THE NATURE FRIENDLY GARDEN

By our Guest Blog writer: Henry Brighouse

I enter my postcode into Google Maps and select the satellite view. From High altitude I navigate my way down to the familiar details of rooftop and garden. There is a strange feeling I have arrived at the centre of the universe. Maybe you have the same feeling about your home too. Living on a spherical planet, there could be some truth in this. Being at the centre also implies connectedness.

What connects us to our personal universe? Family, friends, the internet, mobile phone, television, car, workplace, hobbies…? Maybe all of these and more. But there is something fundamental that connects everything, and that is the natural world.

We are after all a product of nature, and however many hi-tech time-and-distance-defying gadgets we attach to ourselves, our mortal bodies still respond like clockwork to the ancient cycles and rhythms of nature, daily, lunar, and seasonal. Our basic needs too, of fresh air and sunlight, clean water, nourishing food, and shelter, remain basically the same as those of our cave-dwelling ancestors.

As the stress of modern life increases technology seems to offer a way out, but perhaps what we are really looking for is to find a way in. This may explain the mounting wave of interest in all things pertaining to yoga and meditation. Ancient traditions tell us that the human brain can be cultured to resonate with nature’s fundamental algorithm because we are essentially one with it, and that to do so is inherently relaxing and fulfilling.

Modern science also echoes this viewpoint, telling us that not only is there one unified field that connects everything but also that the hard wiring of our human brain, some one hundred trillion synapse connections (1000 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy) just needs to be stress-free and properly connected to release our full potential. The hardware of the cosmic computer is resting on our shoulders.

Like the ancient songlines that revealed the ‘internet’ of the earth to the Australian aboriginal people, science reveals that we are all participants in the living matrix that sustains us, the natural world, and that we have an important part to play in its maintenance. So, if staring into a mobile phone screen can remove us from reality, a garden is a place where we can start to reconnect with the real world and open a dialogue with nature.

This can happen in surprising ways:

Near neighbours and friends of ours have built a swift box and fixed it on the gable end of their house. They also placed recordings of swift song in the box to attract visitors. Sure enough the swifts descended from their high altitude travels to investigate. Next year they will surely nest there. One neighbour recently greeted me with excitement. That morning she had had a rat, a squirrel and a pigeon all feeding from the same bowl. Well, we could talk about the wisdom of attracting one or two of these particular visitors to the garden, but yes, great! A friend nearby is very into soil quality. He is experimenting with compost for which he has bought a microscope to study the health of its microbe and fungi populations for plant growth. In his tiny garden, comprising a small brick raised bed, this year he grew a collection of herbs and the most spectacular stand of celery plants. Another friend is passionate about having bee and butterfly-friendly plants year-round – crocuses, hellebores, asters, lavender, budleja, fennel, penstemon, ivy….The garden buzzes with insect life which otherwise would not be there. A little down the road there is a house with three Siamese cats that cast a lordly eye on passers-by from their fence top perches. However, the presence of these elegant but natural predators is somewhat offset by a tree in the front garden that is festooned with bird-feeders. Another neighbour and friend has a pond that backs onto a wood. He travels hundreds of miles a week, but when time and weather allow he takes great pleasure in sitting out, watching the dragon flies hovering over the water in summer – or the progress of the hatching frog spawn in Spring, and the fish that emerge from the gloomy depths to feed. There is always something we can do in the garden to participate in the daily dramas of the natural world.

The landscape is continuously changing. Towns are expanding into the countryside and much of our agricultural land is off-limits to wildlife. We also have some quarter of a million miles of roads slicing through the landscape. Whilst our wildlife gets pushed further and further to the margins, our humble garden, however modest, can become an important wildlife refuge. And when we add our garden to all its neighbouring gardens we create important wildlife corridors.

Two expressions give an essential insight into nature. One is ‘biodiversity’, and the other is ‘ecological balance’. In other words, nature, in its almost infinitely diversity, is able at the same time to maintain a natural balance that enables this diversity to continue through time. Through complex feedback loops nature continuously adjusts and re-adjusts the balance. We humans always imagine that we will remain at the centre of the equation. Like good health, we presume it will always be there, that is, until it isn’t.

Diversity is important because everything is related to everything else. If you take a piece out of the puzzle it becomes something else. Man-made interference with this diversity can have unintended consequences. Chemical agricultural sprays are drastically reducing bee and other pollinating insect populations. Without the pollinators many crops cannot grow. In parts of America bee hives have to be transported thousands of miles to do the job of pollinating. In some parts of China, pollinating apple trees now has to be done by hand.

