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The Natural Style

In the English landscape garden one sees and feels everywhere the spirit of nature, only softened and refined by art. In the French or Italian garden one sees and feels only the effect of art, slightly assisted by nature.

— A. J. Downing.

The natural style is unquestionably the favorite in England and America, and probably only less so in France and Germany. This means not alone that the landscape gardeners of these countries practice it in preference to other styles, but also that the laity, composed of people who only feel and do not think, have a profound bias toward the natural style. To be sure, these people admire pattern beds in the parks, and they put into their own dooryards the most distastefully unnatural objects conceivable; but this is due to their ignorance of the value of unity and their pure inability to grasp the real motive of a harmonious composition. In general they have a much greater, though unthinking, attachment to noble trees, pretty shrubberies, green lawns and cool shadows, or to a pleasant combination of all these elements.


A few simple rules will help to gain this naturalness, which is lost oftener by thoughtlessness than by intention. Perhaps it is not strictly correct to say that naturalness is gained. As a matter of fact, when a house is built or a park laid out naturalness is lost to some extent. But by thoughtful work we may subtract greatly from the artificiality of the construction, and in that sense it is true that naturalness is gained.

Open lawns are the natural foundation of a natural landscape. They should be as large and as little interrupted as circumstances will allow. Speaking in a very general way, and with room for exceptions, it is good practice to devote all the center and interior of any landscape piece to open lawn. The plantings of trees and shrubs should, in a general way, be confined to the boundaries. Buildings should be located toward one side. And most certainly should the drives and walks never cut through the middle of the grounds if a natural, rural effect is to be preserved. These lawns may be kept clipped, or the grass may be allowed to grow at its own will; but clipped lawns have a distinct suggestion of artificiality, and the clipping should be confined to the vicinity of buildings or other positions where smooth surfaces and straight lines are already in evidence. The unmowed lawn is suitable for larger pieces and for more emphatically natural surroundings. The lawn should cover a comparatively large area. One would not want the furniture in the parlor to take up three-fourths of the room; much less would one want the green carpet of the lawn nearly covered with such furniture as trees and flower beds.

Curved lines are usually natural, but not necessarily so. They may be grotesque and artificial to almost any degree, but it requires an effort to make them so. Straight lines are specifically unnatural. Nature works only in curves. The planets move in curves, the smallest leaflet is bounded by curves, and your sweetheart's face has not the faintest suggestion of a straight line. You will with great difficulty find a straight line in nature. Inasmuch as the grounds on which the landscape gardener works often exist chiefly for some utilitarian purpose, many strictly non-natural features must be introduced, and in many cases the naturalness of the curved line must be abandoned for the usefulness of the straight. This is sometimes true of walks and drives, which are usually the most conspicuous lines on the grounds; yet the general rule must still be adhered to,—that the drives and walks should be curved unless there is some good reason to the contrary.

But it is not enough that the drives should be curved. There are good curves and bad ones, and if a curve is to be used more thought and skill are required to save it from defect than though a straight line had been chosen instead. In an earlier day the imitators of the English style,—not the legitimate practitioners,—in their enthusiasm for curved lines laid many which were unpleasing to the last degree. The unmethodical, senseless meandering, serpentine walks which one still sees sometimes are not natural, nor are they artistic in any sense. It is commonly said that every curve in a drive or a walk should have an apparent justification. Thus, if a considerable hill or a group of trees lies within the bend it seems to furnish an adequate excuse for the curve. Objects which are not manifestly of sufficient importance to demand a turn in the drive are palpably artificial and worse than useless. Thus, a flower bed in the curve of a drive fills the wayfarer with nothing but disgust; for he sees that it might just as well have been put somewhere else and his way shortened by straightening out the motiveless digression. For any moderate distance a double curve, passing first to one side and then to the other of a straight line, will be often useful. While it departs least from the straight line, it gives the most constant change of direction. It also presents a greater variety of views. It is essentially the "line of beauty." Yet it would never do to repeat this form of curve unvaryingly. Other combinations must suggest themselves to the designer who has any feeling for outline.

Grouped trees give an appearance of naturalness because, in nature, trees are almost always grouped. At any rate, they are never set in rows! A good, strong oak grows up,—a patriarch of the forest. There soon appears, under the shelter of its spreading branches, a younger generation like unto the parent, and so we have a group of oaks. A group of walnuts arises likewise in another place; and even such trees as the willows and poplars, which distribute seeds far and wide, are found growing grouped together where the environments are specially suited to their development. It ought not to be necessary to argue that this is the only natural way of placing trees and shrubs; yet this most obvious of all rules is most commonly disregarded.

Shrubs are seldom used too much, and they are frequently neglected. Without stopping to call attention to the wonderful diversity of riches from which we may select when we wish to employ shrubs, we desire now only to point out that their liberal use is in accord with the natural style which we are seeking to develop. Referring again to nature, we find shrubs distributed all about her woodland, and especially along the borders of her woods. Since at best we seldom have more than a woodland border in our own compositions, its embellishment with shrubs becomes an oft-recurrent problem. A judicious arrangement of shrubbery will often obliterate more of the unpleasant, unnatural and inartistic features of the grounds than any amount of other material or other work. Shrubs may be used in comparative profusion, because they take up but little room. A good view of some things can be obtained over the tops of low shrubs, and they can thus be given positions quite forbidden to trees.

