Horticulturist Kelly D. Norris packs a lot of ideas, information and philosophy in New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient and Ecologically Vibrant Home Landscape (Cool Springs Press, 2021). The book argues for a “nature-forward” approach to home garden design—an approach in which gardeners plant with the ecological functions of plants, the natural tendencies of site and the knowledge that those two things interact in mind. His goal for gardeners is to be “a player in place instead of a bumbling overlord.”
Norris is a garden designer and writer and for eight years was director of horticulture and education at the Great Des Moines Botanical Garden. His Midwestern roots show in many of his plant choices and designs, which makes this book especially appropriate for northern gardeners.
Three Layers, Many Designs
New Naturalism suggests gardeners think of their landscape in three distinct but intertwined layers.
At the base is what he calls the matrix layer, which makes up 40 to 50 percent of the plants. This can be a mix of easy-care plants that may spend most of the year covering the soil and nurturing it, but otherwise fading to the background. After reading the book, I planted several more geraniums in my shady backyard. They form a groundcover that cools the soil and gives a soft, green look to the back beds and they complement the prairie dropseed that is a groundcover in other places.
The second layer is the structural layer—usually larger and longer-lived plants that reflect the character of the landscape and support insect and wildlife. In most gardens, these structural plants would be trees and large shrubs. These woody plants frame views and give the garden its architecture. Norris highly recommends choosing native plants for this layer, which may cover less than 10 percent of your landscape.
The final layer encompasses what Norris calls vignettes—these are the images you see in garden books and on Instagram. Showy seasonal displays, such as bulbs in spring, roses in early summer, and coneflowers and asters as the season wanes, are examples of vignettes. The joy of vignettes is that they reflect the seasons around us.
Putting It All Together
The last half of New Naturalism is devoted to plant palettes. In this section, Norris offers a huge array of ideas (and, thankfully, most include long plant lists) for various garden situations. Sunny borders (traditional or wild), plantings close to the house, meadows, shady lots, rose gardens, bioswales and other damp situations and many more are covered in the plant palettes section.
New Naturalism is not a book to flip through and look at the pretty pictures (though there are plenty of them!) You may want to set this one aside for winter when you can settle in and imagine what your landscape wants to be.