My Relationship with Nature

A guest blog post I wrote for Wild Happy Well – who writes about why nature makes us feel good. Check it out; https://wildhappywell.com/blog/

As a garden designer, nature is a central part of my life. I spend at least a couple of days a week out in lovely Derbyshire gardens with my hands in the soil; gardening and growing things. But for me nature offers so much more than that. I’m continually blown away by the restorative effect the outdoors has on my wellbeing and, living on the edge of the magnificent Peak District, I spend a good amount of my free time exploring the landscape. I walk, meander, potter, sit and breathe it in. 

Occasionally I make a special plan to head for a particular spot, to see the sunrise or sunset, but more often I follow my nose and find a stream or an interesting tree to enjoy. I ponder on how we share the air we breathe, the water, and how we’re all essentially made of the same building blocks – we are nature.  I have favourite places which I visit regularly, where I’m able to observe the changing seasons and build a real connection to a place.

The landscape here is so varied, the horizon lines change, as you travel, one hill recedes and morphs into another. Early mornings offer stunning misty valleys and cloud inversions. I also notice the details; cobwebs, new buds forming, the colours of the leaves against the blue sky, I enjoy the air on my skin, the sound of a stream. I slow down, quieten my thinking mind and my senses awaken.

I enjoy this both with and without my children – and they inspire me too. They were never told not to get muddy, or that they shouldn’t climb trees for fear of hurting themselves. Watching them in the woods is a joy and sometimes, I copy them in an effort to challenge myself and to ‘re wild.’

Often, nature induces a sense of calm, a good couple of hours at the allotment, or a stomp across the Derbyshire hills will leave me feeling a heavy satisfaction of having unplugged – or recharged – depending on which way you chose to see it.

The walking helps me think – creative ideas tend to come when I’m relaxed, bored or applied to something else – and least when I am striving for them. Which means I can justify a certain amount of wandering outdoors as helpful to my work – not just my wellbeing.

I, (as most gardeners do) have a bad back, which can be problematic with some of the more physical aspects of my work – interestingly a good cross country walk can really help – the irregularity of the stride seems to make a difference in resetting my alignment where walking on paved surfaces doesn’t. In the winter I also enjoy a little barefoot walking – when bad weather comes and I get cabin fever and I realise how many days it is since I got my ‘fix’. 

Sometimes, nature makes me feel seen & heard, there are areas of woodland where I feel greeted back by the community of trees and connected to something bigger – to sense that my own personal dramas aren’t such a big deal. Eco psychologists, and some ancient cultures practice medicine walks – a  rite of passage where individuals can deeply connect with nature to reach revelations or wisdom.

As is considered typical, nature lovers become quite protective of nature and engage in what experts call ‘pro environmental behaviours’. I feel fiercely protective of my local wild spaces especially, and of the soil – I struggle to see fields sprayed with weedkiller, and diggers and machines carving up soil structure. 

Getting outdoors is good for you certainly, but if you can slow down, tune in and be mindful the benefits are supercharged.

#worldsoilday

We are losing soil at a completely unsustainable rate.  According to The Soil Association ‘the equivalent of 30 football pitches of fertile soil every minute’ and yet it takes over 500 years to form 1 inch of top soil. 

Here in the UK we are fortunate to have deep soils due to our geological and woodland history.  This has allowed us to develop and maintain some agricultural and horticultural practices which we now know to be damaging.

Soil is incredible stuff, it’s not just a rooting medium; one tablespoon is said to have more organisms that there are people on the earth.  Most of the micro organisms are yet to be identified or understood.

Hakonechloa macra
Hakonechloa makes excellent low maintenance groundcover

Soil stores heat, holds and filters water, nutrients and gases.  It contains mycorrhizae which creates symbiotic relationships between plants and trees.  Then there’s fungi, nematodes, insects, earthworms, slugs and snails. 

Soil also stores carbon.  The more we work with and disturb with soil the more carbon we release and the more we damage the soil structure.  We also have to consider the impact of using diggers and reshaping the contours of our patches, there is often a price to pay also in terms of interrupting natural drainage.

Its a tricky thing to come to terms with as a gardener.

We also know that woody plants (shrubs and trees), absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, locking carbon in their cells (this is why we plant trees to offset our carbon footprint). Also plant roots stabilise and protect the soil they inhabit. 

