naturalistic planting

What is sustainability in the context of garden design?

Sustainability in the garden

Many, many words are being written at the moment, across all industries, on sustainability. Some are helpful and some appear to be merely greenwashing. 

Whatever we look at, the key question in reality is one of the choices we make. For any material choice we must ask: where is it from, how was it produced, how far has it travelled, how is it packaged, how long will it last, how can it be recycled once it is no longer needed. This applies to paving, decking, plant material and all other items imported into a garden equally – as well as to all of our other myriad of daily choices.

As you will realise the sustainability choices we make for our gardens will be overlaid by a host of other considerations – balancing the needs of the people using the space against the prevailing view of the needs of the planet. 

Fundamentally though, cutting through all of the noise, should be an assessment of pollution, in all of its forms. The issues faced in the twenty first century will be addressed by a balancing of pollution (due to our population size and industrial processes) and consumption, i.e. with things we can actively manage through the choices which we make. The more we can do that the easier it will become to balance the problems we have created since the Industrial Revolution.

Unfortunately this is not straight forward, as there is no convenient accurate online calculator (or paper tome) that allows us to weigh up the actual results of our decisions. And in an increasingly cynical world we may chose to sometimes question the validity of sustainability statements made by corporations seeking to sell us their wares.

We therefore, for now at least, need to concentrate on some simple, achievable actions that we can use to improve the world around us.

Actions we can take

orchids in meadows

First, in a new garden, we can simply reduce the amount of hard surfacing that we use in our landscape designs. Not only does this help with the ‘carbon footprint’ but it ensures that water can percolate into the ground and reduce flooding elsewhere (on or off the site). It also creates a greater area for nature to inhabit and use.

We then need to design to try to enhance the biodiversity across the garden and the landscape. This includes providing both a diversity of habitats and planting to maximise the areas available for a multitude of species. More details of this approach can be found in a previous series of blogs starting here. 

Finally, and perhaps most challengingly, we need to learn to embrace the chaos that is the natural world. Now I’m not suggesting we allow our gardens to go to scrubland (although in larger landscapes this is certainly an important habitat to consider). I’m also not advocating a lack of design and forethought in the planning of spaces (resulting is overgrown and ultimately unloved areas). What I do believe though is that traditional ideas that a garden is there to be forcibly controlled and moulded to a human concept of what is ideal will completely miss the point as the century proceeds. Worse it can lead to bringing in herbicides or, worse still, pesticides to try to maintain a garden that is fighting against the local environment rather than bolstering its scope, scale and diversity.

Sustainability therefore starts with allowing a few weeds without berating yourself (although only where they wont be pernicious across the site), letting plants grow to the forms and sizes they wish to, letting grass grow longer, leaving beds with a cover of leaves and the skeletons of perennials into the late winter or spring, and above all spending time outside enjoying the space you share with the wildlife of your garden. Chance sightings of moths, dragonflies, hedgehogs, wrens, butterflies, and foxes are far better for the soul than bare ground slowly growing weeds through our increasingly mild winters.