Sunday, July 05, 2009

Natural Garden Style by Noel Kingsbury

"This book aims at introducing gardeners to a style of working that engages with a sense of place, uses plants that suit the place and manages the plant community that develops when different species are combined." - Noel Kingsbury

Yesterday, on the way back from the day lily farm, Phil and I stopped briefly at a roadside nursery. At checkout, the couple in front of us were buying plastic branches of flowering dogwood and a few annuals, little shapeless blobs of color. The impulse to take something of beauty from nature, even in the form of a plastic imitation, must be a sign of hope.

Noel Kingsbury's most recent book, Natural Garden Style: Gardening Inspired by Nature, is about making natural-style gardens. It too is a sign of hope - though of an entirely different order. Kingsbury has something of great value to say to that couple at the nursery. They certainly will never read about it in this book, but the ideas he is seeding about may eventually reach them via more indirect cultural influences.

This most recent work is a 'how to' book, but a 'how to' book of ideas, concepts and examples, not techniques. A list of the chapter titles tells much: Meadows, Prairies and Borders, Trees and Woodland, Sculpture and Ornament, Gardens and the Wider Landscape, Sun and Stone, Creating and Maintaining. Call it a 'how to' book of big ideas. You won't find a recipe for making a prairie. What you will find is a description of what a prairie is, how a natural prairie differs from the simulacrum of a prairie we may choose to make in a garden. You will learn about the incredible density of plants in a natural prairie - numbers and varieties of plants in a square meter, for example - and how that affects maintenance - by, for example, creating a stable matrix of plants that 'naturally' keeps weeds out because they can't find a place to put down roots.

Unlike the couple at the checkout counter, Kingsbury works from a highly informed position. From the start, he readily acknowledges the contradiction in the term 'natural garden': "No garden is really 'natural'. Leave a garden to the forces of nature and the result will nearly always be a tangled mess of vegetation that will give little joy ... We have to be honest. What we want from a patch of land and what nature would do with it, given half a chance, are very different. The nature we want in our gardens is a refined and tidied-up version, preferably one that is pretty and keeps us interested for as much of the year as possible."

Kingsbury's garden writing is among the best you will find in the English language. This book, like his others, is well organized, based in scientific research, aware of its historical context in the long line of proponents of naturalistic gardening going back to William Robinson in England and Karl Foerster in Germany, and generous in its use of photographic examples of the work of many of today's notable garden designers - among them, Dan Pearson, Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden, Piet Oudolf, Neil Diboll, Isabelle van Groeningen and Gabriella Pape, Jinny Blom, Henk Gerritsen, Cleve West, Tom Vanderpoel, John Brookes.

I expect any new work by Noel Kingsbury to be a thoroughly enjoyable, nonstop read, and this one maintains his high standard. Kingsbury has established a worldwide reputation through his many works, though I do wonder how well known he is in the U.S. His signature themes of naturalism and sustainability are right on spot for the times, and his clear, well paced, and superbly organized prose is a pleasure to read.

Kingsbury has always recognized the importance of North American contributions to 'naturalistic' garden design as well as the importance of our flora as a source of many of the plants used to make such gardens. I have never seen another European garden writer give such prominence to the contributions of Neil Diboll, founder of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, to garden design. I hope more North Americans can overcome an aversion to British garden writing (because thought irrelevant to our climate) and buy this book.


  1. I am also a fan of Noel Kingsbury. I have many of his books including his earlier books which are about a very different style of gardening but still enjoyable. Do visit his blog

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  2. I also am a fan and will order this book straight away. Thanks to Sylvia for the blog info on him too. Your review was a pleasure to read.

    Frances at Fairegarden

  3. Sylvia and Frances,
    I'm glad we share this interest in Noel Kingsbury's writing. I think I have most, if not all, of his books. I've made my wet prairie garden using him as guide.

  4. This really is a wonderful book. It might even be Kingsbury's masterpiece.

    I am rather surprised to find Kingsbury still advocating the use of glyphosate, however, even though he's echoing my own feelings about it. It's been banned in my municipality for a while now and I'm half-inclined to photocopy his words and send them to the local bylaw makers. But I think I might be better off beating my head against a nearby brick wall.

    What's your position on glyphosate, James?

  5. I use glyphosate, the brand we know as Roundup here, but I use it sparingly and avoid potential routes of contamination of water bodies. Yes, you'll probably do better to beat your head against a brick wall than change the uninformed opinions of the righteous.

  6. A wonderful review...I was so impressed that I ordered the book...can't wait to read it...thanks, gail

  7. Gail, I hope you enjoy it. I find his books just carry you along.

  8. i have some books by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf (in fact this is how i discovered your blog - googling for Piet's links). Their design is quite inspiring but it's so overwhelming and though i would love to create a garden like yours i really don't know where to start. We're in NJ as well so it's truly encouraging to see that one can have such a garden. May i ask you - do you know some book or other source of information that can help someone who is a complete novice to start from zero and gradually create something beautiful like your garden...
    Thanks much! helena

  9. Helena, read The New Perennial Garden and start taking risks. You don't even need to improve your soil. You do need to learn what plants are appropriate for the environment you have, whether wet or dry, sunny or shady. Don't worry about killing some plants. Experiment.

  10. James, thank you so much! I ordered the book and will try to stop worrying about killing those plants (you're so right :)). I guess another thing that is so different in gardening as oppose to other hobbies i got engaged with is the absence of instant gratification. When i cook i know the very same day if i failed, and i can adjust accordingly. I suppose one needs to learn how to be patient when it comes to plants...

  11. Hi James, I just reread this post and saw that I had not read this book yet. I devoured the book and then ordered the New Perennial Garden after reading an interview where Noel mentioned it was one of his favorites. His writing leaves me wanting more and more. As does yours. We in North America are not all about plastic flowers. I mentioned him in my last post, trying to spread the word. :-)

  12. Frances, The New Perennial Garden probably had more influence on my present garden than any other. That's where I got the courage to start planting in the middle of the existing matrix of plants (mostly weeds). My only regret is that I didn't remove the European pasture grasses that still plague parts of my garden; they're perennial and extremely persistant. I'm glad you're spreading the word. He has so much of value to offer those of us gardening in North America.

  13. Mmm I must be the only babe in the woods who finds Kingsbury's books rather lacking..I bought a couple once and gave em away..I tend to think he is a harvester of other peoples concepts but his heart is in the right place!
    As for this rather blanket statement "Leave a garden to the forces of nature and the result will nearly always be a tangled mess of vegetation that will give little joy ... "
    Having studied quite a few very old (for Australia)mansion gardens that had been seen 'refiner' days I have employed that sense of decay in many parts of my garden using plants which I know will develop an 'abandoned' and a certain 'tangled-ness' ..some area's I have not intervened for 20 years and I suppose i arrived at the right blend of plants and they continue to give great joy in their gay abandon. My 'style' is no different to the much vaunted (fashionable)'prairie' concept only 'tighter' considering I CAN and DO use many evergreen plants...Never one to follow....

    Best Wishes from Southern Australia where we have 'plains' and not a 'prairie' to be seen in our landscape or even in our vocabulary! (except for the design trade who listen to Northern hemisphere speakers at those darling upper middle class landscape conferences!)

    William Martin

  14. Is this the 'prairie' of the deep south?


    William Martin

  15. But maybe you don't need him. Some of us are still "babes in the woods" and the information he presents so clearly and entertainingly is a great benefit to many.



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