Arit Anderson inspired me with the idea of “using gardens as a carbon store’ when she spoke passionately on sustainability and the choices we can make or influence.  We can choose to select our planting with this in mind.

Plant things which will do the work for you; weeds aren’t really a problem once the soil is occupied.  Ground cover planting can include shrubs as well and low herbaceous plants.

Gardeners can learn from the concepts of agroforestry and forest gardening.  Choosing perennial and woody planting as an important strategy to both store carbon, and protect our soils from the disruption of annual sowing and planting.

So protect your soil; only dig when you must, mulch it and cover it.

7 Favourite Plants for Drought AND What is ‘Chop & Drop’?

It’s been an interesting summer so far to say the least.  One which will be remembered for its heat and lack of rain.  It has felt like August since June, except hotter.  Here, we are scratching our heads wondering if its a blip or a sign of the times. 

I’ve been watching to see which plants are holding their own while others struggle. Established plants will generally cope better than those which have been recently transplanted. Those which are part of a lovely community can be aided by their neighbours foliage holding moist microclimate under their canopies. However some plants have flowered their socks off already and are now lay spent and a bit crispy.

Here are those I’ve noticed for doing well;

  1. Euphorbia characias wulfenii – I adore this and use it in practically every garden I can for its grey blue evergreen foliage, and architectural spring flowers. Its certainly loving this season and not bothered by the heat at all. Interestingly it wilts in hard frosts and then perks up when it thaws.

    Euphorbia characias 'Wulfenii'
    Euphorbia Characias ‘Wulfenii’
  2. Geranium macrorrhizum – Presumably these shallow rooted plants store some reserves in the woody stems which lay on the surface of the soil, or perhaps its the slightly hairy leaves that help – either way its happy in dry shade generally – and its doing just fine in my gardens.
  3. Artemesia – I often use Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’ whose silvery leaves love a hot dry, well drained spot. The fluffy foliage has a light texture, perfect to contrast bolder shapes.

    Artemesia 'Powis Castle' in foreground Winter '16
    Artemesia ‘Powis Castle’ in the foreground – still looking great during the winter
  4. Sedum – The fleshy leaves and stems are water stores and so sedums are perfectly adapted for drought, and there are many to choose from.

    Sedum
    Sedum 
  5. Grasses – Ok that’s a big group of plants – my favourites ornamental grasses are all doing really well. Stipa gigantea, Stipa tenuissima, Carex testacea and Calamagrostis Karl Forester.

    Stipa tenuissima in drought tolerant border
    Stipa tenuissima, now known at Nassela tenuissima.
  6. Phlomis ruselliana – A good example of a ‘wooly plant’ – using fine hairs on it surface to help protect from the suns rays and retain moisture. The dense foliage works brilliantly at keeping the soil moist too.
  7. Poppies – Poppies have lovely tap roots which help them to tolerate prolonged dry spells. The big oriental poppies may flop, and can look a mess but try using this foliage to create mulch. Im getting into ‘chop and drop’ mulch at the allotment, and I reckon oriental poppies are a ideal candidate.

Chop & Drop is a permaculture concept – in that it mimics a natural cycle. Using fresh foliage to create a mulch and feed for the soil, and ultimately our plants. 

Simply lay leaves directly on the soil to retain moisture, and as they breakdown nutrients become available to the soil again. It doesn’t look as neat and tidy as our traditional horticultural methods but its very easy and it works.

Chop & Drop Mulch under courgette plant
My chop & drop mulch at work under a courgette plant

My light soil at the allotment is prone to drying out and blowing away, so Ive been using comfrey leaves and also dandelions (seeing as I have so many) but any leaves will work. The very best plants for this are deep tap rooted plants (hence my comfrey & dandelions) or nitrogen fixing plants such as clover (which you may have in your lawn clippings) and foliage from peas and beans.

Know your soil; Its useful to remember that many of these plants listed – are adapted to hot dry conditions, and along with this require good drainage – which is where winter can be problematic. Its really valuable to take the time to get to know your site well before planting new areas for these reasons.

