7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Is Christmas a time for delight or dread? A combination of both if you’re anything like me. There will be more opportunities to talk, go for walks, play games and share meals than at any other time, but the endless stuff, the commercialism and the waste accepted by society makes me uncomfortable at Christmas.

David Attenborough’s words at the UN Climate Change Summit play on my mind as I write my Christmas lists, test my daughter on the words for her Christmas show and put up the decorations. The immense challenges facing us concerning the climate, plastics, pollinators and many other issues arising from our past and current treatment of the natural world can’t be solved by small changes at Christmas, but I believe it is part of a changing mindset and complements more direct activities such as writing to MPs and supporting environmental charities and campaign groups. If you are buying gifts for Christmas, here are a few sustainable options for the gardeners in your life…

1. Grow Your Own

Plug plants are ideal for busy gardeners who like to grow their own or those who would like to begin. They normally come in plastic modules that can’t be recycled, but this selection from Pippa Greenwood arrive wrapped in paper and are grown in Lincolnshire. 

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Grow Your Own with Pippa Greenwood (Image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

The selection includes your choice of 15 different vegetables and the recipient gets a weekly email from Pippa tailored specially to the plants in the pack with advice right through from soil preparation to feeding, watering, staking/supporting, pinching out, and pests and disease.

Top Tip – Avoid wrapping paper at Christmas and for birthdays, as it is usually only suitable for landfill. It often contains plastic, glitter, dyes and is covered in sticky tape. DEFRA estimates in the UK we buy enough of this single-use material each year to gift wrap the whole of Guernsey!

2. The Gift of Time

Time is a valuable gift – far more than money or stuff in so many ways. Give a friend or family member a voucher for help with the allotment in the New Year or help create a new growing space for children. Meals for the freezer made with ingredients from the garden are also a way to pass on a little love without costing the earth.

Gifts involving experiences are a favourite in our house. For a keen gardener there are fabulous courses like those at the Cambridge Botanic Garden (I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘Rewild Your Garden’ this year) and for new gardeners there are often short courses and sessions at local community gardens. As a new mum, I joined a course on fruit pruning at my local community garden many years ago and it gave me the confidence to start formal horticultural qualifications.

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Tending the apple cordons at my local community garden where I learnt to prune in my first horticultural session

Top Tip – Instead of wrapping paper use fabric bags or scrap material and ribbons which can be used for many years. The Japanese art of furoshiki is centuries old and is enjoying a resurgence in Japan now that the issues with plastic bags and wrapping are becoming clear.

3. Festive Fungi

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The oyster mushrooms we grew a couple of years ago

The Espresso Mushroom Kitchen Garden from The Espresso Mushroom Company is an edible gift grown on the biodegradable, recycled coffee grounds of one hundred espressos. Made by a family firm in Brighton, these sustainable oyster mushrooms are a fun way to get growing in the New Year. 

4. Share Seeds

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Yin Yang beans are objects of beauty

Reusing materials is the most sustainable way to create a gift and seeds are so easy to share. Choose favourite seeds – this year, for me, it would be the French Dwarf bean seeds ‘Yin Yang’. I’m passing some onto friends to grow next year and even a handful for a fellow gardener who makes beautiful jewellery so that she can create a necklace.

Top Tip – Ditch the sellotape and buy 100% recycled paper tape with a natural latex adhesive backing. 

5. Donate

Charity gifts allow someone less fortunate to benefit at Christmas. I like the gifts from Send A Cow where you can donate to a Mandala Garden, a Keyhole Garden or even an Allotment in a rural African community. I saw a keyhole garden at Gardeners’ World LIVE a few years ago and was impressed by the design which allows a family to grow enough food for three meals a day – even in the face of an extreme climate and poor soil.

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Little Havens Hospice garden (Credit: Greenfingers)

 Alternatively you could gift a donation to gardening charities like Greenfingers or the Gardening for Disabled Trust. Greenfingers creates beautiful gardens in children’s hospices across the UK. This is the interactive garden at Little Havens Hospice in Essex, designed by Matthew Eden and completed in 2014.

 

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The Gardening for Disabled Trust provides small grants for people with all kinds of chronic disabilities – mental and physical – to help get them gardening again, from money for a ramp so that a gardener with MS can access her garden again, to grants to set up gardening clubs in care homes. This work is vital to enable all members of society to benefit from the therapeutic effects of gardening and interacting with the natural world.

