Most of our clients’ gardens include at least one area where the principles of deep nature gardening apply. This area could be a little corner, or it could be the entire garden space. There might be several different deep nature areas, with different microclimates and different ecosystems.
Deep nature gardening rests on three foundations:
A deep nature garden (dng) is beautiful in a naturalistic way, it is a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals, and it is abundant with food and useful materials for humans and other visiting animals.
Some deep nature areas focus more on one or another of the three foundations, such as abundance of edibles, but if it does not honor all three it really is not a true deep nature garden.
It is the human gardener’s job to maintain the balance – by removing plants that threaten to spread and reduce beauty, diversity, or abundance and by adding new plants, seeds, bulbs, etc that increase those properties.
The degree of “wildness” is an important measure. If there is too much wildness or too little, all three foundations begin to degrade. We don’t want a great tangle of old dead stuff, but neither do we want a neatly clipped arrangement of edges and borders. It needs to be aesthetically pleasing, but it also needs to look like it just grew there all by itself. After pruning, it should not look pruned.
a slice of nature
A deep nature garden is a living, vibrant ecosystem, diverse and resilient. It contains much more than just plants.
Aesthetically, we want it to seem almost like a mini-wilderness — not so wild as to be visually messy, but certainly not as tidy as a traditional garden. Through careful, skilled pruning, thinning and planting, we maintain a beautiful balance between wildness and tidy order. This is where the art comes in!
garden is allowed to evolve
Every deep nature garden goes through stages, similar to the succession of plants and animals in a disturbed area out in nature. In the beginning, there may be bare ground and / or various invasive or otherwise undesirable plants. As time goes on, new sprouts appear or are planted. Some plants may be removed. Some established plants may die as conditions change, while others thrive and require limitation.
As the garden matures, the changes slow down. Eventually, the amount of human maintenance is much less. Perennial bushes and other plants begin to dominate the landscape, unless the garden is deliberately disturbed to encourage fresh annuals.
But even as the action slows down the deep nature garden still evolves. Long-lived perennials and even trees eventually get old and die. While they may be beautiful in death, in many cases they need to come out, leaving freshly exposed areas where new small plants can sprout. Evolution never ends.
no refined chemicals
Nature does not need to use any kinds of artificially purified chemicals to keep her ecosystems healthy, and neither do we. A proper ecosystem is self-balancing. It does not need herbicides, pesticides, or artificial fertilizers. We do not use these unnecessary additions.
Although we do not use purified chemicals, we do apply various helpful materials. A deep nature garden is a bounded, limited area, in which nutrients can become depleted. Distribution of properly cultured organic compost can keep such a garden more lush and diverse over the long term. Fallen leaves collected from elsewhere can be used to jump-start a healthy leaf litter ecosystem under a bush or tree. Other materials, such as sand, “raw” dirt, or diluted compost tea may be added in some cases.
humans do not step directly on the ground
Many of the most interesting, useful, and uncommon plants in a deep nature garden can only survive when they are growing from undisturbed earth with a healthy soil ecosystem. This kind of ecosystem is rapidly destroyed by heavy-footed humans stepping all over it. That is why we place various sizes and shapes of steppable stones in convenient places. To access interior areas of the garden we step on the stones or lean on them with hands. A small amount of athletic exertion might be required.
The only exception to the above basic principle is that occasionally the gardener might step in using bare feet, being very careful not to pack down the soil, for access to especially difficult or remote sections. After such barefoot access, it is important to carefully erase all traces of any footprints.
no artificial barriers
The only barriers allowed in most deep nature areas are those that look natural. The exceptions are planters, garden art installations, walls, etc that were hardscaped, permanent parts of the existing garden before the deep nature transformation was begun.
Barriers that are allowed (and even encouraged) include arrangements of stones, logs, etc that resemble natural features like rock outcroppings or fallen trees.
unknown plants are welcomed
If a new sprout appears that is not any kind of recognized plant, it is almost always allowed to grow until it gets big enough that can be identified. In fact, very often these unknown sprouts receive special care and attention. As a result of this strategy, a deep nature area becomes more diverse and interesting.
One exception is when a new, unknown plant in some way threatens the health of a valued, existing plant. Such harmful strangers are pulled without mercy, if they can’t be moved somewhere else.
An invasive plant is one that grows without limit, spreading rapidly and widely. “Invasiveness” is context dependent – a plant that is invasive in one area of a deep nature garden might be a valued citizen in another.
Frequently assigned to this category: annual grasses, sedge, oxalis, privet, and common “weeds” like prickly lettuce, bindweed, and burr clover.