When to plant; For some time Ive been advising clients to either plant in spring or autumn – to avoid lots of watering and to work with nature and avoid the struggle of the summer heat. This is not what everyone wants to hear but I don’t really believe we need to or should be watering our gardens generally let alone all summer long to establish a newly planted scheme. Of course we have special plants, pots and crops which we want to tend with a can of water now and then, no judgements here.

See my previous post for more thoughts on designing resilient gardens

Stay hydrated!

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust Garden – RHS Chatsworth 2018

Congratulations to both Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and the Experian volunteer team who did a great job building the stand for RHS Chatsworth flower show. STOP PRESS – We won an RHS 3 Star Award!!

Not only was I thrilled to be asked to work with the trust, I really enjoyed a different type of design challenge. Usually I have an existing garden with architecture, features and plants or trees to work with. Here I had a blank canvas on which to create a garden to illustrate the beautiful and varied Derbyshire landscape. The brief was also to create a garden which could be built by staff & volunteers with no landscaping or horticultural experience. A garden which could be taken apart and moved to another events, and ultimately to The Whistlestop Visitor Centre at Matlock Bath for the public to enjoy. So simplicity, portability, and durability were key considerations.

Materials & Concept Board
Materials & Concept Board

After we worked to tighten up the brief, we agreed on a concept for the garden and the key materials. Then I started deconstructing the county map, and playing with shapes with marker pens, highlighting key zones; The Dark Peak, The White Peak, Derwent valley,  farmland, Derby city etc. And finding a way to put it back into a 4m square garden. It was important that the design was a garden, not a landscape model, and seating and a canopy were essential to make a comfortable and engaging spot. 

Map deconstruction
Map deconstruction

 

We wanted to create height, Derbyshire rises to over 2,000 ft above sea level, and the obvious material to use was stone. The distinctive outcrops of stone and geology from a volcanic past, have for centuries provided local building material which now characterises the towns, villages and farmland.

I recommended gabion cages, as a fun and modern yet practical solution to create a sympathetic style whilst not requiring skilled labour. These are filled with stone, reclaimed bricks and logs; each representing elements of the map. The brick represent the towns and the city of derby.

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Derbyshire Wildlife Trust Garden Design – RHS Chatsworth 2018

The dark peak is represented with the tallest gabion pillar topped with heather. The white peak is the second gabion providing a focal point with a feature log pile tumbling down to a single specimen tree symbolising the woodland valleys. 

There is a nod to the Derbyshire farmland with mixed native hedging at the back of the design and an agricultural galvanised trough – which also holds a length of water for the Derbyshire rivers.

layout plan dwt:chats part scan
Layout Drawing

Once I had created a layout plan & an illustration, I turned my attention to developing the planting scheme. This starts with a long list of potential plants, which I then narrow down based on the brief. A broad mixture of wild flowers and garden cultivars were carefully selected to be beneficial to wildlife while reflecting our local landscape. Derbyshire has various habitats from moors to meadows and woodland valleys, so we used plants such as the cranesbill, yarrow, ox eye daisies, bulbous buttercups, grasses such as the stunning native deschampsia flexuousa. Finally shade loving foxgloves and ferns  are arranged around a multi stemmed silver birch tree. 

plant list RHS Chats 2018
Plant List

Finally I supplied a shopping list for all the materials and The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust team took the reins. They gathered materials and a team of willing volunteers to build the garden.

The aim was to create an engaging, tactile and social spot; a place for people to relax, chat and connect to nature at the show. Somewhere where people will be able to touch the water and get really close to the plants.

It was the first time I had designed anything to hand over in this way. As ever, things are always tweaked once building is underway, so there were some adjustments. There is so much pressure to get everything right and to be ready on time, but the team pulled it off!

 

For more information on Derbyshire Wildlife Trust click here.

Designing Resilient Gardens

It’s been a reflective few weeks here. Beginning with hearing a vision for the future of landscape architecture at the international ‘Landscape 50’ conference, hosted by The University of Sheffield. A major theme of the conference was adapting to climate change and population growth. The pressure on our green spaces will only increase in time, so it will become vital that we preserve our natural spaces, and adapt our enriching gardens.

‘We need to garden our wild and wild our gardens’  Thomas Rainer, author of Planting In A Post Wild World

Rainer, one of the ‘Landscape 50’ speakers, specialises in creating plant communities in man made settings. He talks of planting in vertical layers or ‘plant storeys’. When we observe  plants in wild plant communities, we see one plant emerging from beneath the canopy of others to pierce through and flower higher up.