When the last wolf was shot in Yellowstone USA, all the trees started to die. Without the wolves, the deer population that would graze on the tree bark exploded. A nibble here and a nibble there rapidly became a bark-stripping operation which the trees could not withstand. This has had huge knock-on effects for the rest of the environment.

Just bringing to our awareness the fact that everything is interdependent in nature can help to cultivate a nature-friendly attitude, and this is the basis of the nature-friendly garden. Encouraging wildlife to the garden is helpful for nature as a whole. There are bee-friendly plants throughout the year. There are nesting boxes and feeders for bird life. There are piles of leaves in sheltered corners for hedgehogs. There are indigenous species of plants, there is the life in the soil……There is always something we can do to make a contribution and be richly rewarded for it at the same time.

Many people want a maintenance-free garden. They may also want a garden for children, for outdoor socializing, for a workshop or office, for pets to run about in, for vegetable growing, for colour. However, whatever use we may have for our garden, there is still room for wildlife. Engaging with nature in our garden can be highly therapeutic too.

There are so many options for the nature-friendly garden that you need to consult an authoritative yet easily understandable source. I would recommend one book produced by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the country’s largest conservation charity:

RSPB GARDENING FOR WILDLIFE,
A Complete Guide to Nature-Friendly Gardening : by Adrian Thomas.


The book is easy for quick reference whatever you want to attract to your garden and whatever size of garden it is, from rolling acres to a window box. It has an excellent index and an insightful ‘myth-busting’ section at the beginning to show you that your garden can also be the perfect place for wildlife with just a little knowledge and very few changes. It gives you the top 400 plants for wildlife, how to harmonise family space with wildlife, making ponds…. Everything you need to know you should be able to find in this book. If you didn’t get it for Christmas, maybe you can get it to support the one new year’s resolution you actually keep – to make, or improve, a Nature Friendly Garden in 2018!


GEORGIAN COURTYARD GARDEN – LIVERPOOL

Situated near Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, the house accompanying this beautiful garden was most likely built in the early 19th Century. The garden, thankfully, (unlike the monumental Cathedral) didn’t take 74 years to build! It was developed as a family space; oriented around entertainment, being spacious, and dining al fresco.

When designing a garden, it’s great to draw inspiration from all things possible. For example, the design of this garden was influenced by the fact… It was south facing, enabling it to be a lucky sun-trap – certain plants that eat up heaps of sunlight will thrive. There are old rendered walls – ideal for climbing plants (in this particular garden: roses, hydrangeas, etc.) There is unused wall space – perfect to paint white and enable it to be used as a video projector!

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That modern use of the all-white wall pleasingly contrasts the old brick ones, both highlighting the style of the white one whilst satisfyingly accentuating the cosiness of the rustic and homely brick walls. Rather than obeying the themes of one single design, don’t be afraid to use differences to your advantage.

As our good man Dumbledore says: Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light. As much as this garden invites a lot of the sun in, it’s important not to forget to maintain your desired ambience as you transition into the evening and night by installing the right garden lighting for you. Some prefer white light; clean, bright, stylish. Others prefer more of an orange-tinted light; warm, cosy, quaint. Try not to underestimate the power of lighting, it controls the atmosphere of an environment.

A section of the floor here is hardwood decking, which benefits from getting away with aging nicely, and is allowed to become distressed. Rather than having one big boring space, the four large majestic Japanese maple trees instead transform the place into more like two sections, creating a more dynamic space.

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Rather than letting what may initially seem as weaknesses daunt you, try to think creatively and turn them instead into strengths. Wow, all these philosophical thoughts stemming from garden design. No wonder monks love gardening so much!

Written By – Jessie Hill


THE NO DIG GARDEN – GROWING VEG THE NATURAL WAY

I recently attended a lecture on the ‘no dig’ system of gardening. Held in a modest village
hall in Devon the room was packed with gardeners and allotment-holders eager to
revolutionise their approach to gardening. Through a side door, a tantalising glimpse of
home-made cakes and pots of tea might have tempted the bored or hungry. However, our
speaker, Charles Dowding, was no mere theorist, but Britain’s foremost proponent and
practitioner of the no-dig method.

With his angular, tree-like frame poised upon the stage beside a giant screen, he
orchestrated his slideshow to an illuminating commentary, the fruit of over 35 years of
experience in productive market gardening. He is clearly both artist and scientist. As an
artist, he works with the medium of soil and seasons to create a changing mosaic of edible
abundance and colour. As a scientist he has developed repeatable methods of production
employing nature’s deepest principles of economy.

