Sustainable gardens – eco-friendly ideas for your outdoor space

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  • Every garden has the potential to become a beautiful natural space that plays a crucial role in enhancing and supporting the well-being of people, wildlife and the planet.

    “During the pandemic, people have enjoyed their gardens more than ever and have become more aware of wildlife, so they are increasingly keen to learn more about gardening and gardening to improve the environment,” says the HRH. “Fortunately, getting more out of gardens without harming the planet isn’t difficult or expensive.”

    See all our garden ideas and expert tips to improve your outdoor space

    We talk to gardening experts to explore the ways we can all do our part, creating sustainable gardens for any space.

    Sustainable gardens – eco-friendly ideas

    1. Create a woodland wonderland

    Image credit: Mark Bolton

    “The UK was historically mostly covered in trees and woods,” Phoebe Aubury explains to Natural design studio. “This gives us an important clue as to what we need to do to allow native species to thrive in the future.”

    “This idea definitely breaks the mold in terms of what is considered aesthetically desirable in the UK, as we mainly see open spaces and endless lawns. But we propose that the benefits result in a pioneering new forest look for gardens, where shade and shelter are plentiful! Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with relaxing swings, dim lighting, and glades for dining.

    2. Build permaculture flower beds

    sustainable gardens permaculture raised beds

    Image credit: Natural Design Studio – Permaculture raised beds

    “The word permaculture is derived from the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture,'” explains Phoebe. “It aims to work with nature, not against it, mimicking the systems we see in the natural world – using them to our advantage. This is not only good for the planet, but it will also significantly reduce the maintenance needed in the garden.

    “Permaculture beds need less watering and fertilizing as they produce and hold their own moisture and nutrients, you may find you get a better yield and more flowers from this!”

    3. Balance hard and soft landscaping


    Image credit: Colin Poole

    “Choose a design that strikes a good balance between hard and soft landscaping, ideally at least 60% soft landscaping,” advises James Scott MD of The Garden Company. Opt for gentle landscaping, meaning “self-sufficient and not requiring ‘extreme maintenance’ techniques (e.g. excessive use of fertilizer).”

    4. Choose well-thought-out materials

    Earthbag walls

    mage credit: Natural Design Studio – Earthbag Wall

    When planning materials for any form of landscaping, be mindful. “Think about the impact of each material you use in your garden,” encourages Phoebe. “Try to use recycled and reclaimed materials as much as possible and think about sustainable solutions for your hard landscaping.”

    Using logs, cob and earthbags will utilize natural and renewable resources and create beautiful, sustainable solutions for decorative or retaining walls, while saving on garden landscaping costs.

    5. Encourage wildlife with planting pollinators

    Sustainable gardens Planting pollinators

    Image credit: Natural Design Studio

    “Opening up your garden to nature is crucial to creating a sustainable garden,” says Phoebe of Natural Design Studio. “Each wildlife species has a role to play in creating and maintaining a balanced environment. As humans depend on a symbiosis of other species, proposing our gardens as a nature reserve may be part of the long-term solution to species decline.

    “Things you can do to encourage wildlife are to plant shrubs and trees. Leave holes or gaps in the fence, install a pond, create wildflower patches, and plant plenty of pollinator-friendly native plants.

    7. Reduce, reuse, recycle and reuse

    How to recycle a planter

    Image credit: Colin Poole

    “This mantra applies to gardening as it does to everything else,” says James Scott. ‘Some simple examples include: using your garden waste to make your own compost, reusing unwanted panes as cold frame covers. Repair garden furniture rather than replace it – or buy second-hand.

    Related: 24 Free Garden Ideas – Easy Ways to Improve Gardens Without Spending a Penny!

    8. Be more water efficient

    Greenhouse Sustains

    Image credit: Tim Young

    Save water by reducing the need for on-site artificial watering systems (once new gardens are fully established) by designing planting schemes to be as self-contained as possible.

    9. Incorporate edible plants

    garden trends 2020

    Image credit: Dobbies

    “Incorporate edible plants by introducing a vegetable garden into the ornamental space,” suggests James. “While you may have room for a large vegetable patch some distance from the house, it is good to also incorporate a carefully designed vegetable patch closer to the house – as long as it is both aesthetically pleasing and practical! “

    “Enjoying a few home-grown herbs or veggies can be a fun way to cut down on buying plastic-wrapped produce at the supermarket.”

