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Sustainable Gardens..

Last year – I completed a small project I was quite excited about. I set myself the challenge of using the absolute minimum amount of new materials and creating the smallest carbon footprint I could from buying and transporting only that which I absolutely had to – from the most local source. Last of all – I wanted the garden to ‘melt’ into the character period property, as if they belonged 100% with each other.

The reasons for doing this are broadly as follows. Firstly, the garden design industry is (on occasions) frighteningly wasteful. Some of the largest and most prestige shows are attempting to curb their excesses, but there is still a long way to go. Second, design (again – in some instances) has become an enormous vanity exercise where the plants are almost becoming sidelined in favour of hard landscaping and exotic plants that can scream at their less flamboyant surroundings and backdrops. I’m still scratching my head why an olive tree and acres of billiard-table flat white limestone is desirable in the drizzle and Tupperware grey skies of a February Manchester?

It’s not I’m personally against adventure and pushing the boundaries for a client. But, let’s face it – not everyone wants to be a ‘Christopher Lloyd’ (or has the time – or the staff). There is an opening void between really ‘bling’ gardens (a hateful term I know – but on occasions apposite) and ones that are an under-developed and/or unused appendage to a property where semi-deflated footballs and last year’s annual BBQ stand reside . This is (to me) the ‘real’ zone – where you can have fun designing real gardens for real people. 

The one in the picture I’m following the progress of carefully now it’s completed. Those black rails are walking steps from a local nature reserve that were about to be bulldozed and burned (before I stepped in and quickly made some frantic pleas via a semi-charged mobile phone sporting one forlorn bar of signal). A bit of physical labour taking them off-site and a few hours cutting away a bit of rot here and there, some sanding and staining – and I had a recycled gem. As you get close – you see all the grain of the wood through the black stain – lovely. The rail caps are hand made and unique to the garden – not out of a catalogue. Just as the timber trim on the house is old elm and oak – with cracks, splits and patina everywhere – the non-perfection of the old wood looks just ‘right’. 

The plants are native woodland varieties – most of which I have either grown from seed or propagated myself, underplanted with a rich blaze of spring & summer bulbs. I transported several old roses from another site where last summers heat had stunted their growth a bit, or where they had just grown ‘woody’ through neglect. Hacked right back and fed – they are now beginning to re-establish in the beds and matching black wood trellis work. 

Low ‘old stock’ brick retaining walls were made from ones preserved and stacked up onsite, or…dug (stubbornly) out of the beds I created, arising out of builder indolence half a century earlier, who clearly threw ones from an old demolished outbuilding straight into the garden and covered them with topsoil and turf. These matched the house brickwork a treat. The gentle curves and ‘undulating’ steps again matching the rustic brickwork – picking up details in the spacings, construction and character of the house. 

In all – I needed several tonnes of shale and material, and a cement mixer. Just add labour (lots of) and a keen eye for sticking to the design. “If it works on paper – it’ll work in reality” as we were told as design students. It did. The whole exercise also gave me cause to take out unwanted horticultural ‘clutter’ – trees and shrubs past their ‘sell by date’ and re-shape and ‘invigorate’ those mature specimens left in situ. 

Topping them off with subtle ‘less is more’ discreet uplighting where certain specimens will deserve highlighting when in full flower – and where their shape and form looks great in the ‘bleak midwinter’ too. I will post up more as the seasons roll, but take heart. You do not need to spend telephone numbers to get a great effect in a garden. You need discipline, imagination and a willingness to embrace the increasingly relevant sustainability movement. Your garden need not cost the earth (in every sense of the term)…

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