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Time ran on and as the talk came to an end our questions, sprouting like weed shoots in
Spring, had to be cut short. People congregated to the front around the speaker and the
table of his books. Behind, a line of plump overwintered vegetables,squashes, parsnips,
beetroots, perching along the edge of the stage silently proclaiming the success of the
system – colourful talismans of reassurance. The tearoom beckoned.

‘No dig’ means just that; no rotovation and no slicing through the soil with spade or fork and
no strenuous turning and breaking of heavy clods to prepare the ground for sowing.
No chemicals are used here either because the system uses natural methods of both
fertilisation, and weed or pest control. The no dig approach is essentially in accord with the
broad principles of ‘Permaculture’ – a sustainable approach to growing that uses very few
external inputs.

The fundamental premise of the no dig system is that the soil is a living, intelligent universe
in itself, designed by nature to support plant growth when cared for properly and left
undisturbed by digging or ploughing. The advantages of no dig are:
Less work for more production and satisfaction: Less interference with, and more
participation in nature’s own methods.

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Fertilisation from the top down: Two inches of compost mulch applied annually on top of
the soil (where it would naturally be found in nature) puts back the nutrients that the crops
take out.

Using nature’s workforce: Worms, which thrive abundantly in the no dig environment, do
the work of carrying nutrients from the surface deep into the soil, creating air passages in the
soil as they do so.

Using the intelligence of the soil: The ‘soil food web’ comprised of fungal threads,
beneficial soil bacteria, other micro-organisms, and creatures higher up the food chain
including worms, remains undisturbed, maximising its capacity to convert and transport
nutrients within the soil. This retains the integrity of the soil structure and regulates soil
moisture content. The need for watering is greatly reduced.

Fewer weeds: Weed seeds are not brought up to the surface by digging. A compost mulch
on the soil surface further discourages weed growth.

Earlier crops: Surface mulches and undisturbed soil structure help to retain warmth in the
soil during the winter months encouraging plant growth earlier in the year.

Continuous sowing/planting: As soon as one crop is removed another can be sown or
planted in the same bed without soil preparation other than clearing the surface debris of the
previous crop. In many cases the roots can be left in the soil. As they decompose, they open
channels in the soil for new plant roots to colonise. Two crops a year are often possible. Also
crops can be inter-planted so that as one comes to an end, another is growing alongside it.
This strategy also out-competes weeds because the soil is always supporting a crop.

Establishing the no-dig garden:
Using his own experience as an example, our speaker outlined the practical steps for
establishing the no dig garden. In November 2012 he started his present and fourth market
garden. At that time it was an overgrown field with the remains of concrete slabs and sheds
which 50 years before had been a nursery. Before being able to generate home-made
compost, he imported a few tons of council-made compost from recycled green waste.
Having dug out the woody weeds such as brambles, he used cardboard covered with
wood-chip as a mulch to kill weeds on the pathways between beds. The beds themselves
followed two patterns: One was simply to cover the grass with 6 inches of compost and plant
straight into it. The other was to put 2-4 inches of compost straight onto the grass covered
with a further light-proof mulch of plastic sheeting. This was then punctured to plant squash
plants or potatoes straight into the compost.

After four months or so the crops were ready for harvest and after six months the plastic
cover could be removed leaving a weed-free bed ready for planting or sowing, (my one
reservation was the plastic sheeting, which although quick and effective eventually goes to
landfill. Perhaps compostable cardboard could be used instead, covered with a further layer
of compost on top to hold it in place).
The principle of no dig was persuasively demonstrated throughout the talk. Then there were
the spontaneous asides that would prompt a flurry of note-taking on the backs of envelopes
or old supermarket receipts – whatever could be dredged from the recesses of a pocket in
time to catch the idea. These random pickings included:

Slug problems – reduce habitat : Raised beds do not necessarily need sides which provide
slug habitats, but can simply be mounded. Mulching with compost instead of straw or woody
material is less hospitable to slugs and more suited to wet climates like ours (wood-chip on
paths can be put on beds as mulch after 2 – 3 years when rotted down). Bring plants on in
pots where possible. Keep the growing area tidy and transplant seedlings when mature
enough and easier to protect.

Sow towards full moon not after.

Copper tools: Their use was first inspired by the Austrian visionary, forester and hydrologist
Victor Schauberger. Beautifully made, converts say they do something special to the soil and
also deter slugs.

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Persistent weeds such as couch grass and bindweed: Weaken the parent root by digging
down and removing where possible. Mulch will do the rest.

Visit the garden daily : “Gardeners are natural multi-taskers”. Short periods in the garden
regularly are better than long periods once in a while. Attend to weeds when young or lightly
hoe. Carry a compost bucket as you go for weeds and trimmings for the compst heap.

