I was recently asked by Pro Landscaper magazine for my thoughts posed by the question, should designers be encouraging clients to have more naturalistic gardens. Pertinent given that a climate emergency was declared on the 1st of May 2019 by the United Kingdom Parliament, with more and more councils looking to do the same locally. This seems a timely point at which to pose such a question to industry professionals, whether garden designers, landscape designers, or landscape architects. What we do professionally in each of these fields has an impact, both nationally, and internationally given that our planet is essentially one big and interconnected environment. (You can read my answer to the question posed in the magazine by clicking this link)

Bee gathering pollen from a purple allium flower.

Since writing my response I have thought about this question more thoroughly. For all of my years designing gardens and landscapes my philosophy has always centered around, and focused on, plants and planting. With their connection to, and part of the wider landscape within every scheme paramount. However, I see many in our industry who will quite happily pave over a front garden to satisfy a client’s desire for additional parking for cars without sparing a thought for the environment, or attempting to make the two work in an environmentally responsible way. Over the years I too have designed a number of front gardens where car parking was a requirement. In setting out to design these schemes planting was always a major consideration for me and therefore, by extension, my clients. As part of my design process I would always look to include recycled material whether paving, or brick.

Honey bee collecting nectar from Hellenium flower.

Government legislation in this field, SuDS (Standards for Sustainable Drainage) is, in my view, weak given the non-statutory nature of the guidelines. This leaves it dependant on local authorities to interpret and enforce as they see fit. Given budgetary pressures faced by many councils, gardens and landscapes often come pretty low down on their list of local priorities. This has created a situation where many gardens are simply paved over, or tarmacked, without any council input. Whilst this problem was a subject of much conversation in and around 2012 it has largely fallen from public consciousness. Strange, given the current general focus on the environment and global warming.  This legislation not only needs bolstering but should be enhanced to also introduce environmental standards where home owners seek to remove gardens for the sake of car parking. Further, whilst porous paving may meet standards for dealing with rain water run off on a flat drive, it will not meet the same requirements on a sloped drive. This needs to be taken into account when setting standards for the landscape industry. Another element damaging our garden environments is the rise of plastic grass, more often referred to as “Astro Turf” Whilst I don’t know of many garden designers, landscape designers, or landscape architects, who actually promote and specify it, it is being fitted at an alarming rate to gardens and public amenity spaces up and down the country. This is an area that surely needs regulation too? Let’s be clear, this is yet another plastic product with a relatively short life span that will eventually lead to another environmental catastrophe. Whilst many might attempt to suggest it is more environmentally friendly than grass, this is quite simply not the case. In saying this, I design less and less landscapes, or gardens, where grass is used. This is in no small part due to its ongoing high maintenance requirements. In the meantime Astro Turf (Plastic Grass) has absolutely no environmental benefits at all.

White butterfly feeding on Verbena flowers.

In conclusion my view is, we as landscape design professionals, need to take a more holistic approach to the type of gardens we are encouraging our clients to have. This does not mean we should be solely concentrating on naturalism, although this has merit in the right situation. Instead, we need to promote gardens designs that demonstrate a greater bias to schemes where plants are the main focus, with hard landscaping designed to work in harmony with planting and not the other way around. Too many gardens are focused on the hard elements of the garden whether it’s paving, decking, or fencing. Equally, plants should be chosen and included on plant lists and planting plans based on their insect friendliness/usefulness rather than for purely aesthetic consideration.  This, in turn, should not necessarily limit ones choices to perennial plants, given the variety and scope of both trees and shrubs that also benefit a wide variety of wildlife, insects and animals alike. This approach should also include provision for things like bird boxes, bat boxes, log piles, and bird feeders as a few examples. Far from limiting gardens this will greatly enhance them. In the process it will also lead to far more interesting environments for us to watch, enjoy and appreciate the interaction of wildlife and nature. As well as experiencing first hand their enrichment to us as garden owners. Focusing on this approach benefits us all, both clients and their designers, along with the threatened natural environment. Government for their part should look to introduce national statuary laws around front garden car parks, as well as the use of unsustainable products such as plastic grass.

David Keegan, Garden Designer 2019 ©