A Gentle Plea for Chaos


Is there any reason to welcome chaos? It is the inevitable balance to stagnant order. In the Grand Garden, chaos is vitally necessary for life to thrive. Mary Vaananen joins us for her 4th Guest Rant.

Moody chaos in the author’s garden

THE BRITISH AUTHOR Mirabel Osler’s wonderful book was published in the 1980s, a time when British gardening was of a certain tidy proper look. Mirabel’s gentle plea was for gardeners to allow the magic back into their gardens by handing back the reins (just a little or a lot) to Mother Nature.  Self-sown plants weaving a tapestry within garden beds was, to Mirabel, idyllic, unplanned and imperfectly perfect.

Since her book was published in 1989, others have come along speaking the same language. Cultivating Chaos, Sowing Beauty, and Planting in a Post Wild World all look towards making sustainable plantings that are beautiful, with natural spaces as role models. Planting the way nature plants.

Chaos in horticulture is de rigueur these days…on trend as the influencers would point out. Think Oudolf and Lurie. Catch the Dutch Wave! Or prowl the wild artfulness of the German steampunk Landschaftspark. Chaos is cool.

Ms. Osler was a fan of Christopher Lloyd (an original influencer) and perhaps her visits to Great Dixter ignited a love of, or fueled her fires for, the exuberant and (seemingly) only slightly tamed landscape.

I would love to accompany Mirabel on a stroll through the Lurie garden in downtown Chicago. Though not the swooning type, she might have to pause and take a seat to regain her composure. I know I did.

Lurie Garden downtown Chicago summer 2019

Chaos is not a warm fuzzy British grand-mum kind of word. We evolved to remove chaos in our surroundings if at all possible, increasing chances of survival. Like a black walnut tree with its juglone defenses, we tend to keep competition at bay and sight-lines open. As we have evolved, so too have plants developed clever systems of ensuring their survival. They outwit us most times.

Meet Ruellia humilis…WILD PETUNIA…a member of the Acanthaceae family. The Genus was named for Jean Ruel (1479-1537) French physician and botanist. All about Ruel, and Charles Plumier (the monk who became botanist to king Louis XIV of France), who named the plant for Ruel, at another time.

Ruellia humilis

I don’t think anyone suspects chaos in humility. Ruellia humilishumilis meaning humble or low… has a widespread native range throughout Eastern North America from Pennsylvania to Florida and west from Minnesota to Texas. Its low-ness, about a foot high, makes it perfect as a path edger, in a rockery or front of a sunny border. Bloom times vary with the region, but here in my garden it gives forth its dusky lavender flowers beginning the end of June through September…during the hot dry months when many other plants are finished with their business. Flowers are one and done…open in the morning and are closed and hanging limp by evening. Good thing there are so many.

This humble hardy petunia depends on chaos for its perpetuation. In October, seeds “explosively dehisce” from the seed pods. That’s a new phrase for most of us. Explosive dehiscence characterizes the entire Acanthaceae family (around 4100 species) and is probably the most interesting method of seed dispersal nature has invented yet. Click for a video on seed dispersal

Seedpod of Ruellia ciliatiflora image by Erin Tripp University of Colorado

Triggering the explosions are small, hooked stalks…a modified funiculus (remember Funiculi, Funicula? Click the link for a lively listen) cradling each seed that eject them from the capsule as the seed pods dry. Think Jai alai.

Research done by a trio of undergraduate physics majors on Ruellia ciliatiflora at Pomona College in Claremont, CA worked out what happens in that moment of explosion that launches the seeds so far.  The seeds launch with extreme backspin contributing to the aerodynamics. “It just looks like this gentle, beautiful motion” Dr. Dwight Whitaker Professor of Physics at Pomona, said.

Beautiful, gentle chaos?

After typing the word chaos into Dictionary.com, and yielding


a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order.

I realize the precision of the Ruellia seed capsule and the synchronization of the seed launch is anything but chaotic. It is elegant indeed. A sowing all-star, this WILD PETUNIA has proven very hardy, vigorous and adaptable. Yes, it will seed around the area…figure a 10 ft radius. I have not experienced it being overzealous. If it appeals to you, site it well and enjoy it here and there.

Ruellia humilis in July

Mirabel wrote:

The very soul of a garden is shrivelled by zealous regimentation. Off with their heads go the ferns, lady’s mantles or cranesbill. A mania for neatness, a lust for conformity—and away go atmosphere and sensuality. What is left? Earth between plants: the dreaded tedium of clumps of color with earth in between. So the garden is reduced to merely a place of plants. Step – one, two. Stop – one, two. Look down (no need ever to look up, for there is no mystery ahead to draw you on), look down at each plant. Individually each is sublime, undoubtedly. For a plantsman this is heaven. But where is lure? And where, alas, is seduction and gooseflesh on the arms?

The bare earth in between plants begs for growth. No matter if you are a proud plant specimen spacer, or rely on mulch (the tinted concealer of the garden world) to fill the void, nature abhors a vacuum.

Happy re-seeding chaos in the author’s garden

You can plant re-seeders or you can let nature take its course (chaos grab bag). Either way, what appears without any creative blurp from me often looks looser and more natural—imperfectly perfect as Mirabel might say. The opportunist has grown into its place.

We know that less tidy gardens are better as habitat for insects and wildlife. When insects thrive, the whole system does. And allowing natural re-seeding keeps the dreaded tedium of bare patches of earth from exposure, drying, and weed takeover. Again, plant the re-seeders (weeds) you want to see.