6. Plastic-Free Pots

The majority of the 500 million pots we buy in the UK each year are incinerated or sent to landfill. Part of the solution to this astounding amount of plastic needs to be to reduce the amount of plants we produce and buy, alongside using more sustainable containers. Garden Ninja presents an interesting discussion of the issues with and alternatives to plastic containers on his blog this week. 

In addition to Garden Ninja’s recommendations, these attractive biodegradable containers available from Pippa Greenwood are made from sustainable bamboo and rice. They are sturdy enough to last several years and when they finally need to be replaced, they can be added to the compost heap where they will biodegrade in 6-12 months. They are available in 5in and 6in, and come in packs of 5.

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No plastic here (Credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Top Tip – Use newspaper to wrap presents – iron it first to set the ink, or buy a roll of recyclable brown paper and jazz up with stencilled designs or ribbons. Include a note explaining that the wrap is recyclable.

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My daughter has used brown paper with stencilled snowmen (biscuit cutters for stencils), a recycled tag from last year’s cards and reusable ribbon on this present for her brother.

7. Perennial Power

Perennials are a gift that by their very nature just keep on giving. I love growing perennial vegetables like rhubarb, sorrel, Daubenton’s kale, perennial onions, garlic chives and Jerusalem artichokes. My first port of call when I’m after a new perennial for the garden is Alison Tindale at The Backyard Larder. She grows an interesting range of perennial vegetables in peat-free compost from seeds and cuttings. The plants arrive in recycled shoe boxes using as near to 100% recycled or fully biodegradable materials as possible and she is always on hand to give advice.

 

Marsh mallow and red-veined sorrel – some of the perennial vegetables I’ve grown in the garden and allotment over the years

Please do pass on your top tips for wrapping and presents in the comments below – there’s still time to make changes before Christmas and I’m keen to learn as much as possible about how to make this festive season the most sustainable yet. 

This is not a sponsored post – all the products are ones I have either bought myself and been impressed with or have come recommended. The only product I’ve tried but didn’t initially buy myself are the oyster mushrooms which I was sent to trial a couple of years ago. They were such fun to grow and so delicious to eat that I’d definitely grow them again and have bought them for others since.

(Featured image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Last month I wrote Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside exploring the inextricable links between gardens and the wider landscape  – with all the benefits and responsibilities this entails. As we become increasingly aware of the direct effect of our collective actions on the environment, complex issues such as the use of plastic, energy and peat in gardening are under scrutiny. We are beginning to accept that sustainable energy use and a circular economy are vital if we are to develop a world where our children can grow up to enjoy the pleasures, horticultural or otherwise, that we currently do.

One perennial issue in the garden is the use of peat. The arguments against peat use are much rehearsed and despite repeated undertakings by the government to phase out the use of peat in horticulture, there has been depressingly little progress in the past 20 years. The 2010 target to reduce peat use in composts by 90% was comprehensively missed and the same was true of the 2015 aim for all public procurement to be peat free by 2015. Unfortunately, the most recent target to stop the use of peat by 2020 by amateur gardeners looks set to go the same way.

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Degraded blanket bog

One argument which is often made against peat-free compost is the environmental impact of transporting materials like coir long distances (although much of our peat now comes from Ireland, Canada and the Baltic). Another problem has been quality – I’ve seen this in my own garden with green waste based peat-free compost which often contains a large quantity of woody material, isn’t suitable for either ericaceous plants or seed sowing, and contains fungus gnat eggs which then hatch and fill my house with clouds of irritating sciarid flies.

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Damage caused by peat extraction

To overcome these issues, a few years ago I sourced peat-free seed compost from Dalefoot Composts and was impressed by the results in comparison to other growing mediums. I’ve used their ericaeous, multipurpose, high strength and bulb composts, all with excellent results – some I’ve been sent to trial, but the majority I’ve bought myself over the years. One of the advantages is its relatively local nature (produced on the family-run farm in the Lake District) and the sustainability of the raw materials used – sheep’s wool and bracken – products which would otherwise have little or no value.