    10. Avoid chemicals – go organic

    Sustainable garden with watering can

    Image credit: Mark Bolton

    “Chemicals are a short-term solution, but they create long-term problems,” warns Phoebe. “Pesticides and herbicides pollute and disturb pollinators and micro-organisms in the garden. Biological methods and mechanical controls take care of pest and weed problems by creating a balance between species and plants.

    “For example, ladybugs eat green flies and ground cover plants suppress weeds. It can save you time and money but will also look amazing, ground cover species such as Vinca Minor produce a profusion of periwinkle blue flowers.

    11. Include front gardens

    Front garden path

    Photo credit: Bridget Peerson

    “Front garden ideas can be particularly at risk of being more ‘grey’ than ‘green’, but it is possible to design a planting that works well and still leaves room for parking etc.” explains James Scott. “For example, planting vertically on walls and boundaries, planting in corners that aren’t needed for parking, or adding container planting in a small space.”

    12. Choose vernacular materials for landscaping

    raised beds

    Image credit: James Scott/The Garden Company

    What does this mean exactly? James Scott explains: “Those that are indigenous to the garden setting and reflect local building traditions. They are natural materials and their environmental benefits include greatly reduced transportation and less energy-intensive production processes.

    13. Establish a Wildlife Sanctuary

    cottage garden idea with water

    Image credit: James Scott/The Garden Company

    “A private garden can be a healthy and vital refuge for wildlife in a wider network of places connecting urban green spaces with the countryside,” says James. “The opportunities are endless and include: planting borders of wildflowers or meadows if you have the space. Creating ponds, replacing fences with green boundaries all help to signify a welcoming space for that wildlife can thrive. He also suggests, “Build an insect hotel or introduce a bird feeder. Your garden can become a work of art when it attracts birds, bees and butterflies.”

    What makes a garden sustainable?

    We asked the experts of the Royal Horticultural Society to define what makes a sustainable garden. “A sustainable garden will limit the use of concrete and other harsh landscaping products. Use minimal irrigation, maintain fertility with minimal purchased fertilizer and manure using composting to generate nutrients.

    To create a sustainable garden, they recommend “filling all available space with plants, including vines on walls, fences, and hedges instead of fences.”

    “Have features that support wildlife, including ponds and trees. Provide shade from the summer heat and shelter from the winter cold, reducing home cooling and heating costs. Control pests, weeds and diseases through integrated pest management rather than relying on pesticides.

    ‘Reduce pollution by choosing plants with hairy leaves, having enough planted soil to absorb downpours limiting flooding. Avoid using plastics and other materials that are difficult to reuse or recycle.

    Why is sustainable gardening important?

    “Sustainable gardening protects the environment from damage, flooding and contamination,” says the RHS. Eco-friendly gardening limits the production of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, and captures carbon in garden soils, helping to fight climate change. “The use of scarce resources such as water is also reduced by sustainable gardening practices.”

    sustainable cork plant labels

    Image credit: Tim Young

    What are sustainable plants?

    “Any plant that can be grown without reliance on watering, heavy use of fertilizers or requiring the regular use of pesticides is sustainable,” an RHS spokesperson said. “In practice, this means choosing the right plant for the soil and situation and lending itself to good environmental gardening practices to nurture them.”

    How can I make my garden more environmentally friendly?

    “Grow lots of plants, especially on walls and fences,” RHS experts recommend. ‘Planting Hedges; consider green roofs; avoid watering lawns; choose plants that suit the soil and site. Add trees and ponds where possible, compost where possible, and avoid paving or building over gardens as much as possible.

    “Plants are essential to sustainable gardens with masses of foliage and roots that benefit the environment, biodiversity and, indeed, human health and well-being. Trees are especially valuable and there are beautiful little trees even for small gardens. Aim to have plenty of native wild plants as they provide food for caterpillars and other larvae while garden flowers are rich in nectar for adult insects.

    “Where containers are needed in small patio gardens or on balconies, for example, try to use rainwater collected from roofs or reuse kitchen water and use peat-free potting soil and provide thoughtful ideas on planting and landscaping.”