Some domesticated plants that are often seen in traditional gardens are usually treated as invasives in a deep nature zone. These may include morning glory, English ivy, agapanthus, vinca, and various cultured “flowers.”
no such thing as a weed
A plant can be out of place, regardless of what kind it is, but that does not make it a “weed.” Plants that are out of place are removed. Invasives are out of place almost everywhere, because of their hard to control nature. However, many invasives and “weeds” make wonderful, beautiful container plants.
no matter how fast it grows, we can move faster
With appropriate tools one person can take out months or even years of growth in a few minutes or an hour or so, even including most roots. I dare any plant to try to outpace me!
new plants as small as possible
One of the goals of dng is a “grew right here” look, which is most likely to happen if the plant did in fact (mostly!) grow right here. So we usually add new plants as small as possible, ideally as seeds or tiny starters.
Exceptions include larger “focus” plants, especially edibles that take a long time to mature. In such cases, we always try to position the plant in a natural looking way, and prune it appropriately for an even more natural appearance.
Correct pruning in a deep nature garden should leave the plants looking like they have not been pruned at all. This kind of skillful, artistic pruning is a defining feature of the best deep nature gardens.
There are several special pruning methods that are extremely important. These include undercut, center-cut, interior thinning, clump amplification, and others. In addition, each different kind of plant requires its own particular variation of these methods. Pruning a low, spreading mound of sedum is very different than pruning a large, questing wisteria. Part of the teachable skill of deep nature gardening is how to do these various kinds of specialized pruning.
you can deadhead if you want to
…but you don’t have to!
Instead, let your flowering plants go through their natural cycle, including the unrestricted evolution of faded flowers into productive seed heads. Nature does not deadhead, and we don’t need to do it either. Watch with delight as the plants in your gardens go through their beautiful cycles.
On the other hand, many deep nature gardens are “public facing” in someone’s front yard. In such a public garden it is often desirable to keep a certain tidiness, more so than in nature. If the neighbors are likely to complain about “all those dead plants” then maybe deadheading is not such a bad idea.
There is one other situation in which deadheading is a great idea – some otherwise wonderful plants, such as poppies, bear seed heads containing thousands of nearly microscopic seeds that sprout very easily wherever they fall. These beautiful but incredibly prolific annual flowers must be strictly deadheaded as the flowers mature, or you will have a garden full of them next year, where little else will be able to compete.
In practice, what we usually do is gradually clip back each plant as it matures, always preserving the most beautiful structures. As we clip everything back, the garden as a whole stays more or less kept-looking, but without seeming unnatural.
no such thing as a “pest” or “bad” insect
Nature does not prohibit any kind of creature, and neither do we. Some critters might sometimes misbehave, in which case we might sometimes use various tricks to limit them.
Let’s say there is a huge crowd of aphids on one of your favorite plants. There are so many that their cast-off skins litter the leaves like white confetti. Some of the plant’s smaller shoots are wilting from the stress. What should you do?
A strong (but not damaging!) spray of water can easily remove many aphids, but we always try to leave a few behind. This way we preserve diversity and attract suitable predators and other members of the aphid community such as the fascinating “farmer” ants that harvest the aphids’ honeydew.
But it is also possible that we might let the aphid infestation proceed entirely without interference. After all, that is exactly what happens out in “real” nature. In a healthy ecosystem, most plants are actually fairly tolerant of aphids, especially when the aphid predators come along to remove most of them!
In a mature natural ecosystem (unless it is in the desert or at the beach) there is usually very little bare ground. It is not nature’s way to be wasteful, and bare ground is a waste of space and solar energy. If a plant can grow there, it usually does. If leaves fall, they accumulate and cover the ground.
While a young deep nature garden might show a large amount of bare ground, the ground is almost always mostly hidden within the first year. Under the bushes, one might find a deep layer of leaves and other plant debris, while open spaces usually show a diverse mixture of herbs and small woody plants.
Even a mature deep nature garden may show areas of bare ground now and then, when old bushes or other large plants are removed. These new openings are good for the ecosystem because they create new niches for more diversity. They are also very pretty as the small plants grow in!
plants are expected to die
Death is part of the natural cycle, and every plant eventually dies. Some trees can live for centuries. Some tiny herbs might live only a few months. In between, there are shrubs and other plants that can sometimes die, often for no apparent reason. We accept that in any proper ecosystem, there are various ways that plants can die, and we take that into account. If a cherished plant dies, it can be helpful to remember that every plant we remove makes room for new plants to grow.
One thing we do not do is go to extreme lengths to preserve a plant that is not doing well. What are extreme lengths? We do not spray fungicides or other chemicals. We do not shroud plants in ugly netting or protective covers. We do not artificially import vast quantities of critters like ladybugs or mantids in a (futile!) effort to keep “bad” bugs off the plants.
We recognize that a deep nature garden is a resilient ecosystem that is at its most healthy when it is allowed to regulate itself. Part of that regulation includes the effortless death of plants that are ill-adapted to the local ecosystem. Let them go! Do not be attached.
Okay, we are getting a little bit spiritual here, but the spiritual aspect of deep nature gardening is also important.
A deep nature gardener appreciates the interconnectedness of all living beings, and sees himself / herself as an integral part of the garden.
That’s all I will say here…. but I am always glad to discuss the spiritual side of dng in person with anyone!