The union of the buildings with the grounds, so that the former seem parts of the latter, is also oftenest effected by the use of shrubs. A building with its smooth surfaces and rectangular lines arising abruptly out of the lawn gives a distinct note of disharmony. The remedy is to break up, and, as far as possible, to obliterate the line of demarcation. Shrubs irregularly grouped along the walls and massed in retreating angles help to do this. Their most efficient assistants are the climbers, which may cling to the walls or twine about the porches, becoming almost part and parcel of the building. Shrubs and climbers together, judiciously placed, will often bring into the closest harmony a house and grounds which without them would have been at never-ending war with one another.


It is not a very logical arrangement of the subject which classifies topics under these two exactly opposite heads,—gaining naturalness and losing naturalness. And yet it has the advantage of convenience. For it is convenient to consider some things as excellencies and some others as faults, some as commissions and some as omissions, some positively and others negatively; and it may not be amiss to mention certain very important matters from both sides.

Thus, of the prominent lines of the ideal landscape we have said that, other things permitting, they should be curved; and yet there is no redundancy in saying here that they should not be straight. The doctrine is of sufficient importance to merit a second mention. In reality it is often disregarded, to the great detriment of gardens, public squares and house grounds. Yet others make a mistake by accepting it too exclusively, and laying curves where there is no room for them and sending the wayfarer a long journey for which he has neither heart nor time. Straight lines must sometimes be used, but the gardener must then content himself that naturalness is lost.

Artificial constructions, in the sense here used, is meant to cover a multitude of whims and fancies which small gardeners—and some of higher rating —are always introducing in their choicest and most conspicuous places. Frequently these are of the most puerile order; sometimes they are very disgusting. As instances come under my own observation, I may mention a lawn vase made of an old stove painted red; a big rat-trap trellis with no honeysuckles to grow on it; a pile of oyster shells supporting a plant tub on the green lawn; and small flower beds edged with inverted beer bottles.

One of the most generally distributed mistakes of this sort is the conventional rockery. There is not space here to explain how to make a good rockery; but the general principle needs most to be emphasized, that nothing will save a rockery from condemnation unless it appears natural to its surroundings. It may be added that the proper surroundings are not easily secured; and that the small, flat front yard of a city lot can never furnish the associations to justify a rockery. When a heap of stones is placed carefully in the middle of the hand's-breadth of clipped lawn it must be evident to the most sightless observer that naturalness is lost.

Another affair much affected in some places is the little trellis placed on the lawn for the exhibition of climbing plants This gives always a note of discord amidst natural or semi-natural elements, and it is very doubtful if such a trellis could be made agreeable in any method of gardening. Climbers on the porches and walls or on old tree trunks, or clambering wildly over the tops of bushes, give a more efficient expression of naturalness than almost any other material at the command of the horticulturist; and it is perhaps because of this that they break so forcibly upon the rurality of the scene when treated so thoughtlessly.

The summer house, which may also be one of the choicest charms of certain grounds, sometimes appears as a very monster of ugliness. A long chapter might be written here, also, detailing what is good and what bad in the way of summer houses, rustic arbors and shady garden seats, but it answers better our passing purpose to observe that these are points at which naturalness is often lost, and which, therefore, require careful treatment and thoughtful good taste to adapt them quite to the best interests of a whole, natural composition.

Bad fences are worthy of separate mention. And the first thing to be said is that practically all fences are bad, considered merely as items in an art composition on the natural plan. Yet there are wonderful degrees of badness among fences. Good, well kept horticultural hedges of privets, roses, spiraeas, diervillas, arbor vitaes, and other plants suitable for the special purposes in view, are at least bearable, and are sometimes distinctly satisfactory. A hedge may be continuous and yet irregular, broadening in one place, bending in another, and further along merging into a larger group of trees and shrubs. In this way it may serve the purposes of a fence without marring the naturalness sought. But what shall we say of the picket and great board fences which embrace so many otherwise decent private and public plots? What shall we say to this frenzy of iron work which stands between us and the grounds we would so gladly admire? Plainly naturalness is lost, —utterly and irrecoverably lost. These fences serve a purpose. They answer to a want keen and urgent in the ordinary home-owner's heart; that is, to the desire for seclusion and privacy and the unmolested and unobserved enjoyment of the owner's home surroundings. This seclusion is worth striving for in the garden plan; but if naturalness is desired, some other expedient ought to be worked out compatible alike with naturalness and seclusiveness. It has sometimes been thought worth while to sink the fences in deep ditches, the banks of which were given special treatment to conceal the whole; but this means will not commend itself to many operators ; neither is it adapted to many cases.

White Surfaces.—Pure white is not a color common in nature, and the dazzling reflection from extended white surfaces reveals an artificiality which is glaring in a double sense. Those who, amid the shining buildings of the "White City" at Chicago, suffered from headache from day to day, had demonstrated to them in a very telling way the unnatural-ness of white surfaces. This is not meant to condemn the style so freely adopted at the World's Fair. The white buildings certainly gave a striking and in many ways an enjoyable effect. Yet there were some things to be said against them. On a small scale, with buildings of more trivial architecture, white painting is seldom admissible among plantings of a naturalistic accent. Yet note how often we are compelled to look at white houses, especially among farmhouses, where the exclusively and perhaps beautifully rural landscape is least prepared to receive them. It is safe to say that white surfaces and natural effects are always incongruous.

Badly Treated Plants.—There are many unnatural methods of plant training in vogue; and it goes without saying that they are inconsistent with the English style. Yet we constantly find them intermingled with purely natural objects, much to the detriment of both. The junipers, boxes, arbor vitaes and similar plants trimmed into smooth cones, vases, globes and more complex combinations, illustrate this method. Weeping tops grafted on straight, upright trunks belong to the same class. Others might be mentioned, some good and some bad in themselves, but all agreeing in the certainty with which they spoil the unity of any place in which informal treatment is essayed.


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