The Casual Gardener: Nigel Dunnett does it naturally

A new book from the doyen of naturalistic planting equips readers with the know-how to ditch outdated approaches to gardening

An urban meadow at London's Olympic Park

HE MAY not have the public profile of Monty Donn or Alan Titchmarsh but to those who know their gardening, Nigel Dunnett commands superstar status. He's so much more than a mere gardener, though – Dunnet is professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture at the University of Sheffield, a Chelsea Flower Show gold medal winner, and an RHS ambassador, working in the field of urban greening.

He's also an author, whose latest work Naturalistic Planting Design – The Essential Guide sees horticulture, ecology and philosophy coalesce around an approach that mirrors the aesthetics of the wild and turns gardening into an art form.

Perhaps the best known work with which he is associated is London's Olympic Park, where alongside 'Sheffield School' colleague James Hitchmough he helped create an expanse of dense, meadow-like plantings that redefined urban horticulture.

In his latest book, Dunnett shares his expertise, inspiration and working methods. He presents naturalistic planting as an exciting and achievable alternative to traditional planting methods. Naturalistic gardens are rich in plants and wildlife and require little in the way of watering, weeding, staking, fertilising and replanting.

By following a simple set of rules and principles readers are able to create ‘designed plant communities' that are naturally beautiful, beneficial to the planet, full of interest in every season, and easy to look after.

The books includes a foreword by the high priest of naturalistic planting, the hugely influential Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, the leading light in the New Perennials movement.

Oudolf extols his fellow naturalistic exponent's ‘low input, high impact' approach and how Dunnett adopts it to a variety of projects, including roof gardens, rain gardens, and urban meadows. It is gardening for the 21st century, and an approach that meets all the challenges that entails, from a changing climate to limited resources.

The book proper begins with an insight into the thinking behind naturalistic planting.

“It's about celebrating the energy and power of the natural world, and the relationship we have with it,” Dunnet writes. “And it's about being liberated and empowered ourselves, through working in an exuberant way with plants.”

The author explains how several maxims inform his approach to every project. For example,“Planting design is an art form tuned to nature” and “Planting design as an essential: creating healthy cities and liveable places”. They may sound a little pretentious but the results speak for themselves. Dunnett's designs are not only an idealised version of nature but they actually perform better than the real thing because of the plant selection he has researched and honed over many years.

“It's all about creating the look and feel of a meadow – the meadow aesthetic – but in a supercharged way, based on considered use of colour, layers and structure,” he writes.

The plants employed in Dunnett's designs vary. Lavender, scabious, echinacea, alliums, cosmos, poppies, cornflowers and various grasses are all favourites but there is nothing formulaic about his planting schemes, each of which is styled to fit its particular context. Texture and foliage sometimes trump colour, while the hard landscaping is minimal and the materials more often than not natural.

“The approach to planting design described in this book opens itself out to endless experimentation,” the author writes. “That's part of the fun – there is no ideal plant combinations.”

Embracing naturalistic planting may require a change of mindset for gardeners brought up within the traditional paradigm but the gains in terms of lower maintenance, reduced carbon footprint and breathtaking summer displays will make it well worth the effort.

:: Naturalistic Planting Design – The Essential Guide by Nigel Dunnett is published by Filbert Press.

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