Clear-conscience garden design
As a city-based garden designer, when I head out to meet a potential client, I’m prepared to chat about a whole host of different questions. Common topics are how to make a small garden appear larger; how to create different areas of interest; incorporating low-maintenance but lovely planting for owners with busy lives; an area for the kids to play in; a patch for growing a few vegetables for the kitchen… These are the topics that have tended to top the average urban garden owner’s list of concerns and desires.
But recently I’ve noticed more clients wanting to talk about sustainability. It’s a vitally important topic, especially in towns and cities where the typical garden owner is managing a sizeable piece of outdoor space, creating and maintaining food and shelter for wildlife, as well as helping tackle problems such as local flash flooding and air pollution. It’s worth remembering that sustainability and wildlife planting are two sides of the same coin.
I’m sometimes asked to include artificial lawn as part of a design. Until now I’ve managed to persuade clients to go down a different route. While it may seem an easy, inexpensive and low-maintenance option, it’s not the magic wand it first appears. Not only does it support zero wildlife, blocking access from above to burrowing insects such as solitary bees and from below to worms, it also requires maintenance to look decent. In fact, mowing is often replaced by sweeping, cleaning and vacuuming in the chores list. And, of course, it will end up in landfill after 15 years or so.
Part of the problem with lawn is perception. The perfect green sward is lovely but rarely 100% achievable for the average family. Shaded areas turn to moss, too much sun and it dies off, bald patches appear in kickabout areas… But let go of that desire for perfection and you open yourself up to many more options. Lawns are tough and resilient. There’s no real need to water them (unless it’s newly laid) and they soon re-green given a good downpour. Moss isn’t such a big deal, nor is zingy, springy mind your own business (soleirolia soleirolii), which colonises the shadier spots in my lawn. Bald patches can always be resown.
If maintaining a traditional lawn is too much, one option is to let it grow long (it’s surprising how quickly wildflowers start to grow), perhaps mowing a curving path through it for access. Cutting back once a year in late summer really isn’t too onerous a chore. And that meadow will be a haven for all kinds of creatures, including bees and other pollinating insects.
Apart from avoiding artificial turf and keeping hard surfaces to a minimum, I also advise planting hedges as an alternative to putting up fences. The benefits are obvious in terms of wildlife habitat, but in towns and cities they’re also a great way of absorbing air pollution. A mixed native hedge is a thing of great beauty and will support masses of wildlife. If it needs to be kept low maintenance, hollies or Osmanthus (delavayi and burkwoodii) are both slow-growing evergreens that need little in the way of upkeep. If I’m after a more manicured look, then yew makes a fabulous deep green clippable option.
Mixed native hedging
The single most sustainable thing to do in a garden is plant a tree. Even in the smallest city garden, a tree (think silver birch, Amelanchier, crab apple or sorbus) will provide wildlife habitat and shelter, as well as oxygen and shade. By the time that tree has reached maturity in 2050, London is predicted to have a climate similar to that of Barcelona. The way we think about shade then will be very different. A tree with a dense leaf canopy will be a prized possession in the garden, cooling your home and garden by as much as 15°C over the summer months.
Plant trees for shade and wildlife habitat
Aside from tackling trees, boundaries and lawns, there are plenty of smaller ways to be more sustainable in the garden. Here are five ways everyone can get on board.
- Get a compost bin (or make one from wooden pallets) and make your own compost from
kitchen waste and lawn clippings
- Re-use your plastic pots
- Save water by putting in water butts and don’t bother watering the lawn
- Go to Ebay, Freecycle or local social media groups for vintage/second-hand garden furniture and tools
- Use metal rather than plastic plant supports, or make your own from birch twigs
Have a sustainable summer!
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer