Designing the Informal Garden

The best sorts of informal gardens are those which look almost as if nature herself has had a hand in their construction, lending a softness and gentleness to a design that, although clearly is artificial, looks as thought it might not have been. Informal gardens play to that slightly schizophrenic human urge to be both in control and a part of nature – and all at the same time.

It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of gardening then, that in order to succeed, informal gardens need both the strongest sense of design and careful management to channel the potential chaos into something which simply looks slightly uncontrolled.

However they come into being, the one thing which remains certain is that their air of tranquillity and relaxation makes them enduringly popular as sanctuaries from the formal strictures and pressures of modern living. For that reason alone, there has to be a clear case for some patch of informality in any garden.

The Cottage Garden

The origins of the cottage garden lie in the utilitarian needs of rural dwellers in times gone by to grow a range of ornamental flowers, medicinal and culinary herbs and vegetables for the kitchen. In such an arrangement, flowers such as aquilegias, delphiniums and peonies were included not simply for their decorative qualities but also to encourage a ready population of insects for pollination and to help control pests.

Many was the country cottage, which had its own beehives too, to provide honey for personal use and as a welcome additional income. The cottage garden of today looks to recreate this rural idyll, without the attendant necessity of self-sufficiency – although for many modern gardeners, the opportunity to reconnect with nature in this way is something to be warmly embraced.

Woodlands, Wildflowers and Wildlife

The rising tide of environmental awareness over the last ten or fifteen years has led to an increasing number of people looking to create wildlife habitats within their own gardens and although all green spaces are useful, few designs are better than the informal approach in this respect. Old meadow wildflowers can be allowed to bloom amid planted bulbs and uncut grasses, while native trees and shrubs provide shelter for birds and other wildlife, particularly when the planting scheme allows for a dense under-planting of shrubs and climbers.

Nectar-rich wild and near wild-type flowers such as buddleia and mallow, provide an enormously important source of food for a whole host of bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, though careful management is important to ensure ongoing success, from year to year.

Controlling Natural Chaos

The essence of a good informal planting scheme lies in controlling the incipient chaos that the apparent lack of structured order seems to invite. Left to their own devices, competitively stronger species ruthlessly oust their weaker brethren in a brutal demonstration of the truth of Darwin’s evolutionary paradigm. Although their essential ambience is natural, in truth informal gardens are anything but; they are every bit as controlled and managed as the most rigidly geometric format – though admittedly less obviously so.

Self-sown seedlings, over-vigorous growth and invasive plants need to be kept in check if the essentially artificial balance of the informal design is to be preserved and the land is not to revert to the wild and unkempt state an unfettered nature would have it become.

Many modern gardens attempt to capture something of the essence of the natural; plants soften the harsh edges of the built environment and lush foliage disguises the sharp lines of paths, fences and walls. Informal planting schemes have, in many ways, captured the spirit of the age by offering the illusory promise of escape from the rigours of modern life – which, of course, virtually guarantees their continued popularity.

If the formal garden is all about controlling nature, then the informal one is about recreating it – at least as an idealised version. In the final analysis, both are essentially artificial constructs, but then that is the inevitable character of all gardens; in the end, it is really all about what works for you and what sort of outdoor environment makes you feel most at home.