Tag Archives: Garden

Thinking Outside the [White Rendered] Box

Thinking outside the box
SketchUp is a powerful tool, but is it actually a brake on creativity?

 

Let’s for a moment envisage a beautifully designed garden; a modern garden for a young couple: white rendered walls, limestone paving in a crisply set out grid, a slick water feature, perhaps a fire pit or some chunky charcoal-coloured rattan furniture. We’ve all done it. Where would this garden be? London? LA? Cape Town? Tallinn? Beirut? The truth is it could be anywhere. Not only that, it could be for anyone. And it could be by anyone.

A decade or two ago Britain rubbed its eyes and awoke from the 75 year dream of Edwardian garden design, where every afternoon was sunny and everybody had a gardener. As other ideas began to be explored modernist design became more mainstream. In fact, the whole garden design industry became more mainstream, finding a new market in consumers accustomed to branded goods of reassuring uniformity. A side effect of this consumerist, lifestyle-led market was an expectation of ‘toys’ in the garden – hot-tubs, heaters, water features, speakers and even television screens. Over a period of ten years or so, urban gardens in particular began to move towards a standard style with which we have become familiar. Of course, this is not universal, but it is very prevalent.

A glance through previous years’ ‘Review of the Year’ published by the Garden Design Journal is enough to confirm this. The almost universal use of 3D design software such as ‘SketchUp’ has reinforced it, as schemes which rely on an orthogonal geometry of extruded planes and rectangles, tend to dominate. Curves and eccentric geometry are altogether trickier. The choice of plants has to fit the style – defined architectural shapes, clipped forms, bold foliage are common currency, their shapes emphasised at night by well-placed lighting.

We are in a privileged position as garden designers. First and foremost, we are able to design for an individual. The irony is that we often design as though it is for a mass market. And despite what I have said about their uniform expectations, every client is different. True, sometimes they might need a bit of coaxing to broaden their design horizons but the potential is there. Sometimes we just have to work a bit harder to break through pre-conceived ideas about what they want. And as designers we are all different too – we are all individuals with our own ideas. Perhaps we follow the pack a bit too closely but the real crux of this is that every site is unique. The genius loci, the sense of place, is as diverse as the location. Good design will reflect this, will celebrate it. I am not against modernism, far from it, but I am against uniformity. So come on, think outside the box!

This post first appeared in a slightly different form as an article in BALI news, the magazine of the British Association of Landscape Industries.

A Bigger Splash – weeks twelve to fourteen – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 
Finally starting to look like a pond, although the water level will eventually be up to the top of the liner right the way across.
 

I know, I know – it’s been three weeks since an update. The principal reason for this was that not enough had happened after two weeks. And the principal reason for that was that some of the gang were pulled away on to other sites to do something a little more productive. But it never ceases to amaze me what a difference it makes to a site when the turf goes down. It suddenly changes in one go from a landscape site to a garden.

The molemesh being installed just below the turf.

As you can see from the photo, we incorporated the famous ‘molemesh’ as it went down – fingers crossed. This allows us to share the lawn with the local mole population on the basis that they agree not to make any molehills. We have a signed agreement with the moles to this effect.

The new line of the path

The line of the stepping stone path was ‘adjusted’ (that’s a great word for lifting and relaying 11no 115kg slabs of stone) to a slightly sharper curve, which we feel works a lot better. In fact we are delighted. Which is just as well, ’cos they sure ain’t moving again! The grass will be laid between the slabs at the very end of the project, once we have finished wheeling stuff down there.

We had a minor leak, which the liner guys came back and fixed for us. Note to self – make next pool a simple shape. The leak was luckily in the most accessible part of the pond, in trying to install the liner around the concrete buttresses for the metal edging.

Marginal planting underway

The planting of the marginals is happening at the moment – see photo. The beds are first filled with special soil, mixed with light expanded clay aggregate balls to bulk it out (LECA, or Coco-pops as my sons call it). The plants are then carefully planted and a sealing layer of clay is placed over the top. Finally, a thin layer of limestone grit (otherwise known as cat litter by my sons) is laid over the surface. We have positioned some slabs to act as standing points within the lower beds for maintenance access. The lower beds are planted with lilies and other nutrient hungry plants. The upper beds are mostly ornamental. When complete, the water level will cover all the beds to the top of the liner – the pool is still filling at the moment.

 

Finally, it is starting to look like a garden! The view from an upstairs window.

It is such a huge relief to see green things arriving after so long with just mud, concrete and stone. Even the dogs have cheered up with the lawn going down, although they can’t understand why they are not allowed on it.

And some of you may have picked up from twitter that during that really hot bank holiday weekend, we had an inaugural swim in the pool (only about one-third full at that point). It was freezing, but felt great!

Just two weeks left to go now, and almost there… (I keep saying that, don’t I?)

