Laissez-faire Garden Design: A Long Conversation with Nature

Aster, switchgrass, and dahlia flourish in compacted clay under a dying sourwood.
Aster, switchgrass, and dahlia flourish in compacted clay under a dying sourwood that I can’t quite bring myself to remove… yet.

My style of gardening proceeds like an ongoing conversation between gardener and Nature. Here is how that conversation might go when choosing plants for a new garden.

If the gardener has enough experience to realize how important listening is to this conversation, the first step will be taking time to learn the site. Notice things such as soil moisture, water flow, sunlight exposure, wind exposure, and sand/clay/loam composition of the soil, some of which will change throughout the day or vary with the seasons. Also note which plants are already growing, and where. Think of this stream of information as Nature’s call-in radio show; you can find out more by asking questions.

Next, the gardener plants a wide range of plants. (Many gardeners skip that first step and start here, prolonging the conversation.) Varieties might be chosen based on aesthetic preferences as well as guesses about what might thrive in a particular location. I usually try two or three plants of each variety, and I plant them in different locations.

After the initial planting, Nature gets a turn to talk. It might respond in the following ways.

(1) A plant dies. This I often interpret as “Nyah, nyah, simple human.”

How to respond? Make an educated guess about why the plant failed, and make another guess about what might fare better there. If you really like the plant, you might try it somewhere else. If several plants die in the same location, I would think about adjusting conditions to make that site more able to support a wider variety of plants.

(2) A plant struggles. This could mean different things, from “Please put me out of my misery” to “I’m not sure I want to live here” to “Don’t rush me, I’m just settling in.”

It’s hard to make a decision without giving the plant time (and perhaps extra help) to adjust to its new location. If it’s a plant I’ve wanted to grow, I will try to distract myself elsewhere in the garden until the plant is clearly thriving or dying. When I can’t stand to see it limping along anymore, it must go.

(3) A plant produces new growth. Meaning, “Hooray, I’m home!”

You can then add more of the same to create drifts and echoes. You might also hunt down plants with similar needs and try them nearby. With experience, gardeners build lists of familiar plants that grow well in certain conditions and with certain companions.

This is just one of the processes of gardening, interactive and fairly slow, that leads a gardener down the path to creating a complex and satisfying landscape. Are you having this conversation with your garden?


  1. Reminds me of a new gardener I was helping just yesterday. For her and her family the first step had nothing to do with plants but with how they want to use the space. So I suggested buying/planting nothing until they’ve removed the horrible hardscape and tried sitting in the yard for a while to decide where the patio will go and where they need screening.
    First the hardscape, then the fun stuff – the plants.

    • Susan, I agree with that approach. Just amended to clarify that this piece is really about choosing the plants. Figuring out how you want to use the space is a great way to start thinking of the structure of the garden; it’s best if that structure can be put in place before adding the plants.

  2. Slow gardening. A really difficult concept in today’s instant gratification world! I also love to just watch new plants that have emerged without my doings. Then I can decide if it is something I want to keep or not. Sometimes you get lucky when nature decides you need more violets to make a nice ground cover! You go Mother Nature! ~Julie

  3. Great advice, Evelyn. All of your points start with being observant–which of course is important in any good conversation.

  4. What you’ve written is so on-target. I remember being a new gardener at my current house 15 years ago. Everything you write is exactly how it worked. Now the garden here is lush and lovely, but I’m leaving to be a new gardener in a new state. It’s scary and exciting. This time, I plan to go more slowly with the garden and put more into the soil and hardscape before I start planting, I think.–You know how plant temptation creeps in when you’re a gardener! Thanks for this post, Evelyn.

  5. Oh, it’s a constant and neverending conversation! Not much dies or even struggles, but I keep moving things around. Too tall here, too short there, this spot was sunny but now is shaded, wrong color scheme, etc. The front yard is settling down a bit, but the backyard is one huge experiment.

  6. It’s also worth remembering that the problem may be with the individual plants, not the entire species. Live in Alabama? Don’t plant buckeyes from Ohio when you can plant the same species sourced in Alabama. Frequently it’s the small details in the ongoing conversation that you need to pay attention to.

  7. You verbalized those internal conversations I’ve with myself many times in the garden. The hard thing for me is removing a robust plant because it has overgrown its location because I underestimated (or ignored) its requirements. Often times though, removing that plant opens up so many possibilities for other more rewarding plants to be added to that spot. That’s exciting!

  8. how true, how true. In creating a perennial flower bed, we lost some, and we gained many. What we found most amazing is how the successful moved about the lot to end up where they wanted to be, not where we planted them!
    Now our garden is beautiful, and worry free with enough space to add the bright splashy annual now and again. Oh the process took 12 years . . .

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