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Bracken cutting for compost

In addition, the sheep’s wool (used for the majority of the composts) retains moisture thus reducing the need to water and both materials have naturally high levels of nutrients so no additional feeding is necessary. I grew my tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers in the high strength compost this year and didn’t add any feed throughout the growing season. Yields increased and I noticed no difference in the size and health of plants or fruit.

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The Dalefoot compost range

Recently I read about the peat bog restoration work undertaken by founders of Dalefoot Composts, Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland over the past 20 years and was keen to find out more. Jane is an ecologist and Simon a seventh-generation Cumbrian sheep farmer, so between them they have a 360-degree perspective on the damaging operation of peat extraction that has caused the loss of thousands of hectares of peat bog across the UK. Lowland peat bog in England currently covers only one tenth of its original 38,000 hectares due to agricultural drainage, forestry, landfill and peat extraction and many remaining bogs still have permissions to extract peat in the future which are extremely costly to buy out in order to protect the sites.

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Simon and Jane at work on the peat bog 

In 2002 the Government’s advisory body, English Nature, wrote in Peat Bog Conservation:

Today, one of the greatest threats to our peat bogs is from our continued use of peat in the garden. The gardening hobby that brings many of us a great deal of pleasure is doing so at the expense of our wildlife.

Wildlife is certainly one key issue – we’ve known for decades about the importance of peat bogs as a rich and diverse habitat for specially adapted plants and animals like sphagnum moss, butterwort, sundew, bog myrtle, the large heath butterfly, black darter dragonfly and wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover.

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Golden plover in breeding plumage (Image credit: Alan Garner)

More recently we’ve become increasingly aware of the fundamental role peatland environments play in storing carbon (around 3.2 billion tonnes are stored in peatland in the UK), reducing flooding and fires, and providing drinking water (70% of our water comes from peatland river catchments in the UK).¹ The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) also outlines the way ‘peat-dominated landscapes can help to underpin a sustainable rural community as well as providing key benefits to society (eg. water supplies, carbon storage and sequestration) as a whole.’ But they point out that these services can only be provided if ‘peat bog habitat is correctly identified, characterised and thereby managed in an appropriate way’.²

The definition of a bog is a wetland that receives its water exclusively from direct rainfall as opposed to fens where groundwater causes the water-logging. Raised bogs occur in the lowlands where the surface rises over time as a result of peat formation creating a dome shaped bog. In wetter upland conditions peat covers wide areas and is therefore described as blanket bog.

When discussing the restoration work with Jane, I was fascinated by her description of the diversity of peat bog habitat and the huge range of flora (particularly sphagnum moss) which colonize different areas. There are many different types of sphagnum moss – the genus Sphagnum contains around 380 different species – some grow in the water and some on the edge of the bog, but all species hold large quantities of water within their cells (16-26 times their own dry weight). The moss acts as a blanket over the bog which keeps the methane in and, ultimately, becomes peat-forming vegetation.

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Sundew in the sphagnum moss

The UK has disappointingly broad terms for these diverse habitats unlike many peat-rich western nations like Sweden, whose terminology records precisely the individual fen and bog systems. The IUCN states that consequent on this paucity of descriptive language:

most of the UK blanket bog landscape is described only in terms of rather broad vegetation types, which ultimately results in poor understanding of key site features and condition.

There has been much debate recently about the generalisation of terminology for natural landscapes and its effect on our perception of the environment in which we live. In his book on language and the environment, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane discusses the specificity of reference we are losing as whole tranches of vernacular vocabulary for landscape disappear. He suggests:

It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit.³

Learning more about peat bogs has revealed a rich vocabulary which I relish – a world of watershed bogs, saddle bogs, spur bogs, saddleside bogs, basin fens, flushes, kettle holes, schwimgmoor raised bogs and blanket mires. One of the strengths of the restoration work which Jane, Simon and their team undertake is their knowledge and understanding of these varied micro-habitats and the different restoration treatments each requires.

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Pristine blanket bog

Peat bog restoration is a complex and time-consuming process primarily because mires (current peat-forming bogs) are ‘one of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet due to their limited capacity for self repair.’4  Barker and Bland – Jane and Simon’s company – have developed methods using both specially designed machines whose footprint is less than 2 lbs per square inch (less than half the weight of a human’s) and working by hand, depending on the sensitivity of the site.

