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Regardless of what particular style you have in mind for your garden and surroundings there are several opportunities to enhance the ecological value of the site


the first thing is to make sure you are not endangering protected species. There is considerable legislation in the form of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) which can be seen on the Natural England web site .

If you are converting an old building or repairing a roof then the most likely challenge is probably bats. Also breeding birds must not be disturbed. If there is any concern about causing harm to protected wild life then you may need to employ a consultant ecologist. If you have any concerns it is worth investigating them as soon as possible because your work might get delayed or halted while a survey is carried out. It may be a good idea anyway to get in touch with a local naturalist society and ask if anyone is interested in giving informal advice about not only what species you have on the site but also what the surrounding area offers. You may find, for instance, that you are on or close to some type of wild life corridor which is worth respecting and enhancing.

The Shared Earth Trust explain the principle well. Awareness has been growing over how important urban gardens and certain other urban areas are becoming for wildlife, especially when so much farm land is composed of huge areas of monocultures.

  • Birds welcome trees which provide winter berries.
  • Butterflies have favourite flowers and bushes.
  • Ponds will attract frogs and newts and a whole variety of other species.
  • Living roofs can be much friendlier to wildlife than concrete tiles.
  • Shelter belts can dramatically improve windy locations.

Growing food

Not everyone wants a vegetable garden but there is a slightly different approach. The Permaculture movement has the notion of an ‘edible landscape‘ and particularly with trees this can be rewarding. Why not plant trees and bushes which bear fruit? Meals can be tastier with less trips to the supermarket if herbs are grown.


A compost heap achieves two ends. It saves a great deal of road transport in the form of carting away organic waste and it also provides a good source of nutrition for the garden – saves on buying bags of peat. There are good ones on the market made of recycled plastic or they can be easily built using short bits of waste timber nailed together with a bit of old carpet on top to prevent smells and keep it warm in winter.

A crucial aspect of compost heaps concerns whether food is going to go on them. If it is, then unless you surround the heap with metal mesh you will almost certainly have a rat farm sooner rather than later. Rats love gnawing through plastic and wood if they can smell food at the other side so all those plastic drum and box types will be useless. Surrounding the heap (including top and bottom) with 25mm chicken wire (or finer) will fix the problem

Reed beds can be used to process grey water from the house and this may be useful for keeping ponds filled, watering the garden, flushing toilets or, in combination with composting toilets, there may be no need to connect to main drainage. See below. They may also act as a tertiary treatment for water from a septic tank. Reed bed design is quite specialized and requires professional help.

Composting toilet waste can be used as a fertilizer provided it is not applied to growing vegetables. Use around the base of fruit trees, bushes etc. or dig it into the ground.

Surface water drainage

SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems) can play a useful rôle in preventing flash floods and stopping sewers overflowing. However it may require careful site design to make it work.

Growing fuel

If you happen to have timber on your land which you intend to use for fuel then it is worth putting effort into designing a set-up for handling the timber. This may include rough stacking, sawing, splitting, drying and storing. The means of handling between the various stages should be considered and also the proximity to the stove or boiler. See Burning timber.

Landscaping materials

Try to use materials which are least ecologically damaging and with the least embodied energy (including the plants you use). Try to resist the instant ‘Chelsea flower show’ approach which relies on bringing in all sorts of exotic materials followed by endless trips to garden centres. Often there are materials left over from the building of the house and these can be used in the landscaping. Fences, gates, pergolas, shelters sheds and small outbuildings can utilise timber offcuts, as can the construction of bin stores and compost heap enclosures.

Drainage – for land drainage, both conventional and strip, clayware products are available and are preferable to PVC. Using porous paving made from recycled polythene fits in well with SUDS

Soil – when possible use the soil from the site rather than carting it in

level changes – avoid concrete, bricks and blocks (see gabions for retaining walls). Check out reclaimed railway sleepers, reclaimed bricks and old stone (which is often of a quality too low for use in house wall building)

hard surface finishes / paths – try to avoid large areas of concrete, paviours and asphalt because of embodied energy (and see SUDS ). Investigate recycled porous polythene paving systems with grass or recycled gravel infill.

For shed, greenhouse and cabin bases there are various systems on the market using recycled plastic porous paving and these have the advantage of being excellent for draining surface water provided the finished level is above the level at which ponding might occur.This means that there is no timber in contact with wet ground (Treated timber will still rot if is in contact with wet ground – have a look at any farmer’s fence which is more than 15 years old).

With a lightweight structure like a garden shed or greenhouse it is usually sufficient to remove the topsoil, lay some geotextile to stop weeds pushing through, fill the area with hardcore (this stops rodents burrowing under) and then put the porous paving on top, with the plastic paving units placed centrally under where the walls are to be. Top it off with pea gravel. If the shed has its own floor then porous paving will only be needed under the walls (with hardcore under the floor). With a greenhouse, a central path of porous paving can be used with soil beds to either side. A shed without a built-in floor will need hardcore and porous paving (or concrete slabs) over the whole area.

With a larger, heavier (and more expensive) building such as a log cabin, sauna or timber summer house the same principle can be used because porous paving can take quite high loadings provided they are continuous linear loadings rather than point loadings, and provided the hardcore beneath them goes down to firm ground and is well compacted. Also it becomes more important to raise the base to 150 mm above surrounding ground since the effects of moisture (including fallen snow) may be more serious.

This becomes a sliding scale and the heavier and the more valuable the building is, the more it makes sense to use the same principles you would for the foundations of a house. See foundations.

garden walls -Not quite sure about this tall wall but it’s interesting. Stones contained within wire mesh on a timber frame. A kind of tall thin gabion.  Quite elegant and easy to recycle. To nit-pick – how does the embodied energy of the wire mesh compare with using mortar?  It certainly doesn’t take up much space width-wise which can be important in countries like the Netherlands and the UK where land is often at a premium.


Very thin gabions? in Almere, Netherlands

The Dutch are quite creative with garden walls. In urban areas they often build small garden walls of logs during the summer and then burn them in stoves in the winter. This helps the logs dry out quickly.

planting – if you can grow from seed this avoids the need for sourcing and transporting peat. It also removes the need for plastic plant pots. Similarly for lawns, growing from seed means that turf doesn’t need transporting and the soil doesn’t need replacing at the turf farm. Remember with trees and bushes that small plants (around 300mm) usually achieve faster establishment and new growth than larger transplants so they soon catch up.


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