When writing about sustainability it’s remarkably hard not to talk in clichés and remarkably easy to conflate issues. Species decline, environmental damage, global warming, ethical practices – they are often scrambled together under this buzz-word topic. And in my job – designing gardens and landscapes – sustainability is a particularly difficult thing to identify.
For example, is ripping out an old garden just because you don’t like it sustainable? Is it justified if it is going to be used more and will encourage children to play in it and develop an understanding of nature? If you’re going to replace concrete slabs with plants, surely that’s good? But then, what if those plants need intensive irrigation?
For simplicity, here’s my working definition of sustainability; I aspire to create spaces that work with the land and the environment, whilst also meeting the needs of my clients. To stand the test of time a garden must be enjoyed and nurtured; that means making something that people have the time, and/or the money, to look after properly and that above all they can enjoy.
One popular idea within sustainability and garden design at the moment is that of ‘low intervention’ gardening. Rather than reshaping landscapes to look a certain way or to fit with a popular aesthetic, it is about studying them and seeing how you can help and improve on what nature is already doing.
It is about installing a water feature where the garden is naturally boggy, or planting drought tolerant species if the soil is stony and the climate hot. It is about improving soil health and helping plants thrive through natural, intelligent and careful means.
It may sound arrogant to suggest we can help improve nature. But we live in what has been described by American plantsman, Thomas Rainer, as a ‘post-wild’ world. That is, that we must work with what we have because, for better or worse, we have altered the natural world and as we have evolved – so has it. Rainer urges us to look not just to our gardens and our rural landscapes to find nature, but to bring it back into our cities too.
As he explains in his 2015 book Planting in a Post-Wild World: “a new way of thinking is emerging. It does not seek nature in remote mountain tops, but finds it instead in the midst of our cities and suburbs. It looks at our degraded built landscapes with unjaded eyes, seeing the archipelago of leftover land […] not as useless remnants, but as territories of vast potential.”
By working with what we’ve got, reviving neglected spaces and enhancing our gardens through practices that nurture and encourage natural processes rather than tame and weaken them, we can make landscapes – on a large and small, public and private scale – that truly connect us with nature. And if we want to sustain the planet, that must surely be a good way forward.