The first step is to restore the hydrology of the peat bog which will have been damaged by the drainage systems put in place so that peat extraction could take place. Inspired by techniques used in rice paddy fields, the team creates crescents along the drainline, blocking the drains and ditches with peat dams to raise the water table. The hags (the eroded cut edges of the peat) are then reprofiled to prevent further erosion and sphagnum moss is introduced to recolonise the area.

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Timber sediment traps slow the flow of water downstream and enable re-vegetation

The growth tips of sphagnum moss are sustainably harvested from specially selected donor sites – usually local pristine sites as similar to the ecosystem of the restoration site as possible – and within 36 hours these must be spread across the bog in a re-vegetation layer. Sphagnum moss gets its moisture and nutrients from the air: the shallow root system simply acts as an anchor and dies off forming peat when the plant is established, so unlike other plants, moss can be propagated by spreading the growing tips across the new site. In addition to harvesting moss from donor sites, Barker and Bland have built a sphagnum farm in Cumbria to grow different species of moss for their restoration work.

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Re-vegetated bare peat

Two of the most recent peatland restoration projects undertaken by Barker and Bland include Bolton Fell in Cumbria and large blanket bog areas in the Cairngorms. In 2014 the government bought out William Sinclair Holding PLC’s peat extraction rights at Bolton Fell, a 375 hectare site and one of the largest degraded raised peat bogs still capable of natural regeneration in England. Once restoration work started in 2016 the Fell was restored to a sphagnum moss habitat with the year, although it will be many decades before peat depth becomes substantial again beneath the sphagnum moss.

In July this year, Barker and Bland began restoration work on a 134 hectare upland blanket bog site in the Cairngorms as part of the Scottish government’s project to restore 40% of Scotland’s peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030. Over the past five months, six members of the team have been working on re-profiling thousands of metres of hags across the peat bog. This work will continue until Christmas through the first sprinklings of snow.  A further two teams are currently working in the Cairngorms tackling 25,000 metres of peat hags and 1.75 hectares of bare peat. 

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Timber sediment traps across the peat bog

Over the next few years we have difficult decisions to make about how we use our land – either we learn to manage it in sustainable ways or we use up the resources in the short-term and pay for it in the future. Peat bog restoration is only the beginning of a regeneration process that will take many decades to complete, but restoring and managing our peat bogs is a vital step if we want to benefit from the practical services these environments offer and preserve the rich ecosystems which they support.

¹ UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, IUCN
² Peat Bog Ecosystems: Key Definitions, IUCN
³ Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, p. 24
4 Natural England, A review of techniques for monitoring the success of peatland restoration, quoted from (Maltby, 1997)

Image credits: Barker and Bland unless otherwise stated

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Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Chris Beardshaw recently said that he felt Chelsea show gardens should only be accepted if they were going to be relocated afterwards. It seems that other designers may be following his lead as this year’s show sees more of the gardens and planting being relocated than ever before. The recipients of the gardens are diverse; ranging from a refugee camp, a higher education college, the grounds of the Epilepsy Society, a community garden in Westminister and the grounds of the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted.

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The Myeloma UK Garden will be relocated to the Hospice of St Francis

An average of 3010 plants are used in each show garden and many of these are borrowed then returned after the show; in fact some of the plants are Chelsea veterans, reappearing in different gardens year after year. The Weston Garden embraces the philosophy of reusing materials – many of the plants have been borrowed for the duration of the show from Crocus and the rest will be reused afterwards. Plants from The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC, designed by Chris Beardshaw, will be donated to the NSPCC who are organising plant sales in Barnet, North London and Maidstone, Kent. Across the whole show plants will be collected and redistributed to local schools and community gardens across East London and beyond as part of a reuse scheme set up by the landscape, architecture and art collective Wayward.

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The Urban Flow Garden plants will be donated by Thames Water to ‘Roots and Shoots’ – an environmentally-focused educational charity based in Kennington providing vocational training for young people from the inner city

The RHS Feel Good Garden is another design which is intended for a new life after the show. It will be relocated to the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust which provides care and treatment to vulnerable adults in a build up area of London where green space is limited. Matt Keightley, the designer and twice-winner of the RHS/BBC People’s Choice Award, visited the NHS site in April. He said ‘I am delighted that the RHS Feel Good Garden will live on, providing a calm and beautiful space for adults in need of respite.’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden, destined for an NHS Trust site after the show

Matt is also creating a health and wellbeing garden at RHS Wisley, due to open in 2020, and the RHS Feel Good Garden is inspired by his Wisley design. With an increasing evidence base demonstrating the positive effect that gardens and gardening can have on mental health, the joint venture between the RHS and NHS to gift the garden to a mental health trust site signals the growing awareness of these benefits across the healthcare profession.