Salad leaves: These should be picked by hand, not cut with a knife.

Insects: Years ago when driving down a country road at evening time the windscreen would
become covered with insects. Now there are none. Be aware.

I ventured to ask his opinion on ‘biochar’ about which I have written several blogs. He said
he was ‘unconvinced’ (obviously about the many claims for its virtues) but conceded that it
could be a useful soil amendment. Having made an abundance of biochar last autumn from
extinguished bonfire cinders, which were then sieved and put through the garden shredder,
I have added liberal amounts to the compost mulch on my no dig beds. One great pleasure
of gardening is the accumulation of knowledge as time passes. I wait to see what the benefits
will be.

I came away from the lecture with a Charles Dowding 2017 Diary . Packed with photographs
and useful information, It is probably all you would need to get going on a no dig garden. On
the last page I found this quote: “It is a pleasure to offer this compendium of advice, based
on my decades of growing food and flowers. The plants keep telling me more, my methods
evolve, and a common factor is soil health.”

Suggestions:
www.charlesdowding.co.uk – See Charles Dowding videos on youtube
Wood-chip – Local tree surgeons are often looking for places to drop wood-chip for free.
Copper gardening tools: www.implementations.co.uk

By our Sustainable Blogger – Henry Brighouse


CONSIDERING GARDEN DESIGN

Here are a few points to think about to start you off:

1 – Should I design my own garden or get in a professional ?

I thinks a lot depends on how good a designer you are. It’s true to say that if you have design flair then you might be able to cope with the general layout of the different areas of the garden, and then apply simple logic to the choice of paving and other hardscape materials…. letting your love of plants guide you through the bewildering choice available at garden centres. But if that all seems a bit daunting then getting a professional in can open up a world of possibilities.

Mediterranean Garden Chester 3
2 – What Style of Garden do I want?

a) Contemporary?

b) Traditional (e.g. a  cottage garden)?

c) Funky (fun, and a bit whacky)?

d) Naturalistic …mainly about planting, with a formal feel?

e) Naturalistic …mainly about planting with a wild feel?

It’s true to say that many garden do offer a mix of different styles (e.g. mainly contemporary with a wild garden areas). I think it is better to keep things simple and not mix and match too much. The exemption to this rule might be a garden featuring a lot of planting…since planting is a great harmoniser ..it is easy to get most plants to fit into most situations.

Liverpool garden design after 8 years

 

3 – Locating Different Elements in the Garden

Much of this is down to pure logic and practicality, for example : put the main seating area in the sunniest part of the garden, but equally don’t be misled into putting the main seating area always adjacent to the house (if it is facing North and then complain that it will never be warm enough to sit out!)

One thing in a garden is to feel private and not overlooked. This means screening off your neighbour without causing them to be inconvenienced. I have one client who feels that there’s no point having a garden if you can’t wander out on a Sunday morning in your pyjamas! Do remember, though, that if you choose to use the dreaded Leylandii, a) It means regular cutting back, and b) If it grows too big and your neighbour feels you are shading their garden too much they can request you trim it down. A refusal could lead to an enforcement order from your local authority!

Contemporary lighting in Bolton garden design

 

4 – Keep Your Garden Design Simple

Being over complicated never ends up with a satisfying scheme. This way forward can also be expensive with a likelihood that you will be wanting to change things within a few years, complaint about things being ‘too busy’.

In a medium sized garden, perhaps start with the idea of one or two seating areas, and locate where you might like the lawn to be.(If there is to be a lawn). Then work out where the planting areas are to be, as well as any other features such as raised planters, water features, hot tub, fire pit, and any kid’s play area.

Too many features can lead to a scheme not being very restful (unless you are blessed with a very big garden). Some of our most successful garden schemes have just one or two focal points and lots of gorgeous planting and, of course dramatic garden lighting.

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Whichever way you go, keep a clear head, and a strong direction and you will achieve the garden of your dreams. Its also good to remember that gardens evolve over time. This is not just because the trees and shrubs grow B I G , but because you yourself may implement change after change, year after year as the garden develops.


DECKING: A KEY INGREDIENT IN GARDEN DESIGN

Most people want to spend time in their garden. They want to enjoy their surroundings – to eat, drink and relax outdoors. Now gardens are so multi-functional they need designated areas for socialising and recreation – and decking is one of the most popular ways to make this possible. The important role decking plays in a contemporary garden design cannot be underestimated – and in this blog we explore how it can be incorporated effectively, and why it’s such an instrumental aspect of many gardens and outdoor spaces.…

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