JoAnne Skelly: What is a moving garden?

I was recently reading a magazine called “Garden Design” that featured award-winning eco-friendly gardens. In it was a story by Louisa Jones about ecologist and landscape architect Gilles Clément. He’s renowned for his concept of the “moving garden.” It’s a concept of biological gardening, the idea of working with, not against, nature.

The theory is when left alone, nature reclaims a site with spontaneous growth. The gardener partners with nature guiding the process for a pleasing effect. Clément interacts with a site using “no chemicals, no supplemental watering and no noisy, energy-wasting machinery” (Jones). He only modifies and influences nature’s growth by targeted pruning and mowing paths around self-sown wildflowers.

The idea of having a wild garden without irrigation may be possible on abandoned farmlands in France, but it’s unlikely to be successful here in Nevada. Left to nature’s devices in our arid environment, we would end up with mostly sagebrush, cheatgrass, weeds and occasional flowers. However, with the addition of water, we too can have an aesthetic partnership with nature as the planner. The home garden can be a wildlife preserve.

He considers his garden moving because of the “seasonal variation, change due to self-sowing and species migration” (Jones). Last June I wrote about gardening my lazy way. I mentioned I rarely bought plants, instead I added to our landscape by letting plants reseed or otherwise propagate themselves. I never thought of my approach as a moving garden, but I like the idea.

The technique of landscape design from an ecological perspective, creating a hospitable habitat for all kinds of creatures and plants, is something I’ve taught throughout my career. In years past, I drove my poor husband crazy with some of my methods of working with, not against, nature. Once, I got him to stop mowing the lawn except for select paths through the lengthening grass.

I thought it would look natural and peaceful, less tailored and controlled. However, while some grass got taller, some didn’t, so overall the look was raggedy rather than “amber waves of grain.” When we finally decided the high grasses were less than appealing, it was a lot of work to cut them back to lawn length where we could mow them into order again.

A garden filled with native and hardy, adapted plants will encourage a delightful diversity of bird, insect and animal life with less work for the gardener, fewer to no chemicals and less water. A win, I think.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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