A Bigger Splash – week five – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

I don’t want to bore you all with endless words and technical stuff on this. Goodness knows I’m getting fed up with having a mudbath for a garden week after week, so you lot must be bored stiff! So this week just a few quick pictures showing where we have got to.

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.
New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

A major milestone this week – the oak sleepers started to go in. We excavated a deep trench, rammed back fill around the sleepers and then concreted. We are using vertical sleepers in order to achieve the sinuous shapes those pesky designers have come up with. Actually, talking of pesky designers, I tried to draw a SketchUp model of the pool this week to try and get my head round some of the underwater decking (and because I thought some of you might be interested in it). But with all the curves, after three hours, I had come to the conclusion that building the full size model in the garden would be quicker! Whose idea was this anyway? The level of the top of the sleepers is just above water level by the way.

 

Although still muddy, at least it is level mud now!

The huge piles of earth have mostly gone now. The level of the lawn (I use the word loosely here) has been raised by about 600mm, and the remaining large pile of excavated material will be used as backfill around the sleepers. So I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that I am not not going to have to devise a landscape solution for a mini version of the the Alps in the garden.

No update on planting – I haven’t had time to do any planting plans. Proper work keeps getting in the way!

More soon…

A Bigger Splash – week four – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

The builders yard - a necessary evil?

Although the design for the rear garden is finally starting to emerge from the muck and bullets, the front drive looks like a builder’s yard. In addition to the bulk bags of sand and ballast, pallets of cement, glass filtration aggregate, plumbing fittings, geotextile, reclaimed teak decking, and mulch visible in this photo, there is a 7m long roll of liner and 75no new English oak sleepers out of shot.

One of the principal features of the design is a curved path running around one end of the pool connecting the lawn to the forest garden. This is made up of single 1.2m wedge-shaped slabs of stone. Of course, with two garden designers, selecting the material was always going to be a difficult process. We had recently come across a very interesting stone from the Forest of Dean, called Pennant.

The curved walls that will run benath the new Pennant Stone path

I had been vaguely aware of this stone for about ten years, but never really used it. We had selected it for a large project in Berkshire, and liked the subtlety of the blue grey and buff tones. As well as the quality of the stone, what really impressed us though were the go-ahead attitude of the quarry and the sustainability of the production process. All the quarried material is used and the production unit (which is under the same ownership) can process up to 1000m2 a week – not relevant to our garden, but very useful on our site in Berkshire! The stone saws are powered by the plant’s own hydro-electric power unit producing 13.5kW of power. The stone was supplied through Edward Tennant at Ashfield Stone, who was extremely helpful (www.ashfieldgroup.com).

The path swings on a single radius of 11.1m, so precision is absolutely key. Glen has been keeping a very close eye on the measurements, as there is no room for error. The individual stones (of which there are forty) weigh 106kg each, so laying them will not be easy. After looking carefully at all the possibilities, we decided on suspending the slabs from the end of the excavator arm using a stone lifter. This should allow us to rotate and position the individual slabs very accurately. They will be delivered in about two weeks, so we will see. The block-work support for this path is going in at the moment.

Selecting the timber has been equally tortuous, for various reasons. There are a number of locations which have different requirements hence a variety of timbers are being used. The retaining walls for the lower areas are vertical (new) oak sleepers laid in sweeping curves. Within the pool, the main walls are topped of with capping of western red cedar (which will be under water.) In addition to this, there is a deck about a metre below water level at either end. This is to be made of reclaimed teak decking on a network of larch beams. It is not possible to use any treated timber in the water, because the chemicals used in the preservative process are effective biocides. There is also a deck suspended above the northern end of the pool. This must also be of larch bearers. We wanted to use locally sourced FSC timber wherever we could. The sleepers were fairly easy as there are many companies supplying English oak sleepers, but the other timbers were more difficult. EcoChoice (based in Cambridge – www.ecochoice.co.uk) were particularly helpful. We managed through them to find some really good British grown larch and western red cedar. I had only come across Canadian or Russian WRC before, so this was a revelation to me. the timber is a little knottier than Canadian, but a lot cheaper and perfectly good enough for our purposes.

Blockwork starting to go in for the deepwater renegeration beds (before rain stopped play)

 

A spring scene: what is left of our lawn, with the pretend farmyard in the distance (aka the messy area next to my veg garden) and the edge of the new herbaceous bed in the foreground.

Although the end is in site, I don’t think we will be finshed for when my family descend at Easter. What’s more, inevitably other work is starting to clamour for the team. Suddenly I am feeling like one of those clients who says – “It must be finished for my party on Saturday Week”. I’ll start changing the design soon…

I am beginning to develop designs for the main herbaceous bed. Not that we can agree on what plants to use. And as always, visualising herbaceous plants in their summer glory in what still feels like the depths of winter is a cross between torture and therapy. More on this next week.

