If you like swathes of ornamental grasses, rubbing shoulders with perennials that look like they’ve been planted together all their lives, then Piet Oudolf is the expert garden designer to follow for his naturalistic planting.

Oudolf has designed gardens across the world, from RHS Wisley in Surrey to Pensthorpe in Norfolk to New York’s High Line and Battery Park. He’s among the leaders of the naturalistic planting movement. It favours ornamental grasses which provide movement and structure throughout the year, accented with vibrant perennials that bring colour and form. His drifts of grasses create a soft, misty background for other plants.

naturalistic planting
Piet Oudolf designed this border at RHS Garden Wisley (Paul Debois/RHS/PA)

What is naturalistic planting?

Oudolf doesn’t like plants to be supported if he can help it, but prefers them to grow into each other, propping each other up naturally. “To achieve a naturalistic style, the planting has to look more spontaneous than classical plantings,” he says. “It has to look composed, but not wild, it must be integrated.

“My style in the Hampton Court Show garden in 2018 included groups of perennials placed in a more dominant field of grasses. The grasses include Sporobolus heterolepis, Stipa barbata and within that, 20 different varieties of perennials which brought the colour.”

When is best to try naturalistic planting?

He advises gardeners to give their outdoor space all-year-round interest. This is why he so loves grasses, whose structure and movement continues to provide interest in the cooler months.

naturalistic planting
Snowdrops provide winter interest (Thinkstock/PA)

“Think about winter-flowering shrubs, hellebores, snowdrops and crocuses. Winter interest can also be provided by the leftovers of plants, such as seedheads,” he observes. “Most grasses we use are easy to control and not rampant. In general, there are as many aggressive perennials as there are grasses but you need to know what you are doing.”

His favourite grasses include Stipa barbata, which has an elegant flower and blends effectively with perennials as it moves with the wind.

He also favours Echinacea pallida and Eryngium alpinum, better known as sea holly, and monardas. Most of the perennials he prefers are easy to grow.

5 best plants for naturalistic planting

Here, RHS chief horticulturist, Guy Barter – who points out that using tall handsome plants in drifts requires space and abundant sun – has put together five of Oudolf’s favourite plants and a guide to growing them…

1. Monarda ‘Beauty of Cobham’

naturalistic planting
Monarda ‘Beauty of Cobham’ (Chris Bailey/RHS/PA)

This plant has tall, gorgeous pink summer flowers beloved by pollinators, and purplish leaves that tend to exceed 90cm in shady spots, so good supports are advisable in domestic gardens.

It appreciates watering to fend off mildew and keep the plant flowering well. The monarda looks best in groups of three (or more, if at all possible).

2. Echinacea pallida

naturalistic planting
Some coneflowers are more reliable than others (Thinkstock/PA)

If you’re looking for late summer flowers, coneflowers are a wonderful addition to colour your borders. They are a magnet for pollinators, producing pink flowers around a dark ‘cone’. 

Make sure the soil is not too dry and they are well staked, as the 1.2m stems can be weak in gardens and tend to topple. They require full sun to thrive.

3. Lythrum salicaria ‘Swirl’

naturalistic planting
Lythrum salicaria lends itself to a natural setting (Thinkstock/PA)

With spikes of pink flowers on 80cm stems, this very robust plant likes dampish soils and will put up with light shade. One for the wilder parts of the border that will flower freely if the spent spikes are cut out.

4. Salvia × sylvestris ‘Dear Anja’

naturalistic planting
Salvia × sylvestris ‘Dear Anja’ (Chris Tank/RHS/PA)

Blue and purple flowers and scented foliage make this tall 90cm plant a good choice for sunny borders. It’s drought-resistant but one for warm sheltered southern gardens, unless cuttings can be taken and kept indoors over winter.

5. Veronica longifolia ‘Pink Eveline’

 

Veronica longifolia ‘Pink Eveline’ produces magenta flower spikes borne over a long period from mid-summer, although you’ll need to deadhead it regularly.

This graceful plant will attract bees and other pollinators, and is also a favourite among flower arrangers. It grows to around 60cm tall.

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