There are two basic garden styles — traditional and natural.
Traditional and natural gardening both take trained labor. They can be stunningly beautiful and rich with plant, insect, and bird diversity. The difference may boil down to how much spare time you have available for good old fashioned garden maintenance.
You would expect a traditional garden to require more maintenance than a natural garden. The estimated labor needed to maintain a traditional high-maintenance garden style (native or non-native plants) for a year is six minutes per square foot of garden space, give or take.
A traditional garden has plants grouped neatly in masses, beds mulched, weeded and watered, and the edges kept tidy. This kind of garden has a variety of perennials, grasses, trees, and shrubs — all needing to be trimmed or pruned on a regular basis to keep them looking good and as originally intended.
With this garden style, perennials and grasses that grow fast are dug up at the edges to keep them compact, and to prevent them from spreading into neighboring plants. Plants that aggressively spread from seed are avoided or dead-headed (the process of removing spent flowers to prevent seed production and spread). Branches growing into sidewalks or gutters are trimmed back. Walkways are swept, and leaves gathered in fall.
SWEET CHAOS: This natural garden with wild sweet William, columbine and sweet cicily shows how using natives provides cover and color.
This garden style also requires considerable maintenance, but natural is different from a traditional because the perennials and grasses are randomly mixed in a natural arrangement. This is often called a “tossed salad” garden and looks somewhat natural.
Trees and shrubs are still used to add shape and contrast to the natural garden, and to soften the harsh visual lines of a house. Walkways are blown, trees and shrubs are pruned away from gutters, and sidewalks and weeds are kept out.
The main difference with a natural garden is that plants are not grouped in masses. They can spread more freely from seeds and roots. After plants are established, typically within two years, mulch is no longer needed except perhaps at the edges to create visual contrast. Plants are rarely dug and divided, and they are usually not dead-headed. That said, some species are more aggressive than others and may require partial removal to give less-aggressive species room to grow.
At the end of winter, this garden style may be cut or mowed down all at once, typically in March.
If you care for a large or small garden, it doesn’t take long to discover the labor savings of a “tossed salad” style. Some choose to emulate nature, others choose tradition — and yet others invent new styles. Whatever you choose, your garden deserves a place in the neighborhood if it gets the care it needs. Happy gardening!
Woodbury is a horticulturalist and Curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit. He is an adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.