We often speak about “lower impact” garden design, but what do we mean by this?

We certainly don’t mean that the garden leaves less of an impression (!) but rather that its creation has as low an impact on the environment as possible. Clearly there is a balance between having a usable, inviting space to suit our clients’ needs and the garden’s environmental impact. But we make design choices with the environment and ongoing benefits of the garden firmly in our mind. Above you can see a concept design that was designed to be low impact, and as you can see, none of the aesthetics or practical uses have had to be compromised. We have just made considered design choices.

Here are ten ways we make our gardens lower impact:

  1. Choose materials carefully

When designing paths and patios, we try to keep hard surfaces permeable. This allows rainwater to return to the earth. Clay pavers, decking and gravel are all great choices. If you prefer the aesthetic of a stone patio or path, you can use gravel or grass between the slabs.

We also use reclaimed materials wherever possible. Whether this be reclaimed bricks for a pathway, or reclaimed wood for raised planters or furniture. Recycling and reusing is important so if there are materials in the garden that can be used in the redesign, we will take this into consideration. It can help with costs too, although reusing paving is not always as cost effective as we would like as it involves chipping off the old mortar before it can be re-laid.  

This garden features a bespoke bench made from reclaimed wood.
  1. Use as little concrete as possible

Concrete is sometimes necessary to secure pavers and large structures that need to be strong (i.e. pergolas that have a swing on for example). However, not all structures need to be fitted with concrete. We have successfully used ground screws on a number of projects now including bases for summer houses, benches, screening and pergolas, including this one:

They don’t require the use of concrete or much digging as they screw into the ground, so this reduces disturbance of the soil and the creatures which live in it. Planting around them is also much easier as there is no concrete footing to contend with.

Ground screw – lots of planting area around the foot of the pergola, rather than a concrete base.

Another way of avoiding concrete use for retaining walls is to use gabions – wire cages filled with stone, rocks, or pebbles. These have the added bonus of being great habitats for insects to hide in, and even for plants to grow out from – think a sea cliff with plants growing out of rocks.

  1. Include wilder areas of lawn and planting beds
A meadow lawn in June – full of colour, interest and food for wildlife

Including an intended area for wildflowers to grow not only creates a beautiful, whimsical, meadow feel to the space, but it is highly beneficial for pollinating insects. Allowing weeds – aka wildflowers – a spot in your garden will encourage insects which will in turn encourage birds too.

We also recommend having a section of meadow lawn/whole meadow lawn if you don’t want or need a traditional one! These are really beautiful additions to a garden and provide an ever changing, species rich blanket from Spring to Autumn. We have written a blog about creating a meadow lawn here. 

  1. Lower the ratio of hard landscaping to soft

A ratio of 20:80 hard:soft landscaping is a good aim, but really as much planting as you can fit in the better. This is obviously a decision to be made alongside the creation of usable seating/dining spaces. We like to include seats amongst flower beds, or suspend hammocks over planting to create restful spaces immersed in plants. In a smaller space this ratio might not be possible – but by adding vertical planting such as climbers on all fences and walls, up pergola posts and other structures, and considering a green wall system – we can really increase the planting volume and therefore the benefits for both the people and the wildlife using the garden.

  1. Include space for compost heaps and water butts

If you have a tucked away area behind a garage or shed, or can create a screen with a climber or large shrub or tree, this would be an ideal spot for a compost heap. Most garden waste can be put here to break down turning garden waste into free compost! If it can’t be hidden away, you can also buy attractive looking bee-hive style compost bins – and could even paint them a pretty colour.

Water butts need to be situated near a downpipe, so along the side of a house or garden office or shed would be ideal. If you have lots of space you can even interconnect multiple water butts. If you don’t have space to tuck one out of sight, you can get more attractive water butts with space for planting on top so if you grew some trailing plants in them they would soon be able to blend into your garden planting scheme. Rainwater is better for watering with than tap water, and it’s free to collect!

  1. Use peat free compost 

Peatlands are important carbon stores and habitats. It is vital they are protected in the fight against climate change and so we don’t use any composts or soils containing peat. We also buy from trade nurseries that have now switched to peat free growing. There is still a long way to go here and the current alternatives are not perfect, but it is a good start.

  1. Create habitats for wildlife
Bug hotels are a great way to get children interested in wildlife and helping in the garden too!

We design our gardens to be spaces for wildlife to prosper and we try to use a variety of habitats which all make great points of interest for children and adults alike. Simple log piles are great places for insects, amphibians and small mammals to feed, shelter, and maybe spend the winter in – as is a compost heap. Solitary bee houses can easily be added amongst planting or wildflower areas. A pond is an absolutely brilliant habitat and supports so many species – see more on this below. Allowing holes/gaps in boundaries enables hedgehogs and other creatures to move between gardens and increases their patch to roam and feed, which gives them a better chance of survival and reproduction. You can also include specific hedgehog habitats and houses, or simply make a large log pile or dead hedge to provide somewhere for them to shelter. Don’t forget to be careful with your compost heap in the spring as you might be lucky enough to find one hibernating in there! You can add bird and bat boxes, and as we mentioned earlier gabion walls can also be a great habitat. In short, we design our gardens to be full of life and to work as well for wildlife as their human inhabitants.

  1. Organic garden care

We never use any chemical pesticides in our gardens. These are very damaging for wildlife and really unnecessary. The best way to reduce pests in your garden is to encourage predators such as beetles and birds. Pests such as greenfly, which can damage your plants, can be removed by hand and with the help of a gentle hose. Where pest populations really cannot be controlled, biological controls such as nematodes can be used as a last resort.

  1. Include a pond

Even small gardens can have space for a pond. A pond is the very best way of encouraging more wildlife to your garden – as well as providing natural bird baths and drinking stations, they also provide a habitat for a multitude of species from pond skaters to dragonflies and damselflies, as well as the more obvious inhabitants such as frogs, toads and newts. Frogs and toads are of course excellent slug and snail predators! Creating a healthy ecosystem is what it is all about, and a pond is the best way to start this off or improve what you already have. They can be as small as just a little barrel with some potted plants, or a much larger, more natural looking pond. 

  1. Plants, plants, plants!

Careful selection of plants is a great way to give back to the environment with your outdoor space. There are lots of things that this can mean including:

  1. Choosing native and other beneficial trees and shrubs to provide food and habitats for insects and birds alike. Always go for open, single flowering varieties as these are far better for pollinators to access the nectar. Some of our favourite trees and shrubs to include are Hawthorn, Rowan, Crab Apple and other fruit trees, ornamental cherry, and open flower varieties of shrubs such as Camelias and Roses. Anything with berries or fruit is also great for birds to feed on, and other creatures will feed on fruits which drop to the ground too.
  2. Choosing a selection of native and non-native high nectar flowering perennials and bulbs to provide more food for pollinators and seedheads for birds. Some of our favourites are Catmint, Verbena, Knautia and other members of the Scabious family, as well as native wildflowers such as Oxeye Daisy, Ragged Robin and Red Campion which can just as easily be incorporated into borders as they can in wilder lawns.
  3. Including a mix of plants that will flower in succession so there is always something for pollinating insects to feed on. For example, bulbs like crocus and narcissus provide early nectar sources for bees and other pollinators and plants like single and open flowered dahlias, verbena and some roses will provide nectar up until the first frosts. 
  4. Even if your garden is small, there is plenty of space for beneficial plants. Some of our favourite small plants for wildlife can be found here

We hope this has been food for thought on how you can make your garden design as low impact as possible. If you would like to get in touch to see what we can do for you, please send us a message here