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Designing a nature-led garden

How to design a nature-led garden

Ecological landscape designer Jo McKerr explains how nature can lead the way when it comes to rethinking your garden

Where to start

You may think you’re looking at a blank canvas, but ecologically there is no such thing. Almost all bits of land will have been manipulated by humans and each one will have its own individual ecosystem. To add biodiversity, the most important place to start is to observe everything before changing anything – you don’t want to accidentally remove something that is vital to the local wildlife. Ask the following questions: what environment (built and planted) surrounds you and how is it used by wildlife? What wildlife exists within the garden and just outside it? Are there any ‘wildlife corridors’, or is there an opportunity to make some by linking to other gardens and the surrounding landscape?

Be assiduous about working with what you’ve got: a garden that doesn’t work within the restrictions of your site, aspect, soil and surrounding landscape will always be a chore to manage as you will be fighting nature. Make use of any existing features or views, mature trees or architecture and try to minimise the movement of soil, which can damage the structure.

Once you understand your plot, populate it as densely as possible with plants. The simple equation is: more layers of plants equals more habitat and food for nature. Look to natural landscapes for inspiration. Meadows and wild plantings can appear too ‘wild’ to be comfortable to the eye; the trick here is to ‘frame’ them within orderly plantings or architecture that makes them look intentional. For example, if your lawn is a meadow, mow neat strips to define a pathway. 

If the surrounding landscape is unsightly then make sure you have a design that encourages the human eye to look inwards. The easiest way to do this is to position trees or large shrubs that draw the eye and enclose the space, as well as to make the focal point something that is low and enclosed by planting – this can be something as small as a collection of pots or water bowl.


How to rethink planting

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve had came from the American landscape architect Thomas Rainer. As designers we have all been taught to put planting beds in as pleasing shapes on a plan and then turn the rest of the garden to hard landscape and lawn – this results in gardens that are 30 per cent plants 70 per cent human recreation. He suggested that the ecological landscape should inverse this equation: everything is densely planted and we just cut the spaces we need to sit or move around out of the planting. An instant way to design a nature-first garden.


Hard landscaping is often already in place or necessary, but there are ways to lessen the environmental impact. Use reclaimed materials, try to limit the surface runoff of rain or capture the water to use in the garden. Consider making permeable surfaces of crushed recycled building materials, aggregate, gravel, or mown grass instead of jointed paving stones or concrete.


Top plant combo

I favour schemes that mimic or replicate naturally occurring or lightly managed landscapes like meadows, coppices and woodland edges. I often prefer plants that put themselves together more artfully than I can, or plants that let you know how happy they are by self-seeding readily. I have such a spot under an oak tree where the cowslips and snake’s head fritillaries (pictured) I sowed have made a tapestry of deep maroon and pale yellow.

Landscape designer specialising in nature gardens and meadow creation |

Garden images taken at Jo's garden by photographer Andrew Maybury


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This article was adapted from issue 7

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