Sunday, 27 May 2012


The Essence of a Garden

First published in The 50+ Show guide magazine Manchester March 2012


The time is fast approaching when our gardens will once again start to awaken from their winter slumber in preparation for the summer show.
As the temperatures begin to rise, plants that have lain dormant just below the soil surface will begin to push up new shoots as bird song fills the air.
This month of March is an ideal time to start planning for your garden for the year and for the years ahead.
 In these uncertain times our gardens can also act as a sanctuary of peace and calm. They are also a precious commodity which most of us are fortunate enough to have attached to our homes.
With an ever increasing population and the constraints this places on available land gardens are unfortunately becoming smaller and smaller, particularly in new housing developments. While many larger gardens in our towns and cities are subdivided with land sold off for housing development.
It  seems to me that, apart from the constraints of population expansion, gardens are also seen as less important to developers as many go unused or are left poorly neglected. Sadly many home owners seem to find them the most intimidating of spaces.
It never ceases to amaze me, when travelling around the UK by train, the number of unloved and underused outdoor spaces viewed through the train window.
Most seem to be a place to store rubbish and bikes.
But even those that are neat invariably lack imagination with a square or rectangular stretch of lawn and a bare perimeter border, usually a bare brown strip of soil with the occasional unloved tree or shrub.
Perhaps in these uncertain times it is the ideal time to rethink our whole attitude as to the value and functionality of our outdoor spaces.
We need to rediscover a sense of passion for these outdoor spaces and realise their potential to not only enhance our lives but potentially change them.
By forging a connection with our own back gardens we will naturally begin to feel a greater sense of connection to the wider landscape and our environment.
After all can we really be expected to have a passion and connection for what is happening to our planet whether through the effects of global warming or the introduction of GM crops and food if we cannot spare the time to interact with our  little green pieces of the planet
Maybe you are sceptical about global warming but in reality our climate is changing and our gardens can provide a unique opportunity to witness some of these changes for ourselves. For example, trees are blooming earlier each year or have you noticed that some flowers and bulbs seem to appear a little earlier each year? All of these clues are on our doorsteps.
But in saying all this it is, to my mind, irrelevant whether global warming is caused by man, is a natural phenomenon or simply a part of our planet's evolution.
The reality is the balance of nature is changing and in much the same way that you would want to fix a broken car we surely must do all we can to try and fix and maintain the planet on which we live.
You may be thinking what can I do, I am only one person? But the garden is as good a place as any to start.
For example when you go about changing or recreating your garden think about the type of materials you intend to use, whether it's timber or stone. Ask yourself do you really need to buy new paving stone and new timber.
Reclaimed stone for example can give a garden a more mature and settled look. Again reclaimed timber can make for a more characterful new feature whether its a pergola or simply a seat to sit on.
In my work I try to keep the environment to the forefront on my mind. A good case in point was a project I carried out for a client in the peak district in Derbyshire and which I won the award for best garden designer 2011.
What follows is a brief case study of the project.
Thornlea Farm sits in a small hamlet in the peak district in Derbyshire, in a class 4 area of outstanding natural beauty. The area is subject to strict landscape planning and conservation laws, even moving the garden shed from its existing location required a planning application. The field to the rear of the plot was classed as agricultural land and as such could not be rezoned for domestic garden use. Existing trees to the field boundary foreshortened the view to the wider landscape  Applications were made for crown lifting to the perimeter trees to the end of the plot in order to draw the surrounding landscape into the scheme.

Given its location it was subject to strict planning and conservation rules which,  even to move the garden shed, required an application to the conservation officer.
But like all gardens, success or failure lies in how you see the challenges and not being overwhelmed or intimidated by them.
For me it presented a rare opportunity to concentrate on the local materials from stone walls to the architecture and style of the surrounding houses which dated back to the 16th century.
Like many, as the clients raised their family, the garden had a lower priority but with the family grown up and moved on they now wanted to transform the space from an over-grown wasteland into an aesthetically grown-up space that they could relax in and enjoy.
But for my clients it was also important that designs for the garden were in keeping with the surrounding landscape.
Surprisingly, they admitted to being unaware of the views beyond the overgrown vegetation and boundary trees. But with hectic lives details like this can often be overlooked.
Also, they had a number of other designers visit the site, none of whom returned after the initial visit. So by the time I visited they were beginning to lose hope that anyone would want to take on the project.
However for me it was a completely different experience and on my first visit I could see the potential in this unique setting. I quickly formed a vision of how I could use reclaimed local materials, eg the natural local stone for dry stone wall raised beds. Fortunately the clients owned a number of fields with demolished dry stone walls, which we were able to salvage for the raised beds. Reclaimed York stone slabs for paths and terraces were sourced locally. It was also my desire to reinforce the garden's relationship with the broader landscape through the introduction of mixed native hedging and the small wildflower meadow which had the added benefit of encouraging and supporting local wildlife.

