Gardening Gone Wild

Gardening Gone Wild

Special Guest Blog Post from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden 

For many homeowners, gardening can quickly fall into a predictable pattern with a limited plant palette. Recent trends, however, are showing increasing interest in a naturalistic approach and the concept of “wild-inspired gardening.”


Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden replaced turf with native grasses to showcase alternatives to the traditional lawn.

Although a more natural design is inspired by the wild, when installed in keeping with a landscape plan for the property, the result is anything but unkempt. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, recently proved this point by replacing 9,000 square feet of turf with native grasses. The landscape now has four seasons of interest, requires less water, and provides more wildlife habitat – all while preserving an elegant look.

The approach of following Nature’s cues is gaining attention as homeowners are embracing lower maintenance and more sustainable practices. A proponent is Thomas Rainer, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World. At a recent lecture at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Rainer shared wild-inspired gardening mimics how plants naturally live, specifically in three vertical layers: top layer, midline and ground-level. He maintained this approach works in any landscape and can help solve problems such as species invasion, urbanization and climate change.


Hummingbirds like Joe Pye Weed

Don’t forget that if your home is located in planned community, it’s important to check with your homeowners association documents before beginning any landscape projects to ensure those plans comply with any community guidelines.

Below are some plant suggestions from Lewis Ginter, based on Rainer’s presentation. Most are perennials that will come back year after year and many are native to our mid-Atlantic region. Other criteria included plants that are low maintenance, resistant to disease, provide more than one season of interest, and support wildlife, particularly pollinators. According to the Pollinator Partnership, one out of every three bites of our food is the direct result of a pollinator. “Wild-inspired gardening helps attract pollinators,” explains George Cowart, horticulture manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. “It provides the habitat and food needed for bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds.”


Serviceberry works well in small spaces and provides three seasons of interest

1. The Top Layer: Trees, Shrubs and Tall Perennials
Natives to support wildlife and provide multi-season interest  

Trees: Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) has flowers in spring, showy fruit in summer, and colorful leaves in fall. For year-round interest, consider River Birch (Betula nigra) with its wonderful curling bark.

Shrub: ‘Shasta’ Doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Shasta’) is a tall shrub with extra-large, pure white flowers in May. Bright red fruits appear in late July.

Tall Perennial: Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) is a powerhouse for attracting pollinators. It can grow to heights of 5 to 7 feet, although more compact cultivars are available.


Gaura brings movement to the garden

2. The Midline: Flowering Bushes and Mid-Height Plants
Opportunities to add color, texture and movement

Color: Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) provides a vivid pop of yellow/orange and is a vital nectar and host plant for migrating Monarch butterflies. Salvias (sages) offer a rainbow of colors, from bright blue (Salvia x sylvestris ‘Blue Hill’) to deep red (Salvia greggii ‘San Takao’).

Texture and Movement: Gaura or beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri) mesmerizes with white to pink blossoms dancing on delicate stems in the summer breeze.


The furry leaves of Lamb’s Ears invite touch

3. Ground-level: Plants Close to Earth
Use plants as a groundcover instead of brown mulch

Color and form: Hostas are an excellent ground-level plant and beginner-friendly. Because there are so many varieties ranging greatly in size, form and color, do research to see which cultivars appeal to you and learn the required growing conditions.

Texture: The leaves of Lamb’s Ears (Stachys) provide a silver-gray carpet with a soft velvety texture.

Fragrance: Garden Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a perennial herb. Some gardeners plant thyme among paths so when people step on it, the plant releases its wonderful fragrance.

Whether buying your first home or looking to redesign an existing garden, consider taking cues from Nature. Try a three-layer approach and let your gardening imagination go wild!