A garden is a living entity – it is not like decorating a room or designing a house in which clever use of space is required for maximum convenience of its inhabitants. Whilst clever use of space comes into garden design, understanding the ecology of a garden – what is needed to keep it functioning healthily, is fundamental. It is no use placing attractive planting in the wrong place where it won’t survive – Lavender in damp shade, or Rodgersia in dry sunny conditions, Rhododendrons on lime or Clematis in acid soil. We also need to give plants adequate growing room and take into account changes that will occur over time. But more than this, the garden is a living plant and animal community, which means thinking about attracting beneficial insects in to help deal with pests; providing nesting and overwintering places for insects, amphibians, birds and small mammals who will eat pests; companion planting; providing food sources for insects and birds – nectar and pollen rich flowers for bees and other pollinators, berries for birds, and using some native plants. All these considerations are not just for people who love to watch wildlife or want to feel they are doing good – they are a matter of keeping the garden in balance and healthy – not allowing a pest to get out of control and ensuring our own survival by supporting pollinators. These factors can be designed in to a garden and I would say its beauty and value to humans can be increased rather than compromised as a result, not only because the garden will look and feel healthier, but because choices made for wildlife also please humans – who would dispute the beauty of simple flowers ideal for pollinators, a dry stone wall that can provide a home for solitary bees, or a tree or shrub with autumn to winter berries or fruit (such as a Sorbus, Cotoneaster or crab apple)? Most gardeners desire long seasons of bloom, from Hellebores and snowdrops through to Michaelmas daisies and Japanese anemones – this extended season is good for pollinators too. A pile of twigs and stones can provide overwintering for insects, but a designer can instead build an insect hotel which looks beautiful as well as housing wildlife.
However, it would be disingenuous to say that there are not some compromises to be made between the needs of wildlife and the human inhabitants of gardens – people who enjoy a very neat garden throughout the year, if they want to encourage wildlife, may have to learn to leave fallen leaves on flower beds in autumn, where they will be taken down by worms to enrich the soil, as well as providing leaf litter for over-wintering insects, and perhaps leave a patch of grass to grow long for wildlife in spring. A garden designer can design this is, so that it looks right rather than scruffy.
But one of the most problematic sources of tension between the needs of wildlife and the needs of people is ivy, for ivy is invaluable to wildlife, providing a reliable source of late season nectar for bees, berries for birds when there is almost nothing else, and if allowed to grow, nesting sites, as well as homes for many insects, spiders and even small mammals and amphibians when on the ground. However, it can be rampant and difficult to control. It mustn’t be allowed to grow up young, small or weak trees and is best kept away from houses and pergolas. The best solution, which is not possible in every garden, is to find a wall away from the house, where it can be allowed to grow without out-competing everything else, and to keep it in check.
There is interest amongst garden designers of today in environmentally responsible approaches to design. This is linked to gardens for wildlife, but also to wider environmental concerns. As garden designers we are always concerned about fitting the garden into its wider environment. Many of the gardens I have designed or am working on are in conservation areas, where it is important to use local materials that fit with the area, and to design in sympathy with the locality. This often means, for instance using native trees and does set parameters but doesn’t mean you can’t be imaginative. The other aspect of being environmentally responsible is to think about the environmental footprint or cost of the garden – are we going to use stone that has been shipped across the world, or are we going to try to use more locally sourced materials? Can we recycle or re-use existing materials? Are we using timber from sustainable sources? We must be interested in the environmental costs of our designs, as we are so affected by climate change. The weather is unpredictable at the moment. No one knows whether we are going to have drought, floods, harsh or mild winters. This all effects what we can grow and get established successfully. Working in Oxfordshire I always specify fully hardy plants, and most well established plants in gardens that I know have survived, with the odd one or two dying off in recent winters, including Bays, Cotoneasters and Ceanothuses. 2012 was also a very bad year for top fruit (pears and apples). So perhaps plant failure is going to become more common in the future as weather patterns vary and will be something we have to live with. The best policy for a designer is to ensure that the plant is right for the situation and aspect, and give it the best chance by ensuring appropriate ground preparation and care.
Plant diseases and pests are also a worry with ash, horse-chestnuts and now oaks being threatened. Environmentally responsible designers are looking at using home-grown plants rather than importing plants and importing pests and diseases with them. But it’s really a matter of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
These are some of the most important issues facing garden designers today, and I hope I have generated some thought around these issues, for further discussion.