Issues for a Garden Designer in the 21st Century – Wildlife, Sustainable Design and Climate Change

A garden is a living entity – it is not like decorating a room or designing a house in which clever use of space is required for maximum convenience of its inhabitants. Whilst clever use of space comes into garden design, understanding the ecology of a garden – what is needed to keep it functioning healthily, is fundamental. It is no use placing attractive planting in the wrong place where it won’t survive – Lavender in damp shade, or Rodgersia in dry sunny conditions, Rhododendrons on lime or Clematis in acid soil. We also need to give plants adequate growing room and take into account changes that will occur over time. But more than this, the garden is a living plant and animal community, which means thinking about attracting beneficial insects in to help deal with pests; providing nesting and overwintering places for insects, amphibians, birds and small mammals who will eat pests; companion planting; providing food sources for insects and birds – nectar and pollen rich flowers for bees and other pollinators, berries for birds, and using some native plants. All these considerations are not just for people who love to watch wildlife or want to feel they are doing good – they are a matter of keeping the garden in balance and healthy – not allowing a pest to get out of control and ensuring our own survival by supporting pollinators. These factors can be designed in to a garden and I would say its beauty and value to humans can be increased rather than compromised as a result, not only because the garden will look and feel healthier, but because choices made for wildlife also please humans – who would dispute the beauty of simple flowers ideal for pollinators, a dry stone wall that can provide a home for solitary bees, or a tree or shrub with autumn to winter berries or fruit (such as a Sorbus, Cotoneaster or crab apple)? Most gardeners desire long seasons of bloom, from Hellebores and snowdrops through to Michaelmas daisies and Japanese anemones – this extended season is good for pollinators too. A pile of twigs and stones can provide overwintering for insects, but a designer can instead build an insect hotel which looks beautiful as well as housing wildlife.

However, it would be disingenuous to say that there are not some compromises to be made between the needs of wildlife and the human inhabitants of gardens – people who enjoy a very neat garden throughout the year, if they want to encourage wildlife, may have to learn to leave fallen leaves on flower beds in autumn, where they will be taken down by worms to enrich the soil, as well as providing leaf litter for over-wintering insects, and perhaps leave a patch of grass to grow long for wildlife in spring. A garden designer can design this is, so that it looks right rather than scruffy.

But one of the most problematic sources of tension between the needs of wildlife and the needs of people is ivy, for ivy is invaluable to wildlife, providing a reliable source of late season nectar for bees, berries for birds when there is almost nothing else, and if allowed to grow, nesting sites, as well as homes for many insects, spiders and even small mammals and amphibians when on the ground. However, it can be rampant and difficult to control. It mustn’t be allowed to grow up young, small or weak trees and is best kept away from houses and pergolas. The best solution, which is not possible in every garden, is to find a wall away from the house, where it can be allowed to grow without out-competing everything else, and to keep it in check.

There is interest amongst garden designers of today in environmentally responsible approaches to design. This is linked to gardens for wildlife, but also to wider environmental concerns. As garden designers we are always concerned about fitting the garden into its wider environment. Many of the gardens I have designed or am working on are in conservation areas, where it is important to use local materials that fit with the area, and to design in sympathy with the locality. This often means, for instance using native trees and does set parameters but doesn’t mean you can’t be imaginative. The other aspect of being environmentally responsible is to think about the environmental footprint or cost of the garden – are we going to use stone that has been shipped across the world, or are we going to try to use more locally sourced materials? Can we recycle or re-use existing materials? Are we using timber from sustainable sources? We must be interested in the environmental costs of our designs, as we are so affected by climate change. The weather is unpredictable at the moment. No one knows whether we are going to have drought, floods, harsh or mild winters. This all effects what we can grow and get established successfully. Working in Oxfordshire I always specify fully hardy plants, and most well established plants in gardens that I know have survived, with the odd one or two dying off in recent winters, including Bays, Cotoneasters and Ceanothuses. 2012 was also a very bad year for top fruit (pears and apples). So perhaps plant failure is going to become more common in the future as weather patterns vary and will be something we have to live with. The best policy for a designer is to ensure that the plant is right for the situation and aspect, and give it the best chance by ensuring appropriate ground preparation and care.

Plant diseases and pests are also a worry with ash, horse-chestnuts and now oaks being threatened. Environmentally responsible designers are looking at using home-grown plants rather than importing plants and importing pests and diseases with them. But it’s really a matter of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

These are some of the most important issues facing garden designers today, and I hope I have generated some thought around these issues, for further discussion.

Herb Garden Designs Through Experimentation

Herb gardening is undertaken by both the urban dweller with room sufficient only for a windowsill planter… to the gardener who has both the time and land for more ambitious endeavors.

There are quite a few options we are going to explore if you are up to the challenge of devoting time to maintaining a larger herb garden design.

For example, the formal garden which has its roots in classical design and architecture first arose to prominence as the embodiment of our supremacy over nature by bending and sculpting horticulture into balanced designs.

