garden, I prefer to put in young trees and shrubs to allow them to develop on-site into shapes that fit into the setting. Perennials and bulbs are planted in groups that are dense at the centre and more scattered at the edges. Take your cue from the way nature mixes things rather than being overly concerned with tasteful combinations.
The final stage is the best—watching the garden grow and gently intervening as things take their course. By allowing some things to spread, controlling others, weeding and composting, we are drawn into the natural process, becoming nature's henchmen—or so we like to imagine.