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garden design with native plants

modern garden design with native plants uk

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design & words Amir Schlezingeramir schlezinger

Ecological Common Sense

Many of us, city dwellers, indulge in modern meticulous gardens, finely tuned for low maintenance with contrived, eclectic mixes of floras from every part of the planet. Yet, with a devastating decay of our ecology, considerable decline in wildlife prevalence and rapidly fading senses of identity, place and environment, there's plenty to gain from utilising native plants in every garden design, whatever its scope, method, or location. Modernity exhausts its significance when merely accommodating for immediacy, promoting a universal noxious imbalance. With a touch of awareness, creativity and resourcefulness, every landscape discipline is able to achieve far-reaching, inspiring outgrowths by specifying abundant and readily available native flora.

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Enchanting, forgiving and pivotally central in sustaining ecological balance, these plant species we take for granted, when imaginatively reimagined, are transformed from inconvenient weeds to authentic, graceful and natural ingredients which yield a new artistic canvas – that of a progressive, environmentally conscious, modern lifestyle.

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1. ferns 2. trees 3. bulbs 4. herbs 5. shrubs 6. rushes 7. sedges 8. grasses 9. climbers 10. perennials

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1 ferns

fronded allies

Ferns abound in the British Isles, with about 60 indigenous species. Having survived enormous frond-munching reptiles, a Victorian Fern-Fever and relentless citification, these resilient, easy-to-grow, fast-growing plants continue to fascinate contemporary garden designers with their architectural qualities, minimal maintenance requirements and broad usages. Whether in a natural garden, urban roof terrace, small back garden or secluded courtyard, many native British ferns and their dainty cultivars provide invaluable textures, verdant tones and graceful forms which integrate readily and robustly into diverse environments. In incidental crevices, cascading through green walls, as dense ground cover or individual specimens, our fronded allies inhabit timeless niches, counterbalancing flowering plants.

2 trees

countless combinations

Selecting a tree forms one of the most exciting yet responsible tasks for any landscape designer. When choosing a native British tree, we're somewhat limited by a concise array of about 36 species. Ingeniously, when bolstered by countless combinations of brand-new cultivars and shaped forms, a turning point materialises in creating fresh outlooks. When redefined as pleached, coppiced, pollarded, feathered, hedged, espaliered, arched, cloud-shaped, multi-stemmed, grafted or weeping structures, the unnoticeable is brought to the fore, at the crossroad of horticulture and design. Field maple, Hornbeam, Beech, Birch, Oak, Hazel, Wild cherry, Whitebeam, Rowan, Willow, Hawthorn and Elder are cultivated in hundreds of varieties throughout Europe which enable both subtleties in design and distinction in sustained performance.

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3 bulbs

carpets of renewal

Invasive extrinsic species, sheer habitat loss and cross pollination with cultivated varieties have peripheralised most of the British Isles' bulbous plants. These lenient creatures of woodlands and meadows are increasingly rare to find, and when they're discovered, it's often not by ardent conservationists, but rather by opportunist poachers. Snowdrop, Bluebell, Wild daffodil and garlic, Wood anemone, Grape hyacinth, Snakehead fritillary, Summer snowflake and Autumn Crocus form vast carpets of renewal which mark the change of seasons. It's certainly tricky to establish thriving colonies of native bulbs in urban spaces without a reliable seed provenance, optimal conditions and heaps of patience, yet the garden biodiversity, lessened management and seasonal rhythm they maintain are indeed priceless – some of the most overlooked factors of insular, unsustainable urbanisation.

4 herbs

nectar-rich buzz

Wild garlic, chives and marjoram, Round-leaved, corn and water mint, Meadowsweet, Woodruff, Yarrow, Comfrey, Betony, Roman chamomile, Sorrel and Garlic mustard, the native herbs of Britain, continue to be celebrated in modern-day cuisine, as much as they were in medieval kitchens. Culinary and aromatic herbs aren't only exceptionally handy in many a cooking occasion, and are highly ornamental, but are also potent magnets to airborne wildlife, creating a buzz with their nectar-rich blooms for several months of the year. Easily grown, maintained and propagated, diversely useful and always energising, a succulent herbal stockpile is part and parcel of any native landscape garden.

