August 18, 2008

Making Your Garden Grow Sustainably

THE open spaces surrounding housing developments are a vital part of our landscape, while our own gardens and yards can also play an important part in creating sustainable environments.

As a practice, we recently visited a large newly-built housing scheme in Malmo, Sweden, to see how other countries managed their landscaping and were delighted to see that ideas of sustainable landscapes, using a mix of hard landscaping with indigenous flora and fauna to create attractive environments, were being used.

In Malmo, only 10% of the high-density scheme's area was actual soft landscaping, but the mix of wildflower meadows, ponds, climbing plants, nesting boxes for birds and bats, sedum roofs and sufficient depth of top soil to allow residents to grow their own vegetables, had created a stunningly attractive and perfectly harmonious environment.

So what can we learn in the UK from such schemes? One example is the design of public open space - the relatively high cost of maintenance of grassed areas means that currently in the UK, local authorities are increasingly unwilling to adopt them and are requiring developers to come up with alternatives.

The ponds and water courses of Malmo may not be suitable due to our health and safety legislation, but the low-maintenance wildflower meadows, use of indigenous plants and butterfly- attracting flowers, would be as applicable here in the North East as they are in Sweden.

Of course, landscaping in housing developments isn't just about the public open spaces - it also concerns the treatment that individual houseowners give their own external spaces. One current concern within the sector is the paving of previously green front gardens to create additional parking areas for householders, which not only reduces the amount of flora, but also produces vastly increased surface water run-off rates during rainfall, creating additional pressure on urban drainage systems.

The Government is planning to introduce new legislation in October 2008 so that anyone intending to use an impermeable material for a driveway will have to apply for planning permission. There are, however, many alternatives to impermeable materials which can be used.

These include gravel, matrix pavers, reinforced grass and permeable blocks.

Some plants such as thyme and creeping Jenny will tolerate being parked over and can be planted in pockets in gravel.

An easy tip to make gardens more sustainable is to plant species that attract insects, such as lavender and buddleia, or any species that has berries, such as pyracantha and skimmia, which attract birds.

Similarly, use native species, such as beech and hawthorn for hedges, rather than the imported privet or leylandii.

While the mighty oak may be too much for most gardens, small native trees, such as silver birch and mountain ash, can produce wonderful effects all year round and even in backyards, climbing plants will thrive in pots while any water feature attracts frogs and other wildlife.

A sedum roof on a garden shed will absorb rainwater. If space permits, a compost heap is an excellent way of recycling vegetable matter which can be incorporated into the soil.

Timber or gravel mulch on plant beds also helps to conserve moisture and a modest investment in a water butt may well pay dividends in dry summers - if we ever get one!

For more information on landscaping and gardening, I'd recommend visiting the Royal Horticultural Society's excellent website on

Kate Bridger is a landscape architect at Jane Darbyshire and David Kendall (JDDK) Ltd, tel: (0191) 286-0811, or email [email protected]

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