Plant storeys, co exist or supersede each other, covering the soil. Think of the bluebells that carpet the woods in May, which are then hidden by maybe bracken, or cow parsley, then finally the tree canopy fills out and takes over the dominant photosynthesising.

A few days later I skipped off to enjoy the coastline of Pembrokeshire, with its stunning geology & wildlife. Being me, I was mostly struck by the flora and fauna – particularly the hedge-banks that characterise the area dividing lanes from fields. 

A hedge-bank is a cross between a wall and a hedge. Over time these rich habitats become covered with a fine tapestry of plants; ransoms, willow herb, navel wort, creeping dead nettle, herb robert, jack in the hedge, wood anemone, stinging nettle and sticky willy; great sounding characters and a wonderful example of plant communities in nature. It was a great opportunity for me to look and learn about the strength in diversity. Examining these plants and seeing how they worked together got me thinking about what the key considerations should be in making resilient gardens for the future.

cowslips

So what exactly does the future hold? Along with a likely frost-free Britain, climate change is forecast to generate greater variables in the weather; more storms, more rainwater, and then longer hot dry spells; so resilient plants will become imperative. We will have a longer growing season and therefore can utilise plants from arid countries (in gardens where drainage isn’t an issue). 

Some solutions are split between urban and rural gardens where very different considerations are needed. For example; lawns, traditional and yet a high-energy use of space, will become a nuisance to maintain. A wilder aesthetic will suit rural gardens where big spaces allow for meadows, whereas in urban situations gravel gardens may be more appropriate.

wildflower meadow

Things to consider when future proofing your garden

  • We can observe and work lightly with our plots rather than battle against them. For example by limiting earth moving, we can avoid interrupting natural water drainage routes.
  • Create shade and shelter to screen from heat and wind ensuring that spaces get maximum use in all weather. Using hedges and shrubs rather than fences or walls will soften wind, rather than creating further problems, as well as providing habitats for wildlife.

Drainage

  • Raised beds can help overcome waterlogging.
  • Look into SuDS (sustainable draining systems) for driveway surfaces. Note: impermeable hardstanding of more than 5m2 requires planning permission due to increased run-off and flash flooding issues.
  • Collect and harvest rainwater for use in the garden.
  • Intercept rainwater with green roofs to reduce run-off . Also, rainwater gardens can be designed to deal with heavy rainfall in built-up spaces.

Planting

  • Soil really matters. We usually concern ourselves with what we can see in our gardens but a deeper understanding of our soils will be invaluable. As well as protecting and nourishing our soil we can plant to benefit it too. Different root structures play important roles within plant communities; where for example a dandelion’s long tap root can access nutrients lower down in the soil, as its leaves die down they make those same nutrients available at surface level, in turn then feeding a foxglove perhaps, whose fine spider web of roots lie just millimetres under the surface.

  • Hooper’s Law is a guide to allow you to calculate the age of a hedgerow, by counting the number of species in it. Hedgerows are a plant community – and they gain species with age. Similarly the diversity of plants in a garden can be the strength of it.
  • Use perennial planting rather than annuals or bedding plants and keep soil covered to help preserve the soil structure. We now know for example that leaving soil exposed and turning it annually degrades the soil structure and its mycorrhizal networks.

‘There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments.’ Peter Wohlleben

  • Plant more woody plants, like shrubs and smaller trees, to lock up carbon; more evergreens especially.
  • Forest gardening – a low input way to grow your own food – mimicking a forest rather than an farmer’s field. More on this soon….

The RHS has more information on Gardening in a changing climate.

Why Wild Gardens for Children?

In the good old days, children played outdoors for hours, only coming home when they were hungry – isn’t that the story? Well it’s not quite how I remember it but apparently, the majority of children today spend less than 60 mins outside a day, which is less than prison inmates.

Richard Louvv in his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ coined the term ‘Nature deficit disorder’ not as a medical condition but a social one. He is part of a growing movement of awareness and change around improving the relationship that people have with nature. Statistics like those mentioned are pretty depressing with children spending more time indoors at screens, and less time outside, especially for unstructured time.

