How to create a natural garden

Follow Matt’s expert advice to help you plan an eco-friendly outdoor space, filled with a variety of planting designs inspired by nature

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Natural gardening isn’t just about about cultivating weeds or ‘going organic’. Rather, it can be simply expressed as gardening in tune with the natural elements around us. Gardens billowing with naturalistic prairie-like planting – a key landscape trend in the last 20 years – may spring to mind, but today many sharp, formal or modern designs embrace a more natural approach.

Reduce chemicals

Pesticides don’t discriminate: they kill both beneficial wildlife as well as pests. Replace insecticides with natural biological controls – try defenders.co.uk and nemaslug.co.uk – and use thick mulch instead of weedkiller. Slug pellets containing metaldehyde are deadly poisonous to cats, dogs and birds, so copper slug rings and organic slug pellets are effective alternatives.

Allow natural decay

Leave some parts of the garden untidy; nature likes it messy, so gather piles of leaves in undisturbed corners and collect logs and branches, rather than burn them (if they’re not diseased). You’ll encourage thousands of insects and foraging birds. Hedgehogs also find such spots irresistible to hibernate in.

Gabion walls of timber, with drifts of verbena, nepeta and lavender, encourage wildlife into this garden, designed by Paul Martin for the RHS Hampton Court Flower Palace Show

Add water

Ponds and pools are essential as a magnet for dragonflies, newts, toads, birds and mammals. Wildlife ponds made using a butyl liner topped with earth or upturned grass turves (to hide the edge of the liner) are easy to create (look online for instructions). Allow plenty of space for planting around the outside, so that animals and insects can find protection and shelter. At least one shallow slope is also key to enable your garden visitors to get in and out easily.

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A semi-sunny position away from dense, deciduous trees is best, or leaves will spoil the water in autumn. Plants have a key part to play in enticing wildlife: deep-water plants and marginals, such as yellow flag and cardinal flower, planted on the boggy fringes provide food and refuge for pond life. If soil is dry, choose plants with similar characteristics, such as eulalia — they will cope with the drier conditions without looking out of place.

Find inspiration around you

‘Plant according to the garden, not the gardener,’ is the ethos at the heart of the natural garden, and looking to nature will provide inspiration and a template to follow. Work with the characteristics of your garden, not against them.

For example, in damp shade, embrace woodland plants and those that grow on woodland margins. For sunny slopes, consider Mediterranean plants like rosemary, juniper, bay and sage – plants with silvery or blue-grey leaves that have naturally adapted to such conditions. Waterlogged soil? Choose wetland plants – not only will your planting visually sit more comfortably, but also promote happy, healthy plants and suffer fewer pests and diseases.

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Whether your garden is made up of heavy clay, waterlogged silt, dry gravel or woodland shade, choosing the right plant for the location is the ethos at the heart of natural gardening

Go for native plants

More popular now than ever, native plants are tough, easy to grow and provide food and valuable habitats for wildlife. Ideal for a more relaxed design, they will also help to preserve our threatened plant heritage. Favourites include spiky teasels, gunmetal-coloured cotton thistle, and hardy cranesbills. Quick to colonise poor soils and sunny walls, the red, pink or white flowers of valerian, in particular, are stunning and last for ages. 

Entice the bees

Lavender, Michaelmas daisies, goldenrod, purple coneflower and butterfly bush, to name but a few, all attract bees, butterflies and aphid-eating hoverflies. Simple, open-faced flowers are best; avoid highly-bred cultivars with big, blowsy or double flowers, most of which contain little or no pollen or nectar, nor allow insects easy access.

For a huge list of plants perfect for pollinators, visit rhs.org.uk and search ‘pollinators plant list’.

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Echinacea purpurea (also known as the purple coneflower) is loved by bees

Provide shelter

Top up feeders and bird tables regularly, especially in winter when natural foods are scarce. Be aware that birds, such as blackbirds, wrens and collared doves, only feed on the ground, and grow berrying shrubs, too – cotoneaster, firethorn, mahonia and holly – all loved by birds while offering protection from predators.

Hedges and climbers make perfect camouflaged nesting sites, too, so don’t trim during the nesting season, but over winter. Trees are perhaps best of all, providing both food and shelter for a range of birds, animals and insects. Even in tiny gardens there are plenty of options available.

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New England FSC timber nest box in blue, H25xW20xD18cm, £16.99, Waitrose

Love your soil

Add lots of compost and/or well-rotted manure when planting to get plants off to the perfect start. Mulch regularly with compost or composted bark every spring and autumn to condition the soil and top up background fertility levels. A 6–8cm thick layer is ideal.

Create compost

The compost heap is a key source of food and shelter for numerous insects, invertebrates and hedgehogs, and compost is invaluable for sustaining the natural garden. Lawn clippings, hedge trimmings, veg peelings, old egg boxes, leaves (in moderation), shredded newspaper, even the contents of the vacuum cleaner, can be composted. Only cooked food, meat, cat and dog faeces, and magazines should be avoided. It takes time to build up stocks of suitable materials, so use bought peat-free multipurpose compost while you wait.

The bins themselves can be simple pallet structures secured with thick wire, clever-but-costly compost tumblers (ideal if rats are a problem) or an old carpet covering a pile behind the shed. For the style conscious, or those with small gardens where everything’s on show, ‘beehive’ composters come in various colours. Even if you have a tiny courtyard or basement garden, try a wormery or Bokashi bin. Wigglywigglers.co.uk stocks everything compost-related you’ll ever need.

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Limit maintenance

Why not let part of the sward grow long and create a mini meadow? This won’t just cut back on mowing time, but will also encourage wildlife. If you want a wildflower rather than a long grass meadow, either plant wildflower plug plants throughout, or sow one from scratch. There are plenty of online suppliers selling special seed blends; just select with soil type and aspect in mind — try meadowmania.co.uk.