 

A Bigger Splash – week three – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Vicky Wyer takes up the story…

Week three of the swimming pond saga and the garden still looks like the outskirts of a Welsh mining town.

Looking very deep now - swim area walls almost complete

The blockwork walls of the deep swim area are almost complete and now stand proud of the surrounding ground – although eventually they’ll be about 300mm below water level. As our garden is on an appreciable slope, we have planned this ‘perching’ of the pool in order to minimise the dig but also to redistribute what was in the hole around the garden.

So where our lawn was sloping it will be flatter, and beyond the pool the ground will need to be terraced to take it back down to existing levels. How this will be achieved when there are spoil mounds on almost every inch of ground remains to be seen…

Plans for our food forest

John has asked me to write a bit about our forest garden plans this week so here goes:

For those unfamiliar with forest gardens they are basically self-regulating, food-producing ecosystems designed to mimic the structure of a woodland edge – optimum light, shelter and layering of groundcover, shrub, understorey and canopy  to give abundant production.

Typical layers in a forest garden (unless you have chickens)

This is based on the principle that nature is always pushing towards climax vegetation (woodland in the UK) so why not harness that energy and work with it, adapting nature’s tendencies for our own ends.

How it should work

Briefly in an ideal forest garden all your resource inputs are minimised:

  • minimal weeding as planting or mulch covers the ground completely
  • minimal watering once established due to the woodland microclimate
  • minimal pests and diseases due to the biodiversity
  • minimal feeding as the design incorporates sufficient nitrogen fixers to feed the rest via microrrhizal activity. Potassium is added via comfrey mulches, etc

All of which is just as well as between us John and I are pretty rubbish at nurturing our own garden on the whole. Looking after three children, two dogs, a business, a community garden, a neglected house still in need of major renovation, four ducks, eleven chickens, some raised veg beds and a lawn that seems to be the mole-magnet of the county seems to fill most of our time…

Deckchairs on the Titanic? - where John and I will sit and laugh when this is all over (when we're done picking all the flippin forest garden fruit)

Factoring in existing ‘challenges’

And as with everything we do at home, our forest garden will be a bit of a compromise:  partly since we’re working with a set of existing trees, none of which fix nitrogen, partly because our garden is quite exposed with the sun and wind both coming mainly from the west, and partly because the forest garden is where our chickens roam – good for fertilisation, bad for growing a productive herb layer. Oh and then there’s the rabbits that pop over from the field next door for a little ‘silflay’ every morning…

Our Forest Garden plot - aka the chicken run - looking west

How it will work – we hope

The idea is to plant some Italian alders along the northerly boundary where they will add shelter and fix nitrogen but not shade the already dappled forest garden too much – luckily the existing trees are birches so there will be some sun getting through. An Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) planted for its flavoursome berries next to the southerly hedge, will also fix nitrogen. Altogether this should give us enough nitrogen to satisfy the existing trees and our proposed fruit layers.

The Forest Garden plot looking towards the house (showing open cast mine inbetween)

As our soil is very sandy and free draining, the terraces we’re planning will help to retain runoff in the forest garden. Along the edges of the terraces we’re going to use the bulky tree waste and hedge trimmings we’ve stockpiled at the bottom of the garden from the removal of numerous unwanted or elderly trees and shrubs. These tree waste bunds will be covered with the turf from the old lawn to create ‘hugel’ beds; the slow break down of the tree waste will release nitrogen over a long period and enhance the soil structure. Rebel farmer Sepp Holzer uses this technique on Austrian mountainsides to great effect.

As well as fruit and nut trees, we’re planning to grow some bamboo near the pond. This will not only act as a much needed shelterbelt but we hope to harvest the shoots for eating.

It’s all happening so fast!

The apricots, almond, hazel, quince, medlar, gage, damson, Mirabelle, plum, blue honeysuckle, cherries, fig and berries-too-numerous-to-mention, have started to arrive from Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and various other specialist nurseries, and we’ve been busy heeling them in until the areas are ready for planting. And before you ask not all the plants are going in the forest garden – some will go nearer the house and some in the front garden.

The chickens look warily at the heeled-in fruit bushes

And we haven’t even started on the planting plans for the pond itself and its immediate surroundings! Looks like a busy weekend ahead with another round of decisions and compromises…

Recommended reading on Forest Gardening and Permaculture in practice:

Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden

Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture

A Bigger Splash – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

After a number of requests from readers, I have relented and am keeping a blog of the construction of a swimming pond in our garden. From now on I am a client…

Sowing the seeds

We have been in the house six and a half years now. Two garden designers, two opinions, no progress. Well, not quite true. We had taken a lot of things out – conifers overgrown from the original intention twenty years ago, like cuckoos that never flew away. Delightful echoes of the past such as Choisya ternata aurea, Ribes sanguineum rosea and Potentilla fruticosa. Finally a plan starts to gel between us. It starts with a big curved border beneath the Mulberry tree. Then comes the notion of a forest garden on permaculture principles at the bottom of the garden. The fall on the lawn annoys me though, and gradually, the idea of a much larger pond between the lawn and the woodland starts to take shape in our minds. After a lot of wild sketching, we have the skeleton of a plan – a 14m by 4m swimming pond. And then unexpectedly, events intervene.  A team of Bowles & Wyer’s becomes free for a few weeks. I grab them!

