Natural yards typically incorporate native plants. After all, natural yards seek to emulate nature, which generally means using the plant species that nature put in that spot.
What really defines a natural yard, though, is not the species used, but the way they are arranged and maintained.
For example, nature doesn’t plant in straight rows. Nature doesn’t pile hills of mulch around trees. Nature doesn’t put taller plants in the back. Nature doesn’t prevent pollinated flowers from turning into seedheads, and nature never thinks that plants are too big. Thus, in a natural yard, different species are mingled together, plants are allowed to complete their life cycles, and the gardener otherwise strives to replicate the way nature does things.
All the horticultural practices associated with conventional yards, however, can be used with native plants. A gardener could plant native perennials in flower beds, sort them by color, spray them with pesticides, and cut them down in the fall. This may be just the right approach for some gardeners – but it is not a natural yard. It is a native plant garden.
The idea that “natural yard” means “a conventional garden, just with native plants” leads some people to be surprised and unhappy when a neighbor’s natural yard resembles a wild landscape more than the tidy flower beds that many suburbanites are used to. Understanding that a true natural yard incorporates fundamentally different maintenance practices aimed at a fundamentally different goal can help people understand that those exuberantly-growing native plants look just as they’re supposed to.