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5 shrubs

reconciled balance

You'd be hard-pushed to see a House sparrow in towns these days; a once abundant bird species, vital in sustaining a balanced ecosystem. Impoverished habitats, acutely endangered due to atrocious plantings of ghastly Leylandii hybrid conifers which contribute next to nothing environmentally, are further lessened by surface impermeability which substitutes thriving gardens with desolate off-street parking and hard landscaping. Merely ornamental shrub selections, as well as Bamboo, Eucalyptus and Olive, are way wide of the ecological mark, inevitably undermining land and the destitute wildlife struggling to survive in it.

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Native shrubs produce diverse berries, with Buckthorn, Dogwood, Elder, 12 Willow species, Guelder Rose, Wayfaring tree, Scotch broom, Juniper, Wild privet, Butcher's broom and a dozen native Dog roses plentifully sustaining fauna. Introduced to the UK in mid 18th-century, Amelanchier lamarckii, the Snowy mespilus of North America, was first recorded from the wild 150 years later – now spreading via bird-sown fruits. This successful introduction of a small plant with spring nectar, autumn colour, winter berries and architectural outline highlights the potential of integrating ornamental shrubs which are also useful as modern garden design focal points, to forge balance in among the scores of must-haves we all can't resist in our garden inventories.

6 rushes

ornamental cultivars

With ten native Luzula species, crowned by the Greater wood-rush and its ornamental cultivars, these largely evergreen, architectural plants flourish in damp shaded woodlands. A tenth of the world's Juncus species enjoy diverse habitats throughout the British Isles with a presence of nearly 30. The stately Hard rush, Juncus inflexus, produces upright clumps of up to one metre in height, with alluring blue varieties, contrasted by the smaller although striking Corkscrew rush, Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’. In the wild, Rushes are indicators of ancient woodland and thriving riverbanks, while for both naturalistic and modern landscape designs, their variegation, colour and unusual stems provide a broad spectrum of uses – from minimalist layouts to sprawling drifts interspersed with ferns, perennials and bulbs.

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7 sedges

versatile landscape

Highly adaptable and present in all of UK's habitat ranges, sedges are chiefly found in wetlands, though modulate and undulate their tussocks interchangeably across grasslands, woodlands, as well as rocky hillsides and cliff ledges. Carex forms the 5th largest flowering plant genus, and naturally commands Britain's sedge list too, where this grass-like perennial constitutes nearly half the 65 indigenous species of 16 genera. From dainty Deergrass, Needle spike-rush and slender club-rush, through fluffy eye-catching Cottongrass and white beak-sedge, to the impressive architectural clumps of Common club-rush, Black bog-rush and Bulrush, native sedges narrate the British Isles as effective guardians of the environment. When integrated into landscape design planting plans, sedges are exceptionally effective near lakes, in ponds, around water features, through rock gardens, meadows and mixed borders, and as stand-alone specimens.

8 grasses

wildlife-rich grasslands

Grasses comprise the 5th largest flowering plant family, covering nearly half the land on Earth, yet only 0.4 percent of the UK remains as wildlife-rich grasslands, with 2 out of its 6 pasture habitat types virtually destroyed. Ornamental grasses have been enjoying a revival in the past three decades, particularly in Holland, Germany, Belgium and the USA, with numerous cultivars emerging to satisfy a hankering for their natural beauty in shape, showy panicles and harmony within perennial meadows. Yet, while many contemporary garden designers include primarily Chinese, Japanese and Mediterranean grass species, spellbound by sheer horticultural exuberance, countless site layouts forsake biological integrity in soil structure, extraneous invasiveness, water necessities, sustainable upkeep, associated micro-organisms, environmental impact of conveyance and shortfall in local growing.

