Naturalising Suburbia or Stealing Nature

A wide variety of uneven aged trees and plants results in a higher biodiversity; it also increases the aesthetic appeal for the majority who view that landscape. The trees seem to prefer this and we can now safely assume this to be the result of the complex relationship of roots and soil organisms at work. And it will also be much more inviting to children, providing a wider range of potential props for games and if logs and rocks abound a host of beasties to discover.

Tiny fragments of the garden and park landscapes of suburban Britain can be as rich if not richer than some semi natural woodland, which perhaps led to the bizarre claim during the NPPF debate that the garden landscape is better for wildlife! But the two are incomparable in terms of biodiversity and we must be careful to distinguish between migratory elements of the wider ecosystem to the permanent residents, particularly those in soil.

We can never dare dream of even hoping to aspire to replicate the soil biodiversity of semi natural woodland in a garden or indeed anywhere else. But we can at least try to make it comfortable.         

The increase of show gardens which attempt to mimic naturalness and use an uneven range of plants was very evident at RHS Chelsea this year. Is this a fashion – have we merely exhausted the range of possible formal images we can introduce into a space and need to return to the aesthetics of nature to enable a respite in design?  Or is it the result of a general wider awakening of working with nature rather than against?

My belief is that it is for once the wider landscaping industry and the amateurs that have reintroduced this healthy change. Many landscapers, jobbing and amateur gardeners have for many years now been designing and constructing natural gardens, a process only accelerated by the dismal economic climate and perfected by patience. Some manufacturers have adapted to this change and try to put their own stamp on it, which is rarely either functional or financially viable. A proper dry stone wall for example is cheaper than the pre-fabricated equivalent, the latter also further disabled by the fact it serves no additional function as a habitat for snail and slug eating predators and neither can the surreptitious placing of ornamental rocks.

To progress we need to make things complicated that could be simple.

Any notion proffered that it is possible to create a naturalised landscape in one step needs to be challenged. It is absurd and dangerous to try and create instant naturalisation and in the very badly regulated ‘garden product’ industry any trends in such a direction will inevitably have serious consequences for a natural habitat elsewhere.

Large players in the garden centre industry have proven time and time again to not just be ignorant of sustainable or environmental issues but abuse it wilfully. A business sector that is prepared to sell the stumps of Teak trees, planed and polished to make outside furniture and sold by way of a continual loop of ‘rainforest sounds’ background music is clearly not to be trusted – at all. If you want biodiversity in your garden they’ll find it for you – but you won’t want to know where it came from!

Design has an immense responsibility in progressing sustainable development, but fashion is the very antithesis of sustainability. Whilst naturalness is now established in mainstream landscaping, with a small but noticeable revival of traditional skills such as dry stone walling is it enough to dissuade clients used to the concept of an instant ‘landscaped’ garden embedded into the wider British psyche by some ghastly television programming over the last 30 years?

The peri urban fringe and suburban garden landscape could and should be the playground to get our heads around multi functional sustainable landscapes, which could then help in the wider landscape. The lack of research into the natural elements of such landscapes has been largely filled by practitioner knowledge and the knowledge of some of the residents also. But the evidence gathered is squeezed out between the heavily funded rural ‘protected area’ crowd and the PR obsessed garden media and elite designer crowd.

The chasm in methodology between those from a landscaping / garden design background and silviculturists is being bridged. The difference of working from and to a vertical image for landscape design; and the lateral image favoured by silviculturists is disappearing due to the increasing migration between these previously distanced disciplines and now there is much better scope to really tailor design to the wider landscape. Better still there have been and continue to be many coming into the land practitioner industry from an environmental science or ecology background bringing in the questions of whether what some may term weeds are actually better left in situ and maintained for the health of the garden and those that inhabit it, including ourselves. It is perhaps the only positive gained from the ongoing disenfranchisement of all land managers and I can understand the general dismay of many land management practitioners by the theft of the ‘natural look’ from them by the more media obsessed elements of the industry which personify (or want to) Chelsea.

But can we finally put an end to the concept of ‘your garden being an extra room of your house’ to one of ‘a garden is a room in your landscape’.



Filed under Trees and Woodlands

5 responses to “Naturalising Suburbia or Stealing Nature

  1. Disagree with final paragraph. A suburban garden is a tiny bit of privately owned land. It could never be called a landscape. If the owner chooses to treat it as naturalistically as possible, good, but otherwise it IS an extra room, to be ‘decorated’ as she wishes. The value of a garden is more psychological than ecological.

  2. I do apologise as I had changed the final paragraph before seeing your comment, but your comment still stands despite the change I believe.

    I have to say that my interpretation of a landscape differs dramatically from yours. To me a garden is very much part of the landscape – to me as soon as you step outside you enter your landscape. I also disagree that a garden does not have an ecological value, in fact I believe that a garden has many values – but I do concede that it is firmly the right of the owner to decorate as they see fit. If it is possible to persuade a more ecological and sustainable method of decoration and continued management then it is a good thing and one that values the wider landscape.

    • Janet

      I think that matter is all about how you define a garden. I absolutely agree with your main article – love the dig at garden centres – but there are many types of garden in many types of landscape. What is a suburban or city centre garden primarily for? I suggest its greater value is in providing some emotional release for its owner (or the one who rents it), or a means for self expression, however fashion led that is. Yes, all patches of land have ecological value, but it is compromised and can only be comfortable, as you say.

      I’m with you on your main points. I too get cross with the whole gardening/design industry, and wish things could be better, but unfortunately have to come to terms with the reality that most people who have gardens see them as extensions of themselves, or just not at all.

  3. Pingback: Naturalising Suburbia or Stealing Nature | europeantrees | fragile ecosystems |

  4. Pingback: Naturalising Suburbia or Stealing Nature | europeantrees | geograngu

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