Why are some gardens sustainable, lasting for hundreds of years and becoming a treasured part of the landscape, while others are soon ripped out and redesigned? Town and city gardens especially seem to fall foul of changes in fashion, but stability is vital to creating a flourishing ecosystem, a sustainable garden as well as reducing our waste and impact. So how can we ensure that the gardens we inherit or create will stand the test of time?
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How to plant a sustainable garden
Hazelnut coppice with wildflowers beneath provides a transition to the woodland and a renewable mid-storey part of the sustainable garden. All the new trees sequester carbon as they grow and provide habitat and forage, while the lower planting layers are chosen to be self supporting near natives, for sustainable biodiversity.
Tree-lined paths create walkways and vistas to make the most of the garden views and the path of the sun. The trees feed the birds and bees and provide shelter, reducing the heat below in summer.
A pond collects water from the roof of the house and land drains that run through the borders in this heavy clay soil. The pond is made over a natural spring, benefiting from the clay that has been puddled to make it water tight.
Leave ageing trees
Mature trees around the property are allowed to age gracefully with dead wood left in situ for habit for birds, bats and insects wherever practical.
The borders are densely planted in layers to reduce soil erosion, and create sustainability and a mini ecosystem. Paths are made of permeable gravel and near the house natural clay pavers are used with sandstone edging.
Good design often looks back to earlier eras for inspiration. Here classical stone pillars and York stone paving at Mapperton in Dorset are used in an Arts and Crafts context,
looking beautiful with moss slowly softening them over a period of many years.
Using reclaimed and reusable natural materials avoids waste and follows the principle of do no harm. Here at The Pant in Monmouthshire, dry-stone walling and mature trees are allowed to acquire the graceful shapes and patina of age – what the Japanese call wabi-sabi.
Layer on layer
Planting densely in layers with a mixture of textures ensures year-round interest, protects the soil and locks in carbon. In this Kent garden, planting is in line with the path of the sun to bring an extra dimension, especially in winter when there is less floral colour.
To be durable and robust a garden must fit with the land, be of the land and eventually be able to return to the land. This means a design that works with the site aesthetically and practically, and using well-crafted, carefully chosen materials and solid construction methods. By observing the land we can see where the wind comes from, where shade is cast and privacy needed and so where trees, hedges and long-term structures will be best sited. On land with a sandstone geology and a clay soil, for example, it makes sense to use sandstone pavers and clay brick so that one day when we are long gone the materials can meld back into the land. We can also watch where water runs and where it pools, to see where drainage is needed and where we can collect water to reuse. By planting trees and using wood to construct paths and structures we can lock up carbon. By using local natural materials, which are often reclaimed and can be reused whenever possible, we avoid waste and ensure we are following the principle of do no harm to the land long term.
To be useful, a garden must work practically, so access and circulation should make sense, pathways should go where there is a desire line to walk frequently and to keep feet dry in wet weather – and shelter, seats and low-impact utilities should be sourced and placed just where they are needed. By choosing plants that flourish in the conditions and that fix nitrogen or provide food and forage or deter the uninvited, nothing is wasted. By planting densely and in harmonious layers we again lock up carbon, reduce pests and disease and create a self-supporting ecosystem to endure. Adding organic matter and avoiding artificial fertilisers and pesticides will make sure the soil is healthy and that it contains all the beneficial bacteria and fungi plants need to get their nutrients from the soil – a bit like giving it a healthy gut.
A garden is a labour of love that embodies so much about how we care for ourselves and the planet. Our aim in creating a garden to endure is to ensure reciprocity: for the garden to be delightful, useful and do no harm, so that when we leave the land we will have put back more than we have taken out.