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With around 20 native British perennial grasses of exceptional beauty, and dozens of eye-catching cultivars continually raised, the ecological paradigm of the landscape design profession can endorse, ameliorate and rebalance biodiversity en masse in definitive criteria. Briza, Calamagrostis, Deschampsia, Leymus, Milium, Molinia, Sesleria, Holcus and Melica extend to every core habitat, from coasts to moors and mountains. Indeed, sensibly paired growing conditions, extended flowering seasons, efficient irrigation, undisturbed patches to support indigenous biota and minimal lawn mowing, complemented by organic weed and pest control, will go a long way to distinguish thriving, dynamic and stable ecosystems, landscapes and private gardens.

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9 climbers

nectar, berries & fruit

Honeysuckle, Clematis, Hop and Ivy form the British Isles' humble quartet of native climbers – the heavenly scented twiner, a dainty scrambler, one useful beer-flavouring climber and the pertinacious clinger with two further subspecies to boot. The many cultivars and hybrids of these vigorous creepers inspire countless garden design combinations, in both traditional and contemporary settings. While Clematis vitalba is perfumed, though can be invasive, it's declared an unwanted organism in New Zealand, and the Ivy is banned in most of the USA; Hop found fame as Kent's county flower, while Honeysuckle did the same in Warwickshire. Small beer aside, all loyal members of this twisty tetrad sustain significant wildlife habitats, catering shelter for mammals and birds, nectar for insects and vital winter fodders.

10 perennials

enchanting meadows

Agricultural pesticides, deforestation, landfills, water pollution and insidiousness of favoured far-flung species have all amassed to an accelerated eradication of numerous British native perennials. Yet Bellflower, Foxglove, Primrose and Sea thrift remain some of the UK's best-loved native wild plants, represented as many county flowers, while Monk's-hood, Bugle, Hemp-agrimony, Cranesbill, Cinquefoil and Pasque flower signify not only distinct environments and seasons, but also the pressing need for habitat regeneration. Oxeye daisy, Ragged robin, Viper's bugloss, Common and Greater knapweed, Kidney vetch, Bird's-foot trefoil, Yellow toadflax, Musk mallow, Red campion, Small and devil's-bit scabious, Heal-all, Red clover and Purple loosestrife assemble naturally into majestic, enchanting meadows – emulated, rekindled and recreated in contemporary garden design layouts.

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While many of these native perennials bear yellow, white or pink blooms, the usefulness of Cornflower's light blue and intensity of red Poppies help balance colour palettes. Present in Britain since the Iron Age, turning into a pervasive weed, and followed by a decline due to intensive herbicide usage, Cornflower has been enjoying a resurgence in the last four decades, reintroduced as a desirable wildflower seed. Although an annual and archaeophyte, as is the Poppy, this delicate wildflower symbolises the advantages of smart biodiversity planning, when many of the garden escapees of today's gardens paradoxically replenish the very habitats they were once banished from...

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– coda –

Native Gardens

From coastal cliffs to grassland, across heathland, through wetland and into ancient woodland, there are over 1400 vascular native plants in the British Isles; doubled when including naturalised species. Few of these genera are stable – 60 percent are in rapid decline, of which 15 percent critically endangered, with Ghost orchid, Common juniper, Spiked rampion, Plymouth pear and Red helleborine topping the list. Along with this vanishing precious flora, so diminishes the wildlife which relies upon it, and entire ecosystems disintegrate irreparably.

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At a time when three quarters of the UK's landscape is dedicated to agriculture, the collective role of garden and landscape designers is greater than ever – momentous in its obligation to educate, vital in restoring balance, and extensive in planning a biodiverse future. On the smaller residential scale, opportunities to integrate native plants into modern garden design layouts should be embraced as fascinating and highly rewarding challenges; not only to evolve sustainability and innovation, but also, rather endearingly, to restore the authenticity and concord of a once truly green group of islands!