Fashionistas, naturalists learning to get along

Published 4:58 pm Monday, July 24, 2023

By Felder Rushing
Gardening Columnist

Gonna join some other garden trend-watchers on a limb here, about a compromise between once-competing garden designs. Fashionistas and naturalists are learning to get along. I see it while horti-surfing through botanic gardens and flower shows, weighing cutting edge ideas against our past few decades of the same old, same old.

Melding aspects of formal, naturalistic, ornamental, and production gardens, things are starting to get interesting.

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The trend is clearly towards landscapes having at least a slice of more complex yet easily maintained nature-friendly features. World-class flower shows across America, England and Europe – longtime bastions of horticultural correctness – are promoting “rewilding” themes in which the top award displays feature areas, both large and small, accessorized with art so they more fashionably get away with somewhat unruly patches of native plants once thought of as weeds, now accepted as pollinator-friendly wildflowers.

P. Allen Smith, Monty Don and even Southern Living are on board with promoting more interface between well-tended gardens and nature.
As more garden experts are seeing the beauty in the simplest flowers, it is finally getting through to consumers that both native and non-native plants create more diverse gardens with more wildlife. And garden centers are helping a lot by carrying more native plants, all easily interspersed with more traditional species in shrub borders and flower beds.

As most long-time gardeners understand, including native wildflowers in flower beds can make a huge difference, without them looking weedy. It is so easy to combine “regular” flowers and neighborhood-accepted hard features (section of ornamental fence, bird houses, driftwood, bird bath, sculpture): Native phlox, purple coneflower, monarda, coreopsis, Stoke’s aster and even goldenrod (easier to keep tame than most folks realize) can be fantastic companions to daylilies, canna, roses and informal ornamental grasses. Butterflies migrate just as easily to zinnias and lantanas as black-eyed Susan and phlox.

Rather than a long row of the same old ligustrum, mixed hedges are showing up along the back or sides of the landscape with different shrubs and small trees that flower, fruit or have colorful foliage. Evergreen azaleas are pretty, and native deciduous ones can take care of the butterflies that depend on them; why not have both? And blueberries with flowers, fall colors and berries can be alternated with

A small, uncomplicated water feature can create interest and attract wildlife as well without being much work or expense. As simple as a shallow bowl or birdbath can easily be dumped and refilled when it gets algae or mosquitoes; my no-dig above-ground container is just a galvanized metal tub painted to look rusty and surrounded with plants, plus a cheap water pump to keep water moving and deter mosquitoes.

Finally, the once highly revered, wall-to-wall monocrop carpets of Asian turfgrasses are reverting, partly out of love for butterflies and bees and part push-back against never-ending herbicide use, to more practical mini-meadows that I call mowable flower lawns. You can have them both – think “golf course putting green” and you can see how a perfectly manicured lawn can shine like a gem if edged or enclosed in a smaller area, even within a larger, less intense meadow lawn.

Despite shrill proponents of both horticulturally refined and more hard-core natives-only approaches, the all-or-none crowd is losing its authority. Just as my generation is confident in a sports coat with jeans, and tucking shoulder-length hair behind a cleanly shaved face, modern gardeners are finding ways to have a bit of it all.

A semi-rewilded slice can be added to any landscape, large or small. As more folks do it, it’s becoming easier for the rest.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to