That is not to say that the garden was without its problems as it was in a very poor state of neglect and was badly overgrown. Little had been done in over 16 years. A broken wooden fence divided the domestic garden area from the paddock to the end of the garden. A cesspit, still in use but submerged in undergrowth, created its own problems as once uncovered it was discovered the internal brick structure was in a state of decay. This was rebuilt and reinforced with the introduction of RSJs, and a recessed manhole cover and inspection chamber were fitted. This is located on the lower terrace and is now barely noticeable. Ventilation was rerouted in order to maintain the aesthetic integrity of the project.

From the outset this commission required, indeed demanded, a carefully considered approach due to its unique and historic setting. By working closely with the local conservation and planning department and specifying the use of local raw materials it was possible to create an environmentally responsible landscape that also fulfilled the clients needs and requirements.
The exiting shed was moved to a lower hard standing.  A simple sedum roof was installed to blend in and provide insect and wildlife habitat whilst a coat of apple green paint softened its impact. The seat on the lower terrace was constructed using an old oak beam leftover from the house after some internal reconstruction works.
The introduction of mixed native hedging further reduced the environmental impact whilst from a design aspect helped to frame the view, drawing the eye down the plot and on to the wider landscape.
Overall my aim was to introduce a sense of poetry and musicality through the use of colour and texture, further reinforcing the gardens relationship within its unique setting. They also wanted a design that would be relatively low maintenance and again this is a requirement of many clients who nevertheless want to interact with their outdoor spaces.
A low maintenance garden can be easily achieved without sacrificing the overall aesthetic appeal of the finished garden.

Now of course, having said all that, it is also important to point out that this was a unique project in a unique location and reclaimed materials will not always be suitable or desirable. The use of reclaimed materials should not be viewed as restrictive and at the end of the day it is better to use new materials and do something with the garden than nothing at all.
In many of my other designs it is simply not possible or desirable to use all reclaimed materials but even a mix of old and new, when carefully balanced, can be just as effective. If using new materials, try to go for natural stone as opposed to pressed concrete products and also see if it is possible to use locally-sourced timbers from reputable suppliers where the timber will have come from managed forests, green oak being a good example.
Many of the timbers seen today in the large DIY stores will often be fast grown, cheap white timbers that are dipped in a toxic array of chemicals to preserve them for outdoor use. This can be witnessed by the green tinge that you will notice in these products.
Again for me there would seem to be many ethical issues surrounding the production of Indian stone so I generally tend to avoid using it.
Often concrete flags or other composite stone materials will have been manufactured with a high content of recycled aggregate so again its good to check the content and specification of the materials when choosing, as picking products with some degree of recycled material is better than a totally fresh product.
When it comes to the use of compost in the garden try to avoid any with peat content as this is harvested from irreplaceable bogs which in turn are valuable natural eco systems and habitat.
The quality of alternatives has much improved over the last couple of years so there is little need to use peat in any form.
Well rotted farmyard manure is again readily available and is a much healthier alternative for your soil and garden than the many chemical fertilisers available.
When treating pests and bugs in the garden try to be patient and dont automatically reach for the many chemical sprays on offer as given time your garden will develop its own natural balance and resistance to pests and disease through the build up of natural predators many of which are killed along with pests as a consequence of using chemical controls.
Managing your garden and plants in a holistic and organic way will ultimately lead to healthier and stronger plants and a host of beneficial insects who will generally do the work for you.
Of course in some exceptionally warmer years there may be a an overbalance of, for example, greenfly or blackly that your garden predators just cannot deal with alone and in this case using a simple soap based spray instead of a chemical spray will tend to deal with the pest while not affecting the friend.
The important thing is that we use these valuable and precious spaces. Enjoy your gardening and remember, if you are overwhelmed or not sure where to start there are a whole host of professionals out there ready and able to help.
End

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Copyright David Keegan©  2012

First published in The 50+ Show guide magazine Manchester 2012