Your formal garden concept should be a well-balanced thought out design with herbs intermixed among shrubs, flowers and trees. Typically a formal garden will be the focus viewed from key windows of the home. The herb garden contributes to the look of the garden but serves a different function.

Decorative paving and/or sculptures add extra splendor to the use of your formal herb garden design. Some of the most vivid examples of these types of gardens can be found in European gardens where they were first cultivated.

Varying heights of hedges is one of the key features in a formal garden. However it must be balanced proportionately with attention to angles that employ a variety of shapes such as ovals, ellipses, squares and other non-traditional shapes.

Another great herb garden design is the color themed garden. This is an artistic way to give your garden an explosion of color. Some theme gardens concentrate solely on single shades while others are a riotous cornucopia of bold colors.

Ground cover herbs are ideal for use in themed gardens as well. These low growing plants provide texture to the landscape and fills in gaps or hard to plant areas that need more color and volume. And for those singular spots such along stone steps, in-between flagstone or at the base of trees, ground cover herbs fit the bill.

Some of the best choices of flowering herbs are the common lady’s mantle, soapwort, roman chamomile, creeping golden marjoram, Aztec sweet herb, bee balm, and lavender.

Do not over think your color themed garden. Keep in mind that some of the most splendid concepts are those that rely on atypical groupings of color.

Your last consideration is planting herbs as companion plants. These are herbs planted in flower and vegetable gardens where each plant benefits from the presence of the other.

Case in point, garlic deters a variety of garden pests and assists with the flowering of other plants. Basil entices bees which in turn pollinate tomatoes. Chives which are usually grown in a border area to help arrest black spot which is a very common disease which attacks roses in particular.

Many herbs such as yarrow, coriander, dill and rosemary provide welcoming terrain for helpful insects both parasitic and predatory that assist in keeping others of the pest population within control.

Herb garden designs are only limited by your imagination. If you can conceive it and it fits your needs, there are no restrictions. Sometimes experimentation is needed to create an herb garden that fits your specific needs.

Create Gorgeous Gardens: 5 Useful Free Garden Design Software Features

Today, in the increasingly competitive free garden design software market, some of the skills of professional landscape designers are already built into the software itself. For example, in the past we have to depend on the professionals to select suitable plants that will thrive in your local climate. Today, the USDA Hardiness Zone Map is encoded into most paid and free landscape design software, so selecting suitable plants for your climate has become a much easier job.

Over the years of using both free and paid garden design software for garden design projects for my clients, I noticed that there are 8 “must have” features in the software that can help to save lots of time and avoid garden design mistakes:

1) Large searchable plant library with Hardiness Zone Maps

I cannot stress the importance of correct plant selection enough. Fortunately, access to Hardiness Zone Maps is just a few clicks away with the correct software. Experienced gardeners will tell you that it is pointless to plant something that will not survive in your climate.

Therefore, to avoid the disappointment of seeing dying plants, it is important to know your hardiness zone before deciding what plants you want in your garden.

2) Ability to design gardens in 3D, and produce 2D drawings

From experience, many people, me included, have problems visualizing how the garden will look like by just looking at a 2D drawing. Unfortunately, many professional landscape designers still like to communicate the garden design concept to their clients. For example, by looking at a “bird eye view” plan, there is very hard to imagine how a bird bath looks like beside a raised flower bed. Some clients absolutely love it; however some clients want the bird bath removed after it was installed. Such costly design errors can avoided if the client was shown a 3D photo of the future garden.

Anyway, 2D drawings are still important. It contains much important information, such as the size of the garden, and the location of every garden element. Therefore it is crucial for paid and free garden design software to have both 2D and 3D design capabilities.

3) Ability to import your front yard or backyard photos

This type of free garden design software is probably the easiest to use, and it is definitely the most practical for gardeners who has only a small garden to work on.

This type of software allows you to import your front yard photo and add garden features around them. So, it is particularly useful for creating “before and after” comparisons. Some software even can create different lighting effects so that you can see how your future garden looks like in the morning as well as in the evening.

However if you have a large garden, this type of program is probably not for you. The reason is, if your garden is a large one, in this type of program it is not possible to design in every single detail.

4) Plant growth simulation

With the Hardiness Zone Maps installed into the software, some landscape design software nowadays can also predict how your plants will look like in the next 3 months or 5 years. This is particularly important so that adjustments can be made for space constraints which are not apparent at the first look.

Besides, it is also a great experience to see how your garden will become more and more gorgeous year after year, without the need of time travel!

5) Ease of use

The ease of using your paid or free landscape design programs is one of the most underrated features. Many beginning garden enthusiasts pay too much attention to whether their software has a certain type of plant in their plant library.

Obviously having a large plant library is very important, but I always belief that gardeners should never let the software difficulties limit our imagination. If the software is way too hard to use for you, just change to another one, since there are dozens of them out there.

These are the top 5 features that I will recommend to all garden enthusiasts to keep an eye on whenever they want to install any paid or free garden design software. Once you make a wise decision and install the correct software, you are already one big step nearer to creating the garden of your dreams.