A little chaos brings something intangible…call it vibe or atmosphere. Maybe don’t call it anything. The buzzing and humming of indigenous garden inhabitants stream an awesome soundtrack, don’t they?

The earth has her chaos, and the natural chaos of tornado, tsunami, earthquake…any of her big acts… inevitably brings change, sometimes big change. I can’t help feeling these current times and events are an act of nature…a seed launch into new territory. Perhaps we need to learn a gentle tolerance for the chaos within ourselves and the world.

Natural chaos.

Designed for change.

[Mirabel Osler was the author of 8 books on gardening and travel. She died in 2016.]

Mary Vaananen shelters in place in Louisville, KY. She is the North American manager for Jelitto Perennial Seeds, headquartered in Germany.


  1. How wonderful to have someone quote Osler, one of my favorite garden writers. In this time of enforced quietude, it is good to go back and read the writers from one golden age.
    Thanks for your commentary.

  2. Can seriously do without the face covering on the author. I’m quite certain I can’t catch anything from her photograph. Also, skipping “influencers” – the word – the idea.. would be fine by me. It could have been worse.. might have written that Mother Nature “curates” the garden.. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarhh

    This is between-time here. For the next few weeks, the garden – which is pretty much the entire yard – has gone from blooming, to waiting-to-bloom. The intybus cihorium looks far more like trifids than anything anyone would want in a garden, and it is tempting not to give them a bit of a pruning. The lupines have finished blossoming and are waiting for me to turn my back before they rocket out their seeds before I can capture them and contain them. (I am NOT going to put coverings on all of them. I would go mad).

    So. The garden – better to call it the “yard” – looked great. Now looks like hell. And so it goes.

    • The use of “influencers” was meant to be tongue in cheek, J. Sorry you couldn’t see my face…the photo was also an attempt at lightheartedness.

  3. A great piece, I recently wrote “We need to overcome our fear of disorder, and learn to maintain a diverse, yet harmonious combination of plants – an evolving ecological planting can still look neat and cared for.”
    Please see “Grasses and Perennials – Sustainable Planting for Shared Spaces” available from Amazon.

  4. Thanks for a wonderful article! Couldn’t agree more! I prefer the term “wildness”, or maybe “contained wildness”. I live in a Victorian house, but am – slowly – creating more of an Edwardian landscape. Some form and order, but surrouned by lush wildness. The blank spots in the butterfly garden are so disheartening to me at the moment. We had a late spring, then with all the Covid stuff was reluctant to “spend a trip” buying flowers. So everything (couple perennials, multiple annuals) got put in really late. I always somewhat crowd the annuals in, so in two months, no dirt/mulch shows. That’s when I’m truly satisfied, and find reason to walk through and just be there multiple times each day. Sigh, almost there…

    • THANKS DEE CEE. My house is circa 1880….the wildness seems to compliment it. I know what you mean about disheartening blank spots. THe canvas is not complete. And they are not, unfortunately, places for the eye to rest. Gardening is such a life long preoccupation.

  5. I call them the Wild Cultivated Gardens for a reason. Nature is equal partner. We both have veto privileges. I consider it a success when something I add begins to self sow and move about.

    • I do think we forget that we are also nature…another organism like the myriad that inhabit our gardens, her land. Gardens are really truly an act of nature. Instead of just climate and a geology setting the parameters for what grows, humans are an added complexity in the outcome. Where do we draw the line between Nature, gardener, and garden?

  6. I also am embracing a lot more chaos in my gardens. I came across a photo of a shrub border that I planted in 2011: lawn in foreground, rocks around edge, neat little shrubs among the mulch. Today that area is a riot of green! All native, no lawn. I used to have a path between that border and the rain garden but the wild strawberries and common violet (V. sororia) have taken it over. I absolutely love the Lurie garden in Chicago but I know from my own gardens that a huge amount of work probably goes into keeping it like the plan. In my gardens, some plants thrive and spread. Others die out. Some stay put. New natives bring themselves in. I welcome this! I do fight against the invasives and the weeds.

  7. Mirabel gardened not far from us and we heard her talk twice. She was wonderful and inspiring to listen to as her books are to read. A Gentle Plea for Chaos is without doubt one of the best gardening books of all time. I re-read it every two or three years and enjoy it every time.

    • How lucky to have known her, Malcolm. I re-read it every now and then, too. There is a feeling evoked that is timeless.

  8. I’ve given up tending plants that just don’t want to survive in my garden. Instead I welcome those that not only survive, but actually prosper. This has resulted in some chaos, but it’s better to have them where they prefer to grow than not to have them at all. During this episode of chaos, I’ve learned that some plants don’t want to grow where we plant them, and instead take up residence far removed from where we think they should be. How they got there, I have no idea! My wife keeps telling me the garden looks like a jungle. Fine by me!

  9. Definitely the best kind of chaos. I love seeing a jumble of flowers and greenery in the most unexpected places. It’s important to appreciate what the earth has to offer us.

  10. I’ve thought “controlled chaos” for years, where i play referee, maybe give some help (pruning) to those being bullied by neighbors – but yeah – it’s interesting to watch movements and winners/losers over 12 years of letting nature (somewhat) take its course.

    i think the habitat aspect of this is very true – baby rabbits in the yard (the dog ate one), birds, insects, ticks.

    i’m also too lazy for tidy. my garden is a dripping, filthy, mess – glorious chaos, playground for all. My milkshake brings all the critters to the yard.

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