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The RHS Feel Good Garden creates a relaxing atmosphere which draws the visitor into the space

Sitting in the garden you are surrounded by soft planting in lemon, green and blue with bursts of deep reds and purples. It’s a relaxing space which also entices you to reach out and engage with your environment.

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Relaxing blue, lemon and green planting including nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’, Iris ‘Silver Edge’ and Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’

The mellow sandy and chocolate coloured paving is laid transversely to give a sense of width to the space, encouraging the visitor to slow down and enjoy the journey through the garden. I like the way the planting falls across the pathway and Matt has chosen many aromatic plants like thyme, rosemary, mint and sage to create scent as you move around the garden.

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Mellow paving to match the planting

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Beneath the seats and stonework nestle aromatic herbs and tiny campanula flowers

Grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa, Briza media,  Melica nutans and Stipa tenuissima, alongside naturalistic perennials like Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’, Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’, Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Cirsium rivulare and Dianthus cruentus create an airy filter through which the more textural plants like the ferns can be seen. The light planting also softens the cantilevered stone terraces which appear to float above the plants, grounding the visitor in the sanctuary of the garden.

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The layers of planting build up texture in the garden

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The shade loving epimedium, ferns and acorus create a sense of intimacy in these stone cavities

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Soft curves and airy planting stops the stonework becoming too heavy

The mushroom seats create more floating structures within the planting. Herbs predominate in this area so that visitors have to step on the mint and rosemary to access the stools and the scent emanating from beneath your feet commits the mind entirely to the present moment.

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These organic shaped seats give the visitor licence to immerse themselves in the garden

I sat in the garden for a while, contemplating the way it made me feel. I had a sense of being grounded in the moment; I was relaxed yet at the same time completely engaged with my environment. If the garden can foster the same feelings of happiness in the patients, staff and families at the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust that I felt yesterday, it will be an extremely worthwhile addition to the site and will hopefully encourage more dialogue and practical projects based on the important relationship between gardens, gardening and mental health.

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Striking contrast of the soft Digitalis lutea and Trollius ‘Alabaster’ with the dark, silky Iris ‘Black Swan’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden – inspiring on so many levels

‘When you are sad a garden comforts. When you are humiliated or defeated a garden consoles. When you are consumed by anxiety it will soother you and when the world is a dark  and bleak place it shines a light to guide you on.’ Monty Don

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Holding Back The Flood and The Urban Rain Garden

There is a new category of show garden at Hampton Court this year – ‘Gardens For A Changing World’. Each garden considers a challenge of our times and creates a design which will address the issue and offer solutions. Both The Urban Rain Garden and Streetscape’s Holding Back The Flood consider water management issues, exploring ways of conserving our precious supplies and preventing flooding.

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Will Williams has created an undulating flooded area around the alder trees

The youngest designer at the show, Will Williams (21) has created a symbolic garden which offers a way to prevent flood damage using alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) rather than relying on concrete barriers. The garden is inspired by the town of Pickering in North Yorkshire which was turned down for a twenty million pound grant despite its high flood risk. Needing alternative options and drawing on research from around the world, the inhabitants instigated a scheme to plant thousands of alders and create leaky dams to slow down and even prevent downstream flood water. If such lower cost, environmentally friendly and aesthetically sensitive options prove successful, it would be a positive way to approach the model predictions of a 35% rise in winter rainfall and a 25% increase in daily rainfall totals in some parts of the UK by 2080 (source: The role of woodland in flood control: a landscape perspective).

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Although not a conventional ‘garden’, I loved the reflections in the water and the space they gave you to approach the design in your own time and on your own terms

Another community aspect to this design was the construction team – all from Streetscape‘s team of landscape garden apprentices. As a social enterprise company, Streetscape provides apprenticeships for 18-25 year olds, helping them to build the skills, experience and attributes they need to fulfill their dreams and move into and retain work. This must have been a complex build with 52,000 litres of water to contain and nine alders to plant, but it all looks effortless and peaceful, showing the calm beauty of this ingenious, age-old water management system.

