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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.