Naturalistic Planting Design is the Trend Landscape Designers Swear by for Yards That Feel Soft, Pretty and Welcoming

Want a slice of the hottest trend in luxury landscapes? We've brought the experts in to reveal the secrets behind naturalistic planting designs and how we can achieve it at home

front garden with informal tall yellow flowers and a stone pathway
(Image credit: Kayla Fell. Design: Refugia Design)

Say goodbye to overly manicured lawns and strict planting patterns, because naturalistic planting is the landscape trend on everyone’s lips this year.

Aimed at cooperating with Mother Nature and replicating her organic compositions, this design trend is proving a firm favorite of luxury landscape designers. But what actually is naturalistic planting?

In three words: relaxed, holistic, and informal. Think sweeping grasses scattered with architectural seed heads, structured perennials and organic flower drifts.

But like all design trends that look easy, it takes a real expert to pull off this seemingly effortless modern garden look. That’s why we’ve spoken to the award-winning landscape designers behind these sensational looks to give you their top dos and don’ts when it comes to naturalistic planting and how you can achieve it at home.

What are the fundamentals of naturalistic planting?

stone pathway surrounded by fresh green shrubs and a blue car at the end of the path

(Image credit: Kayla Fell Design: Refugia Design)

One minute you’re popping into your local plant nursery for compost, the next you’ve bought a dozen different gorgeous plants that you’re sure will transform your yard in one afternoon – trust us, we’ve all been there! But to achieve the naturalistic garden of your dreams, you’ll have to resist the urge to splurge for a little while and research the fundamentals of naturalistic planting.

'For us, naturalistic planting design means letting the natural year-round structure and style of perennials lead the design,' say award-winning landscape designers Mark Peterson and Keith Wallock at M.ERBS. 'We try to capture and reinterpret patterns from nature. We arrange the plants so they can grow in their natural habit and shape. We spend a lot of time looking at how plants grow and spread as well as the scatter patterns of natural seed dispersion.'

But if that seems a bit overwhelming, don’t panic! Mark and Keith’s top advice for starting your naturalistic landscaping design: curate your plant selection carefully.

'Plant selection is extremely important, be sure to consider site conditions, light exposure and scale of planting,' they say. 'It is vital to pick plants that will live in scale with each other in the planting area. We spend a lot of time refining plant lists for all our projects. Using natives to your area can be helpful for ecological function and using plants from ecotypes similar to your project area is essential.'

Can you achieve naturalistic planting in small yards?

sloping naturally planted front garden with ornamental grasses and yellow flowers in front of a white house

(Image credit: M.ERBS)

Absolutely! In fact, according to the pros, they’re ideal. You just have to get creative with your space.

'For small backyards, use lots of plants planted together covering as much of the ground as possible. For a small space pick three to five perennials to make the majority structure of the planting. Then add a smaller amount of perennials for seasonal interest that will grow among the structural mix of plants', advises Mark and Keith.

For landscape design expert Jeff Lorenz, founder of Refugia Design, balance is the secret to a successful naturalistic design in a small yard.

'The key to designing small spaces is balancing a sense of immersion and expansiveness,' he says. 'This is achieved by softening hard lines, utilizing size-appropriate woody plants as anchor points, finding opportunities to incorporate height in the foreground, and creating outdoor rooms or destination points within densely planted areas. Utilizing natural, sustainably sourced materials within hardscaping and built elements is another way of creating cohesion in a small space.'

How do you avoid naturalistic planting taking over your yard?

large drifts of green and white flowers with blue vintage car in background

(Image credit: Kayla Fell. Design: Refugia Design)

It’s easy to assume naturalistic planting is just a case of surrendering your garden to Mother Nature. But losing all garden structure is a recipe for a horticultural disaster!

With naturalistic planting designs, it’s all about creating a harmonious balance between nature and a functional garden design. Knowing how to contain the natural spreading habits of plants can be tricky, but luckily experts Mark and Keith have the perfect solution.

'Decide on the area that you want to plant in a naturalistic way and then keep the planting framed in that area' advises Mark and Keith. 'Think about the relative heights of plants that you want to use. I like to add taller upright perennials lightly scattered throughout the design to give the viewer a repetition of structure or bloom. If you are unsure about an aggressive spreader consult with a local plant expert.'

Are naturalistic gardens good for wildlife?

sloping front garden with ornamental grasses, lavender and allium flowers

(Image credit: M.ERBS)

Arguably, one of the best parts of naturalistic landscape designs is how they work with nature. Quite holistic in their approach, these nature-focussed yards make the most of their environment and, at their best, work hand in hand with the surrounding wildlife.

As far as award-winning landscape expert Jeff sees it, this type of wildlife gardening is crucial for improving the ecosystem.

'Naturalistic plantings that reduce lawn and maximize functional plant communities are key to enhancing rather than degrading ecosystem function,' he says. 'Without lots more ecologically productive plants, wildlife and the food webs they support will perish.'

For design experts Mark and Keith, it’s important to think of your garden as food for the surrounding wildlife as well. They say 'Incorporate plants native to your area and pay special attention to plants whose seeds will act as a food source. Plants that bloom early and late in the season are an important pollen and nectar source when there may be a lack of other flowers, too.'

What are the best plants for naturalistic gardens?

large garden bed with mature trees, grasses and tall plants

(Image credit: Kayla Fell. Design: Refugia Design)

Try these planting schemes on for size, as recommended by some of our experts.

Matilda Bourne