Sustainable solutions - Gardens With a Conscience - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Gardens With a Conscience

Sustainable solutions

MINIMISING NEGATIVE EFFECTS on the environment when creating a garden is easy if you recycle and reuse materials, or use those that are sourced ethically.


We are all aware that the planet’s natural resources are under intolerable pressure from over-exploitation, and while some aspects of garden-making tread lightly on the earth from an energy and carbon usage perspective, creating an outdoor space can contribute to the problem. Extracting desirable rocks and minerals for decoration, hardwood timber for furniture, peat for horticultural practices and fossil fuels for heating all make significant demands on resources. Imported products also expend energy when transported long distances to consumers.

Well-designed gardens can be created utilising products from low-carbon technologies and manufacturing processes, but it is incumbent on all of us to play our part by reducing fossil fuel usage and recycling and repurposing materials where we can. Many designers can advise you on ways to produce a beautiful outdoor room without impacting on the local or wider environment, or, if designing the space yourself, follow the tips overleaf to minimise your carbon footprint.

“Using reclaimed landscaping materials is a really simple and effective way to bring a depth of character and soul to a space. They are also perfect for creating a period look, and are great for the environment.”


Tips to protect the environment

Use power tools and machinery that work efficiently and use solar-powered or wind-powered equipment where you can.

Select ethically-sourced products using internationally recognised schemes that provide a chain of custody from source to consumer (see p.141)

Recycle or re-purpose secondhand items or use products made from recycled materials to help personalise your design or create a sense of place.

Compost organic household and garden waste to help improve soil rather than buying commercial products.

Harvest and store rainwater in water butts to irrigate plants and replenish pools, or create rain gardens to help prevent flash flooding (see p.147).


The culture of recycling and reusing objects and materials to create something new and exciting is deeply engrained in the way gardeners and many designers work. While much is prosaically practical, such as pruned stems used to support plants, opportunities abound for repurposing or upcycling items to make decorative features, so consider whether it is worth buying a new and expensive feature, when you may be able to craft a similar item at a fraction of the cost. And if creating a period garden, incorporate salvaged materials, which are perfect for a time-worn look. Also remember that recycled products are not just suitable for rustic, informal or country garden designs; chic contemporary furniture and accessories made from recycled metals and plastics are now widely available for modern gardens too.

The range of products made from reconstituted materials includes paving, tables and chairs, decking and architectural features. If your local DIY store doesn’t stock them, take a look on the internet. Local architectural salvage yards are a good place to start your search for old bricks, paving slabs, timber, ornamental glass and outdoor lighting, as well as decorative ornaments, sculpture and containers from all periods, from Victorian to modern day. You may also discover quirky items to add an individual touch to your design, or objects you can breathe new life into. Sales and auctions are also good sources of decorative pieces. Some specialise in expensive antiques, while others offer a more eclectic range of products at more affordable prices.

As well as bought items, you can also reuse household products. Old pots and pans make ornamental containers, and furniture can also be given new life when treated with coloured preservatives or painted to create a period feel or Bohemian character. Domestic skips and community recycling centres are often useful hunting grounds for secondhand objects and materials; out of courtesy, always ask permission before taking anything from a skip. Depending on your design style, industrial materials can make interesting and quirky features. Sections of concrete pipe, cable drums, metal sheeting and plastic or metal barrels can all be pressed into use. Manufacturers are often happy to give away waste products or ends of line, but always check what they were used for to ensure they are suitable for your intended purpose.


Choosing local materials is one of the most efficient ways to lower your carbon footprint. Always make the best of what the site offers, conserving and reusing as much endemic material as you can. Moving topsoil and rubble is expensive, so reuse it on site if possible, unless it is badly degraded or contaminated. Rubble can always be crushed to create soakaways, or used as footings or sub-bases. Try to improve the soil in your garden, rather than importing new, and use local materials, such as stone and brick, to generate sense of place and anchor your scheme into the landscape. You will probably find sources of similar secondhand materials close to home too.

When possible, use local services and facilities to help create your design, making the most of local craftsman to create features for your garden, as they are more likely to have skills in using the materials you have chosen. And take time to visit local art galleries or arts communities to source people who can fashion unique decorative items to add character and individuality.


While some landscape materials are home-produced, others are sourced from abroad because they have desirable qualities or can be extracted more cheaply, or both. Although the popularity of high quality, low-cost stone paving, particularly sandstone, slate and marble from India and the Far East, is understandable, the price often reflects the exploitative practices of mining companies. UNESCO and other charities have highlighted these industries’ disregard for workers’ safety, deplorable rates of pay, and use of underage workers, including young children. To ensure importers have agreed to a code of fair practice for quarry workers, check that your suppliers are part of the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI).

Unsolicited importation of tropical hardwoods is also of concern, with tropical rainforests plundered to satiate the global market. Initiatives such as the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) scheme have established chains of accountability that ensure only trees ethically sourced from managed plantations are used. So, before purchasing, check that products are part of this scheme and suppliers are able to provide documentary evidence to support their claims.


Recycled stone paving lends a timeless appearance.


Use of local materials can invest a design with parochial charm and may also be a requirement in a listed property or conservation area.



A linear pattern of stone slabs inset into gravel creates a striking effect and can be created easily with secondhand materials.



Ensure hardwood furniture is made from sustainably sourced timber, best identified through a recognised accreditation scheme, such as the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) initiative.



Recycled and repurposed materials, such as pine cones, can be used as a mulch to control weeds and conserve moisture, while stone chips make a decorative and functional path.


Recycled timber, ideal as a foil for plants, has a rustic and weather-worn look. Use tar-free sleepers for steps and raised beds, or informal seating.



Galvanised metal water tanks make eye-catching features in modern and rustic settings.



Almost anything that holds compost can be used to grow plants; just ensure they have drainage holes and select plants that will suit the chosen articles.


When stacked on top of one another, recycled metal canisters make an exciting living wall of herbs and vegetables.


Offcuts from the timber industry and corten steel have been used for dramatic effect to create these chequerboard walls in a small courtyard. The walls link with the other geometric forms in the design.