His later book ‘Vitamin N’, Louvv talks about Nature as an essential nutrient for a healthy human. Its makes sense, our bodies evolved to spend our waking ours outside; working, hunting etc. We have understood that our bodies and minds need exercise but what about the other things we gain from being outdoors rather than in? Reporting from a study on Nature Connection, head of psychology at the University of Derby, Dr Miles Richardson,  explains, “There is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle,” in this article on BBC Earth.

Interestingly, Dr Richardson recently published a paper showing that nature based education is not necessarily what we need to feel connection to nature. Learning bird names therefore does not reap the same benefits as enjoying the birdsong.

Forest schools is one successful part of the movement, a Scandinavian concept being used within traditional education settings.

Forest school offers learners opportunities to develop self esteem through hands on learning in a woodland setting. The emphasis is on self awareness, practical learning, team working & independence. Benefits include; learning about risk taking – through opportunities to safely test out a child’s own abilities, improved emotional intelligence, and building comfort and familiarity in natural spaces.

Camo net den building
Kids love a sense of privacy, a camo net provides a quick cover on a woodland adventure.

Wherever possible I design wild play spaces into my gardens, at first I was aesthetically driven, keen to use natural materials and avoid the bright plastic toys, but soon I saw the benefits of unstructured play, of forest schools type activities and wild ‘down time’ with my own children. Now I maximise opportunities within family gardens for this.

When I take my two children to our allotment for example; they don’t do much weeding or seed sowing, when space allows they might build a den, or create a game for themselves, mostly they just dig holes, build fairy gardens or graze on the fruit. In the woods they will play with sticks for hours, clearing leaves out of the streams.

Living Willow
Living willow can provide quick, robust results in creating a wild play space for children.

Wild Child Garden Ideas;

  • The wildlife trusts run ’30 Days Wild’ each July for the month with great ideas of how to get back to nature.
  • Our year outdoors – offers tips for getting more outdoor time as a family, including advice such as ‘don’t let weather stop you’
  • The National Trust has some brilliant ideas in their outdoor play spaces, stepping stone logs etc. Check out my pin board for some ideas.
  • Within a garden I usually identify or recommend a flexible space for kids to play which can be adapted as they grow and change.
  • Utilise sturdy shrubs or trees, where the site has no existing trees – living willow can create a quick, robust result
  • Add a tree swing or some log stools for a seating area, where space allows maybe a circle for chatting and eating, creating opportunities for sharing and listening
  • The youngest children like a mud pit or sand pit
  • Open ended play objects create opportunities for imaginative play and learning. Rather than a swing ball for example, a pile of branches, can be a den or a climbing structure or markers on the ground for limitless games.
  • Use natural materials – logs, rocks, tools, space for a fire – where appropriate, a tarpualin and rope.

This is not a stick
image; WilderChild.com

Kids thrive in natural environments, they are designed to learn and grow in nature. As are adults, of course. Ask yourself what are your best childhood memories?

My Irish Road Trip & Thoughts on Plastic

I’ve just returned from a mini road trip via Scotland, to Northern Ireland. I’d longed to see The Giants Causeway and surrounding coastline for years. This wasn’t really a trip to visit gardens, more about taking in windswept landscapes and striking seascapes, interspersed with bookshops and cosy pubs.

IMG_9475

We drove through the Peak District, The Lakes, and then Galway Forest Park stopping in Wigtown Scotlands book town. Next we crossed the Irish sea to follow the Causeway Coastal Route. Coincidentally, I was reading Mary Reynolds, Garden Awakening. Mary is Irish, a fellow garden designer, permaculturist who writes about the land having its own personality, when we learn to observe and increasingly work with it, how we can be custodians, rather than rulers in our gardens.

IMG_3792

On my journey I marvelled at the scale of the landscapes, noting where and how it had been shaped by man, either with forestry, farming or building. I saw where the sheep pastures stopped and the moorland started, lines drawn in hedges or stone walls. I noticed how the presence of the roads we drove on disrupted the ground water drainage routes.

We’re lucky in Britain to have such a wide range of landscapes, so many micro climates, varied eco systems and weather; Sandy beaches, rocky shoreline with thrashing waves, clifftops, scalloped bays, the mono culture of forestry plantations, babbling streams, mud flats and estuaries, glens, sensual rolling green hills, massive brown mountains. This road trip had it all.

