Creating an eco-friendly garden

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Matt JamesMatt James

Plan the perfect eco-friendly garden with Matt James’ advice.

Everyone likes the idea of a more environmentally-friendly outdoor space – but what does a green garden actually look like? You might imagine it to be an untamed, overgrown jungle teeming with wildflowers and insects. Nowadays, however, even the slickest contemporary designs of garden can be green, thanks to a combination of ethically-sourced materials and innovative technology.

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Recycle and reuse materials

The main concern is the origin, extraction, manufacture and installation of materials in structures, paths, walls and patios. Using recycled materials instead is a great way to go green. As reclamation yards, especially those in cities, can be expensive, trawl through out-of-town yards and junk shops for materials. Check out eBay.co.uk and Freecycle.org – tin baths and buckets, clay pipes and old scaffolding boards can be put to good use. Recycled materials give you the chance to exercise some creativity, bringing character and time-worn charm to a setting. They also enable you to amplify your home’s identity and its design style further. Old hand-made bricks from reclamation yards work perfectly with a Victorian terraced house, for example.

‘New’ materials such as paving made from recycled concrete aggregate are now widely available (try Bradstone), so is recycled plastic decking (from Arbordeck) that is moulded to look like real wood.

Many companies now sell pots, fencing and furniture made from recycled wood and plastic. The Living Ethically Directory and the Recycled Products Guide list hundreds of them.
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Choose eco materials

Green materials sourced and made by the local community feature strongly in sustainable gardens. Choosing them helps to reduce your carbon footprint as they have few air miles attached, plus most of them use little or no cement, the production of which accounts for more than five per cent of the world’s carbon emissions*. They also give gardens a ‘sense of place’ by linking them to the local surroundings, which is especially important in rural settings. Materials such as cob (clay and straw), oak, rammed earth, log walls, woven willow, chestnut paling timber and even straw bales are full of character. You will need to consider cost versus durability more keenly than usual, but the suppliers and craftsmen will be able to advise you.

What works best visually depends on where you live and what you can obtain easily, so find out what is available in your area. Bear in mind that while raw materials are cheaper, labour costs won’t be – traditional materials need specialist skills that are passed down over generations.
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ABOVE (left-right): Trex Transcend Composite Decking is made from 95 per cent recycled material. Installed by Atkins Vause Ltd, this deck is Spiced Rum with railings in Tree House and Vintage Lantern. Trex installations start from £130 per m² (+VAT) and are distributed by Arbordeck; This stylish garden’s paving is made from up to 83 per cent recycled content. Panache Textured comes from Bradstone.

Conserve water

Water conservation is essential, so install a butt on every downpipe – you can choose weathered oak barrels or the ubiquitous green plastic tubs. If you have the space, consider an underground rain tank. Larger ones can easily collect enough water for the average garden, plus you can set them up to flush your WC. Clever cost-cutting irrigation helps too. Don’t use a sprinkler on the garden – water the roots of plants without wasting it on the leaves (automated watering systems are useful here); repair leaky pond liners; buy large pots for plants as they don’t dry out as quickly; and don’t mow the lawn too low in hot weather.
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Use permeable paving

Water run-off from concrete-covered gardens in towns and cities causes localised flooding and affects wildlife significantly. To tackle this problem, legislation has been introduced to regulate the use of solid surfaces in front gardens. You must now use permeable surfacing materials. If you plan to build a driveway larger than 5m² with impermeable materials like York stone you’ll need planning permission, unless it’s designed to drain into a lawn or flowerbed, which isn’t always possible.

Crunchy gravel and slate chippings are the obvious permeable alternative to solid paving, but there are lots of other materials available – from porous asphalt and block paving to grass reinforced with recycled plastic grids. For more details, including the cost and construction of each one, download the pdf document from gov.uk.

Call in a professional if you’re not a competent DIYer. Driveways need a substantial sub-base, usually with a proper edge, and special permeable materials must be laid carefully to work effectively.
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Cut back on chemicals

You can employ plenty of natural methods to combat pests in your garden.

Natural pest control

  • Knock greenfly off plants by using a strong jet of water.
  • Use copper slug rings for slug control (available from Slugrings.co.uk).
  • Pick young caterpillars off brassicas such as cabbage or, better still, cover the plants with garden fleece or fine Environmesh netting (from garden centres).
  • Use garlic, elder and rhubarb leaf sprays to control garden pests.
  • Leave messy garden corners untouched so slug-eating hedgehogs and slow-worms can hide away from predators.
  • Erect boxes to attract nesting birds to help with caterpillar control.
  • Grow dill and fennel to entice greenfly-munching hoverflies.
  • Build a small wildlife pond – you’ll attract all sorts of beneficial insects.

Companion planting

  • Onions and chives grown around roses will help combat black spot disease.
  • Grow carrots and leeks together to repel each other’s garden pests.
  • Pungent-smelling French marigolds will keep aphids off tomatoes.
  • Grow basil to make tomatoes taste better.
  • Plant horseradish near potatoes to increase their resistance to disease.

How to tackle weeds

  • Spread a 5-7.5cm (2-3in) layer of compost or shredded bark around plants to repel weeds. It also keeps the roots snug during winter and conserves water.
  • Kill existing annual weeds by covering them with plastic sheeting weighted down.

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Green roofs

These eco roofs are becoming increasingly popular as they help increase biodiversity, provide good insulation, improve air quality and control water run-off – they’re also very attractive. There are plenty of products available using different construction techniques – you can even retrofit an existing shed and garage if they are able to take the weight. Visit Livingroofs.org for ideas.
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Eco plants

Plants are important design tools, and even more so in the eco-friendly garden because they provide food and shelter, creating perfect habitats for beneficial wildlife. Choose lots of local berry-producing plants and trees, such as hawthorn, which might be growing nearby – birds and insects will already be used to them, so they’ll visit your garden more frequently if you grow them.

Hedges are certainly better than walls as they’re ideal nesting sites and offer protection from predators. At the very least you should grow plenty of climbers – ivy is particularly good, providing both protection and a rich source of nectar in autumn/winter when there’s little food around. Even nectar-rich, open-faced flowers such as echinacea and buddleia will make a difference. These are preferable to modern double flowers that don’t have proper nectaries to feed garden-friendly insects.
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*Sector report for the cement industy by The Environment Agency.