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An alder sapling establishing itself

As well as its beauty, the woodland approach to water management also scores highly on sustainability. Will has included miniature saplings around the garden to show how the alders would gradually spread to create a self-supporting ecosystem. The alders can survive up to three weeks submerged in deep water and even longer in boggy ground whilst the flooding recedes. As our climate changes over the next few decades, the research undertaken by organisations like the Forestry Commission, flood prevention schemes such as the one in Pickering and gardens like Will William’s all help to investigate practical solutions to an increasingly important issue.

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Will Williams enjoying the garden after a challenging build

The Urban Rain Garden also offers solutions to flash flooding, but this time within a domestic setting. I liked the realistic scale of the front and back gardens in this design – allowing visitors to imagine how the raised borders might work in a real setting.

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The back garden is bordered by beautiful raised beds with a hidden water management purpose

Designer Rhiannon Williams completed her Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture last year and has a keen interest in the subject of sustainability and water management. She explained that she designed the raised planters to step down in order to take water away from the house. As the water drains from planter to planter, the moisture levels reduce and the planting reflects this.

The water runs off the roof via downpipes and metal chains

In the planters nearest the downpipes, Rhiannon has included marginal plants such as the corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus), rough horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), arum lily (Zantedeschia ‘Crowborough) and Apache beads (Anemopsis californica) which will cope with raised water levels in periods of flash flooding.

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Water then drains from planter to planter

As the planters continue and become drier, the planting changes, moving from hostas (‘Devon Green’ and ‘Purple Heart’) to brighter perennials like sea holly (Eryngium ‘Big Blue’), Agapanthus ‘Navy Blue’, Salvia ‘Caradonna’, ‘Blue Note’, ‘Amistad’ and ‘Ostfriesland’, and Achillea ‘Anthea’.

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Mixed perennial planting towards the end of the garden

In times of heavy rainfall, water reaches the end of the bed system and drains into a tank beneath the garden where it can be stored to use in future times of drought. In this way the garden addresses the two key issues which are likely to become even more important over the next few years – flooding and drought, offering practical solutions in a realistic garden setting.

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The planting also proved popular with the pollinators

Holding Back The Flood and The Urban Rain Garden demonstrate ways in which gardeners and communities can use innovative, yet practical water management techniques to deal with flooding and drought. In a world where we are increasingly needing to address the challenges posed by climate change, ‘Gardens For A Changing World’ offer new ideas and solutions to give us inspiration and hope for the future.

If you’d like to read more about the RHS Hampton Court Gardens 2017, my other articles include:

London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

12 Practical Ways To Create A Modern Kitchen Garden

and you can follow my blog below. Happy gardening  🙂

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London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces

Sitting on top of the flowery mound with my bare feet in the chamomile I could be on a woodland hilltop, but beyond the medlar and hawthorn the bustle of Hampton Court Flower Show is just visible. What Jon Davies and Andreas Christodoulou of Future Gardens have achieved with London Glades is a space which excites the senses whilst calming the soul. Designed for a client who wants to re-engage with nature in a beautiful and wild setting, this garden creates a quiet sanctuary in busy urban surroundings. Almost every plant is edible and most are perennial and low maintenance, relying on the surrounding ecosystem for support.

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The fresh, green woodland in dappled shade

Jon told me they were inspired by Martin Crawford‘s forest garden in Devon and also the permaculture practised by Masanoba Fukuoka in Japan. London Glades feels like a botanical library of fascinating plants in a magical setting – from the shady planting of shuttlecock ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) with their edible newly-emerged fronds to the hilltop grasses and meadow flowers which were attracting the damselflies and hoverflies; the whole garden has a sense of being in the moment. Jon has purposely introduced some plants which are not at their best – some have gone over, others are not yet flowering, which creates credibility in a garden that values food production – from roots, leaves, buds and fruits as well as flowers – equally with aesthetics.

