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.

  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!

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.


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

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.

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




Trentham Gardens – Part 2 – Italian Garden by Tom Stuart-Smith

A perfect example of old meets new, formal meets informal. Working from an existing traditional Italianate structure, from the 1800’s and filled with modern, naturalistic palette of plants. In 2004 it was planted with 80,000 perennial plants in 70 different flower beds. The box hedging, and topiary combined with many grasses, and architectural perennial plants provide year round interest.