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Designing our future landscapes

Our garden design business has a distinctly different model than most others in that over a decade ago we decided we wanted to travel a little, see the world and when we got there, design some gardens. A combination of environmental concern about all that travel and our embracement of new technology means that over the past couple of years we’ve cut back on the flights and found partners to work with us across Europe, the Caribbean and beyond who manage and construct the gardens we are designing from the UK. An interesting side effect is that through these partners we get to see what’s happening in gardens and landscapes all over the world.

The biggest changes in gardening and gardens are led by social and demographic trends wherever you garden. The world is changing rapidly and what’s current today might be old fashioned next week. Living trends such as wealth, living units and changes in family size are vital but so is the march of technology and where we will shelter from the economic realities of the next decade.

In the past when there seems to have been a never ending stream of wealth we saw an almost religious conviction to stylised hard landscape design in the UK and USA that led to vast amounts being spent on sleek, styled and uber-cool outdoor spaces and a competitive streak in our clients wanting the most up to date equipment whether it was the latest counter-current pool or mature trees craned in over the house. In the wake of a global economic crisis it’s a trend that has very quickly given way to a new austerity that, even if you have the money, means that you don’t want to show you have money. Everyone has a budget and for those with more than most there is still an interest in spending it on a garden but whereas a stainless steel water feature and garden kitchen were the ultimate statement of the noughties we’re seeing a rapid move towards a more natural style and a connection with nature and plants where natural swimming ponds and kitchen gardens are the new cool.

We’re using our gardens to protect ourselves from the outside world. The idea of the slow sanctuary means that our UK gardens are harking back to nature, wildlife and slowing down. Relaxing is the new fast living.

When you look across Europe you realise that in many countries nothing’s changed. In the Mediterranean states such as Cyprus, Greece and Italy there’s been no great trend towards fast gardens but there has been a growth in wealth. Our clients may be spending fortunes on great gardens but they are still connected to nature. Kitchen gardens have always been a norm here whilst in the UK the idea of growing your own food has skipped a generation and it’s the over 60s and the under 30s that are leading the move back to gardens that include food production rather than gardens solely for entertainment. This concept of our gardens as a focus of health and home reveals itself in fledging schemes across the UK, France and Germany encouraging front garden farming and the message that you can grow your own even on the tiniest balconies is widely documented.

These trends have also revealed themselves in show gardens and although designers are still producing gardens that are dramatic and striking there is a move towards more calming lines and a profusion of relaxed planting that translates into our own gardens. In Sweden, for example, there has been an upsurge in gardening and a move towards enclosing spaces that were once open to the neighbours but here plants predominate and our Swedish colleagues indicate the influence of the celebrity designer creating a soft planted look that everyone wants to follow. This will undoubtedly continue as we escape to our gardens and the outwardly hard landscape increasingly gives way to soft landscaping.

The environmental imperative is now the greatest influence on commercial and public landscape design. The trend back to plants in our gardens is following a move in larger landscapes away from vast areas of lawn grass towards a more conscious planting of meadows, whether led by a purely native species approach or planting design that includes ornamentals to achieve a new look to our landscapes.

For these large landscapes low maintenance requirements have been as necessary as environmental concern but the latter has focussed the minds, and budgets, on creating planting schemes that create diverse habitats for everyone, including wildlife to enjoy. It is a trend that is particularly prevalent in northern Europe but because the design of these landscapes is led by climatic need, climate change and site restraints the idea of mixed species meadows has fast been adopted by other regions as a basis for new sustainable landscapes. Our own experience of designing parks in Sweden, Cyprus and France, all quite diverse in their climate and culture, reveals an interest in responding to the locality and working with what we have rather than recreating an idealised version of a public park that is no longer relevant. And because we respond locally we also source locally.

In developed nations there is an increasing adoption of a biophilia perspective with an emphasis on native planting in design. This is particularly prevalent in the USA. A search through US blogs reveals a huge movement towards using regional and local natives and ornamentals. It is an approach that is taking hold in the UK but is distinctly challenging because of the greater extremes of climate that we are now experiencing. Undoubtedly we are seeing an emphasis on local character but we are losing the ability to grow some species whilst we are able to grow new species that have never survived before. Plants that were once annuals will fast become perennials. Trees are under attack from imported diseases that are spreading through our native species so that we have to replace our selection of, say Aesculus hippocastanum with other species such as Aesculus indica ‘Sidney Pearce’, selected on the grounds of survival rather than local distinctiveness. In growing plants for food we are seeing an even greater trend towards the different and seemingly exotic species of plants and a new interest in gardening in different ways borrowed from other cultures such as forest gardening which has been a way of life for centuries in areas of the far east and is ideally suited to both our European climate and need for low maintenance.

It also leads us to the much discussed ideal of sustainable landscapes but because sustainability is a term that few care to define or agree upon we find that the concept of biodiversity, that is steadily gaining consciousness for our gardens in the UK, is having greater global impact. There is greater awareness of valuing the sum of our gardens as a wildlife reserve and their role in creating green corridors into cities. This is not solely a UK trend but a global phenomenon.

We all want to be greener but in the future it won’t be just about being green. Amongst other trends we now see responsible sourcing, human welfare awareness, waterwise planting, preserving distinct regional heritage in plants and gardening, using technology, focussing on plants not hard materials. There is a growing debate internationally about negative carbon landscapes, creating gardens that create no carbon footprint which, of necessity, means re-using whatever is on site and importing only plants and then only those grown locally or even just growing from seed. It may seem an extreme form of garden creation but it’s what we used to do and it might just be a design model that our clients, not just our climate, forces us to adopt in the next decade. Whatever happens, all these trends will continue to change and to influence the way we design our future gardens and landscapes.

This article originally appeared in the annual report for BALI, the British Association of Landscape Industries.