IMG_3788

I got my much needed ‘sea fix’, the cost of living in landlocked Derbyshire. As a holidaying child I competed with my sister to be the first to see the sea when we drove to the coast, and now my children do the same. The clear green blue sea around Carrick a Rede (above) was especially uplifting and I was relieved not to see much litter or plastic floating anywhere along this tourist attraction coastline, but on our return journey we stopped near Port William where there was plenty of plastic waste on the beach.

We spent our sunset walk picking up plastic – bottles, lids, toothbrushes, toys and straws, some of it was broken and unidentifiable. It was food for thought. This coincided with another big push in the media about the single use plastic issue and ocean pollution. They say every bit of plastic that was ever made still exists – somewhere. The irony of gardeners, nature lovers, producing a material which is not digestible by the earth makes me ponder the plastic plant pot issue which plagues the industry.

IMG_3760.jpg

The horticulture industry was revolutionised by the plastic pot. Strong lightweight pots meant that plants could be bought and sold at anytime of the year, rather than during the dormant season when traditionally plants could be bought bare rooted locally.  Growers could grow plants anywhere and transport them easily, and the industry has built up around this.

Our pots are, in the majority, ‘single use’ – used once then discarded; amongst other reasons to avoid spreading pests and diseases (especially as such a lot of plants are imported). The system is a linear one, pots are not designed or standardised to allow for collection, cleaning and re distribution. Black plastic is especially challenging to recycle so while some pots get sent for recycling and some passed around and reused, the vast majority end up in land fill.

I grow a small amount of the plants I supply – which allows me to reuse old plastic pots. I also grow a few plants in the ground for transplanting in spring or autumn in the old school way. These often do so much better than the pot grown ones.

There are alternatives to plastic; coir, bamboo, cow manure, rice hulls and wood fibres are also used to make plant pots, and new products are continually being launched and marketed – Modiform, a plastic pot and tray manufacturer, who make pots from recycled plastic, also announced recently, a new 100% recycled paper based system of pots and trays.

I feel that we need to take time to build up our local growers again, where pots potentially need be less robust and alternative materials can be used. Also, where the scale allows for old plastic pots to be reused.

What can you do to help?

  • Use biodegradable pots, seed trays – either bought or homemade, for growing seeds and cuttings. Wooden seed trays are lovely to use and loo roll inners & paper pots are also great.
  • Consider where your plants come from. Try to support local growers, & smaller nurseries.
  • Buy bare rooted plants in winter and avoid the pot all together. Ask for no plastic packaging.
  • Ask at the till in nurseries & garden centres about pot recycling schemes, and suggest they start one. The industry will have to respond customers make enough noise.
  • Reuse the pots you have, post surplus on freecycle – or see if any local schools, allotments etc can make use of them.

More information on the effects of plastic pollution see this article and on reducing your waste the zero waster site has great tips.

I’m back to work after the break now, busy tree planting, pruning roses and wisteria, also cutting back my favourite grass Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, wondering about what this year has in store.

 

How To Create A Mindful Garden? Just Be Mindful.

Mindfulness is still a hot topic, but why is the garden the best place to practice mindfulness? And how do you make your garden a mindful one?

So what is Mindfulness? The benefits are numerous, It decreases stress and improves cognition, physical health and emotional resilience. When the NHS endorse, it we know that its not only official but mainstream. Our brains spend much of our time with a constant train of thoughts; our ‘to do’ lists, replaying yesterday’s meeting – using our ‘default mode network’ as neuroscientists call it.

How do you do it? Mindfulness activities invite us to become aware of our senses or our breathing, tuning in to the here and now. Mindfulness centres on focusing our awareness on the present moment without judgement. By practicing mindfulness we can learn to observe our thoughts, familiarise ourselves with our thought patterns and the more we practice the better the results. More Info

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

Washing the dishes, gardening, or any task, in fact can be done mindfully, if done deliberately with focus, as if a ritual. Of course, a garden is a space, it cannot actually be mindful but it is a space which we can practice mindfulness, pause and breathe.