Germination.

With Glen Brown, our hard landscape supervisor, I pore over drawings in the office. We discuss many different ways to build it – should we use concrete blocks, in-situ cast, polystyrene formers or timber walls? Lots of lengthy conversations and long email exchanges with David Nettleton of Clear Water Revival ensue. Eventually we go for perched concrete foundations and re-inforced hollow block walls for the main pool walls and new oak sleepers for the secondary walls. Will we be able to lose all the spoil on site? (actually that remains to be seen). Will the levels work out? (that also remains to be seen) How much concrete will we need? Can we get a digger in? All the usual designer/contractor questions. Except this time it is complicated by the fact that I am Designer, contractor and client.

“How Much?!” I find myself exclaiming; “Out of the question”. A myriad of decisions that have to be taken balancing method, size, layout, materials and of course a mass of technical details. One novel feature is that we only have to do technical drawings – no visuals or coloured presentation plans to convince a client!

The calm before the storm...

Finally, a date is set for starting on site, even though we have not yet bottomed out all the costs or details. Not exactly seat of the pants, but not quite comfortable either. On a frosty Friday in early February, the team arrive. First day is just preparation – hand clearance, draining the existing pond, making sure the route for the excavator is clear.

On the Saturday, I let our (four) ducks out as normal. three of them are Indian Runners, and true to form, they go tearing across the lawn towards the pond. Their eye level is quite low, so they don’t see that their pond has been drained until they get within a metre or two. They stop in amazement. I can almost hear the duck voices saying – “What the…where…I’m sure it was there yesterday….!” They wander back up the lawn, confused and disorientated. They will have to wait a long time for the new pond to be finished, but it will be worth it!

Week One – green shoots.

The 5 tonne digger arrives. after a quarter of a mile trek down the bridleway and a sharp 270 degree turn through the fence at the bottom of the garden, we are in! Work proceeds quickly – the lawn gets stripped, topsoil is scraped off and piled up separately. We rapidly get down into gingery coloured gravel subsoil and at the bottom of the excavation is a fine amber coloured sand layer, very free draining. By the end of Wednesday we have the bulk of the main excavation out. As a result, most of the garden is covered in large piles of soil. My 15 year old son asks me where this is all going to go. I furiously check my cut and fill calculations, cross my fingers and say airily that it will all get used up back-filling and making up the levels. Perhaps if we fill our pockets every day, like the great escape and walk around outside in little circles… 

Meanwhile, I am trying to sort out the final details with David Nettleton. PVC, Butyl or Polypropylene liner? Welded on site or off site? Do we need an Iron Reactor? As David explains: “This unit is not entirely necessary and could be added later. It’s a unit for emergencies; if the pond gets enriched with phosphorous or somehow you get a spike that encourages algae it will release Fe3+ ions into the pool to capture Phosphate Ions and precipitate them out. Very clever stuff!”. However having had our water tested, it is apparently ‘very good quality’ (which is reassuring), so for the time being we are passing on the Iron Reactor. We may live to regret it. For the liner, it is a choice between a whole roll of Polypropylene made in the UK, of which we will use about half, or the much less environmentally friendly PVC  which comes from Germany. Both are expensive (client in me speaking there) so we plump for the UK made, environment-friendly product. Friday is spent making finishing the excavation of the main pool and making everything safe. By tomorrow, we will all breathe a sigh of relief and I will not be alone in wondering where my garden has gone. On Monday, it will start all over again.

Now I know how my clients feel!

More next week…

When is a garden designer a landscape designer? Indeed, when is a garden a landscape – or vice-versa?

To define garden design, first we have to decide what a garden is. Personally, I love the idea that for something to be considered a garden there has to be a gardener: there is a poetic circularity in the definition. Some would argue that garden design is a branch of landscape design. It is not less of a skill for that, if anything the reverse. There is ‘nowhere to hide’ in garden design. Every element is important and there is no chance of fudging the design.

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I’ve been using it increasingly, but I never touch it.

I am a great believer in starting the design process on a drawing board. For me, there is nothing like a large blunt pencil or a fat marker pen and a blank sheet of white paper. Perhaps it’s just my generation? I don’t think that’s all it is though; As Milton Glaser put it: ‘There’s not enough fuzziness in a computer solution, so you figure it out too early, and what you get is a very well executed ordinary idea.’ I like that.

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