To recap a post from last spring, a native plant garden typically follows the practices and philosophies of conventional gardening, only with native plants instead of ornamental exotics. It generally features “attractive” native plants laid out in beds, often with plenty of bare ground in between. The plants are rigidly maintained and forced to conform to the gardener’s vision.
A natural yard, in contrast, includes not just native plants but natural patterns and processes. Plants are scattered semi-randomly, instead of being placed in rows or clusters. The design changes from year to year, as plants reseed and move around the landscape. And if leaves get munched by insects or plants hold seedheads throughout the winter, those are viewed as signs that the garden is thriving, rather than as problems to fix or messes to clean up.
While native plants are good, they don’t truly fulfill their ecological functions unless they are living together in naturalistic communities. When native wildflowers are planted as specimens, in limited diversity, and are not permitted to go through their complete lifecycles, they are not providing the same benefits to wildlife as native plants that live and die according to their own rhythms, knit closely together with other native plants they have evolved alongside.
In addition, native plant gardens are much more maintenance-intensive than natural yards, with all the downsides associated with that: more use of fossil fuels, more pesticides, more supplemental water, more effort and expense for the gardener, and so on.
A formally-arranged native plant garden might be right for a gardener who wants to give up their lawn but isn’t ready to embrace the wild aesthetic of a true natural yard. But when deciding how to use native plants, it is important to remember that fitting them into conventional designs with conventional maintenance really is more work for less reward.