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The damselflies enjoying the garden as much as I am

The raised areas of the garden are constructed in the German tradition of ‘hugelkultur’ which roughly translates as ‘mound culture’. This involves creating mounds of wood and green waste covered with top soil to mirror the components of the woodland environment. As the material decays it creates a consistent long-term supply of nutrients for the plants which last for twenty years or longer. Heat is created by decomposition, allowing a longer growing season and as the wood breaks down, soil aeration is improved, thus removing the need to dig the beds. Water is absorbed by the mounds and released in drier periods, so irrigation should not be required, except in long periods of drought and they also sequester carbon from the atmosphere. So the ‘hugelkultur’ element of the garden works alongside the creation of a self-sustaining plant ecosystem to minimise the need for human intervention whilst maximising the environmental benefits.

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An example of hugelkultur to show how the mounds were constructed

The detail in the garden is magnificent and deserving of the Gold Medal it achieved. The spreading canopy of limes, crab apples and quince creates dappled shade under which the edible crops of horseradish, strawberries, fuchsia, bettony, skirret, masterwort and wineberries are thriving.

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Lush shady planting

On the mound, lychnis, monarda, oregano, rosemary, mint and chamomile add their aroma to the heady mix of damp woodland and warm hilltop scents.

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The mound is a peaceful and productive place to relax

Swales (carefully positioned ditches) collect water for the garden and are filled with moisture loving plants and logs growing shiitake mushrooms. Around the boundary of the garden is an edible hedge, providing berries and fruit for the client and food and habitat for wildlife. But it was the ground cover that drew me into the garden with an almost reverent feeling as I walked barefoot across the alternative lawn of heath pearlwort (Sagina subulata).

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The garden is cool and soft underfoot

This delightful evergreen carpet can withstand fairly heavy footfall, tolerates drought or moist conditions, has tiny white flowers in later spring and early summer, and feels soft and springy beneath the feet. Around the margins, a tapestry of other intricate ground cover plants like Leptinella squalida with its tiny fern-like fingers, succulent white stonecrop, red clover and low-growing thymes provide miniature vignettes in which the higher planting layers recede, leaving only the magnified colours and textures of the forest floor.

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Fascinating detail on the woodland floor

The dense matrix of planting in London Glades gives the garden a vibrant energy. The visitor is encouraged to move lightly around the space, stopping to sit and relax on one of the large smooth boulders, the only non-plant material in the garden. As I sat, I considered the other reason I felt at home in this garden – there is clearly an educational mission behind London Glades – to show an alternative to the traditional kitchen garden, to showcase how forest gardening can provide sustainable, wildly beautiful, productive spaces in an urban setting, and to offer an alternative way for gardens to connect us with the landscape.

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‘Taunton Deane’ perennial kale just below the mound

The message is conveyed subtly – at first glance the garden could appear to be a traditional woodland with just a few rhubarb and kale plants visible to the casual observer. However, London Glades offers practical ways to suit forest gardening to small, urban plots, using readily available plants and ingenious, yet traditional methods of landscaping and planting like ‘Hugelkultur’ and swales. Jon is hoping to relocate elements of the garden to Mind charity in Harringay, where it will no doubt continue to provide a peaceful environment and an educational resource.

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The winding path through London Glades

Owning a garden like London Glades would certainly be an education, but it would be a gentle, life-affirming way to engage with the land and the sustainable, low-maintenance approach would allow the client to develop their stewardship of their garden. I like this soft approach to learning and have followed similar lines in my own ‘hidden allotment‘ front garden which uses similar plants to my neighbours’ gardens and appears to follow traditional ornamental design, but incorporates many edibles which forest gardener Stephen Barstow would call ‘edimentals’. Jon explained that clients would receive a bespoke book with the initial chapters explaining the thinking behind forest gardening and the second half offering recipes to help with harvesting and using the ‘gourmet’ ingredients which would be available in the garden throughout the year.

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The beautiful, wood-bound guide book

This would be an invaluable resource in a process of learning about the plants and how to make use of them. London Glades takes you on an edible journey of discovery through different habitats and plant ecosystems. The stewardship of such a garden would be certainly be an inspiring and fulfilling adventure.