There is a definite added dimension to outdoor mindfulness, nature is known for its restorative benefits. Such is the value we now calculate ‘natural capital’ to validate investment in green spaces in cities and hospitals (see article on London Parks ). I personally can vouch for the therapeutic benefits of gardens, I only discovered my love of gardening when I realised losing myself in the garden was the best way to forget about the stresses of the office. Gardening became my practice – a focus – before I’d ever considered mindfulness or meditation.

Tetrapanax
Sun through my favourite tetrapanax leaf

Design Ideas? A mindful garden would be a space to grow favourite plants and there really needn’t be a grand design. In my tiny garden I enjoy the sun filtering through the leaves of my tetrapanax (above) and also my philadelphus which also smells amazing in blossom.

  • The traditional Zen garden, of pebbles, rocks, trees and mosses symbolising the elements certainly provides a restful space. Pureland Meditation Centre & Japanese garden is a lovely example (below).
  • Introducing sound from a water feature is a lovely idea, but sound also comes from grasses rustling, birdsong, the buzz of neighbours mowing and children playing.
  • Thought should be given to seasonal interest, to our senses, and perhaps a carefully positioned seat, or a shelter.
  • Different textures to experience underfoot – ‘grounding’ or barefoot walking is a lovely way to be present.
  • Planning a garden with different routes to explore where space allows, with opportunities for catch glimpses of views framed by arching branches.

Pureland Meditation Centre
Pureland Meditation Centre & Japanese Garden, Newark

How to garden mindfully

  • Enjoy a daily morning stroll in the garden, notice the temperature, the breeze, the rain.
  • Take time to sit and smell the roses, observe the changes in the season, the goings on of the wildlife.
  • Gardening on a Sunday afternoon? Leave your phone, simplify things, lose track of time.
  • Watch the sun set, change your viewpoint. Lie on the lawn and look up thorough the canopy.
  • Accept the imperfection, and let it go. Don’t rush to tidy everything, perhaps allow the wildlife to have its influence on the space.

Look up through the canopy
Look up through the canopy, change your perspective.

My design process has changed since discovering mindfulness, I take time to be silent in a space when I survey it, I find it allows space for me to understand the landscape, notice its rhythms and details.

Mindfulness enriches my life and my work, and I hope some of these ideas inspire you.

 

Victorian Garden Ideas – Biddulph Grange

Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire is an amazing restored example of Victorian garden style. Victorian gardeners were keen to show off their wealth and status by acquiring exotic and new plants, building follies and monuments, or by creating drama with exotic themes and colours. We may have different ideas today about our outside spaces but here are a few ideas worth stealing….

  • Add another dimension to your garden with water – with reflections and the relaxing sound of moving water.
  • Create drama by using bold colours – at Biddulph you can see lots of verdant greenery with splashes of red planting, or painted structures.

  • Statues, Follies, Structures, for focal points or creating a journey around the garden. It doesn’t have to be formal or even very big. Stone is especially grounding and ages beautifully.

  • Create romance by allowing nature to creep in around the edges – use mosses & ivy and items with patina to help recreate a period feel.

Biddulph Grange is a National Trust property for more information see http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/biddulph-grange-garden

 

 

 

Create your own Prairie – Pensthorpe style

Back in August I visited Piet Oudolfs, Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe Natural Park in Norfolk. It had been on the wish list for a long, long time and it was well worth the journey.

Huge swathes of colour & texture guide you around the garden down to the lake, and you can see the parallels to other gardens (see my post on Trentham gardens ) designed by Mr Oudolf, only here the sloping site provided extra dimension and viewpoints. The maturing oak trees provide stature and welcome shade to sit beneath.

The garden was created for the Millennium as the name suggests and in 2008/9 the designer returned to renovate areas. Part of the pleasure is the unexpected, haphazard even, plant combinations. Colours clash brilliantly, self sown rusty foxgloves (Digitalis ferruginea) pop up randomly.

Ideas to take from Pensthorpe;

  • Choose hardy plants, and those capable of standing up without staking.
  • Be generous – don’t plant 1 Echinacea. Plant at least 7 or if you have space maybe 21!
  • Use grasses – for texture and movement Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ is especially good for standing tall and not flopping around.
  • Use contrasting flower shapes – I know its tempting to buy those daisy shapes! Try spikes, panicles, globes and umbels (like cow parsley).
  • Think of the birds and the bees – leave seedheads and foliage for nesting material.
  • Experiment! You can always dig perennials up and rearrange them!