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Soft pink monarda creates a gentle atmosphere in the understorey

If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court over the next few days and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs, do subscribe below…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Gardening For A Sustainable Future

Wild, evocative show gardens like James Basson’s M&G Garden, inspired by the landscape of Malta, new plants to discover (my favourite this year is Raymond Evison’s Clematis ‘Pistachio’) and new technologies like the use of microalgae to capture energy at Capel Manor’s ‘Compost, Energy, Light’ Garden: these are all part of what makes RHS Chelsea such a captivating and vibrant show. But after six hours exploring the showground, learning about new plants and discovering new ways to combine old favourites, I had still to find a garden that evoked feelings strong enough to draw me into its story and planting, creating what Coleridge described as the ‘suspension of disbelief’ – in which the show garden recedes and you find yourself immersed in a landscape where nothing external exists. Then I found myself in Nigel Dunnett’s RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden and the showground faded away. Wandering through the garden, past the black elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Gerda’), surrounded by the loose planting of Camassia quamash, Euphorbia palustris, Dianthus carthusianorum, Libertia chilensis Formosa Group and Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ in deep purples and vibrant lime greens, with soft water over pebbles and looking up to green walls and roofs, I was in a garden that created a sense of peace: an instinctive oneness with both the planting and the environment.

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Nigel’s vibrant planting remains soft and delicate throughout

Up on the balcony overlooking the lower garden, Nigel explained that the main garden is designed as a community space where residents of high-rise and apartment developments could come together to relax, socialise and enjoy the planting based on drought tolerant, low maintenance species like Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’ and Stachys byzantina that will thrive in our warming climate. The water channels running beside the walkways and benches create a sense of tranquility for residents and also provide hollows and wetland areas to deal with runoff from flash floods, whilst the pebbles enable water levels to remain higher even in dry periods. Like Nigel’s 2015 Greening Grey Britain Garden at RHS Hampton Court, this garden includes recycled materials, green walls and green roofs. I was pleased to see the binstore green roof, having designed a similar roof on my binstore after being inspired by the idea at Hampton Court in 2015. Next to the binstore, tall, multi-tiered ‘Creature Towers’ designed with recycled materials mirror the high-rise apartments, offering urban homes for the insects which form such an important part of the natural ecosystem.

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High-rise insect homes

On the balcony, intended as a private garden, Nigel demonstrates how even tiny outdoor spaces can provide colour and edible crops. The small wooden planters are full of tomatoes, artichokes, herbs and a wisteria which trails along the balcony, whilst the walls provide a vertical growing space with a simple pocket design attached to a mesh on the wall. These pockets can be used for planting or simply to place plants still in their pots and the wall is small enough to be watered by hand, making this a practical and sustainable way to maximise space, especially as many of the plants (like the Mediterranean herbs thyme and oregano) require little water. Looking down from the balcony the private garden is set in context – a small space to provide privacy, flowers and food: a personalised area within a larger landscape of community planting.

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Edible green wall

As a community garden volunteer, I believe that working with plants is a healing and nurturing activity. Gardening also helps us to appreciate the fundamental role that plants play in our lives: a role that will become even more important in the future. As climatic challenges arise we will need to develop our understanding of horticulture, crop production and environmental protection to keep up with the changing climate, so engaging young minds with the beauty and importance of nature is a priority. With this in mind, the fact that the plants and other elements will be relocated to a school garden via the BBC One Show’s competition after Chelsea ends exemplifies the ethos of the garden and adds to its environmental credentials. The only addition I would like to have seen was more detail on the information leaflet about the plants chosen for their drought-resistant or pollution-soaking qualities, for example links to the informative RHS website pages, such as the section covering plants which tolerate dry conditions.

During my recent sessions running a growing club at my local primary school, I have seen firsthand the impact that becoming involved in gardening has on children. They are so open and keen to learn about the magic of nature, so receptive to the ‘wow’ moments when a seed germinates or when they learn to identify a plant. After half term I’m planning a session about careers in horticulture and botany – looking at what it takes to become a greenkeeper, a NASA plant scientist, a horticultural therapist or a park ranger. Maybe one of my pupils or a student from the school which receives the RHS Garden will become a future soil scientist or a biodiversity officer. Let’s hope so because we need experts in these fields like never before. The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden has engaged the horticultural community in discussions about sustainable gardening, offered environmentally-friendly options for both domestic gardeners and landscape architects and I’m sure it will go on to inspire the next generation when it becomes part of a school garden. The creation of a show garden with this level of aesthetic and environmental integrity is an impressive achievement, especially when it provides such a practical model for the development of urban spaces in the future. 

A garden full of practical ideas, yet suffused with beauty

Further information about the Greening Grey Britain campaign and to sign up to turn a grey area green, follow the link to the RHS website.

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