Reducing our environmental impact for hard landscaping.
It’s winter, and the great river is bursting its banks. As I drive over Temeside Way and cross the bridge from Malvern to Worcester, its evident that the rains in the last week of January are soaking through the soils and running off the paving to add to the swelling.Worcestershire and our neighbouring county are famous for our floods. Tewksbury a few years made national headlines when vast swathes of the county and surrounding country was submerged.
It is events like these that do make me wonder about our ever increasing impact on the natural environment. As someone who changes gardens for a living, I get to see firsthand the habitats that we remove and what we replace it with. With soft landscaping, the greener side of my trade, where one deals with plants and lawns, then this is quite limited, and can often be a positive thing if care is taken. But what I am more concerned with is the necessary violence of the hard landscaping: such as removing surface layers and adding patios and gravel driveways.
There is no doubt in my mind that it is hard landscaping that most severely affects the environment in the work we do: the jobs tend to be bigger as a matter of course, and often there is a soft landscaping element to come after any of the heavier work, so as someone concerned about my environmental impact, what can I do to try to alleviate this?Perhaps it is best to first look at the damage that hard landscaping, by necessity, can do, and then we can consider alternatives to how we deliver the client’s wishes?
Hard landscaping can remove soils and turf when we redo a garden. Whilst this sounds like a disaster for the local environment, it is not always so bad: the first thing to remember is that many of the gardens where we carry this out are not that old, and in fact can often be something of a monoculture. It was how we dispose of this top layer, and what we replace it with that is just as important. Regular readers of my blog will note that I have recently penned an article about peat extraction and how unsustainable such a practice is, so correctly sourcing new turf and topsoil for a garden is extremely important.
Even so, damage to soil structure, and to the subterranean ‘super highway’ of the incredible mycorrhizas can be extensive in any earth-moving landscaping. If it is mainly lawn and grassland that is being reconstructed then this is less a cause for concern than for plants and trees, for the mycorrhiza is a fungus that is found throughout soil the world over, and its growth essentially joins one plant root to that of another, acting as a source of information exchange between them – and capable of networking entire woodlands. It lives on the outside of roots and works in concert with the roots to help absorb water and fight disease. In fact, this fungus is worth a whole new blog itself as it is one of the great secrets of nature that we are only now beginning to understand. Damage to this invisible network will mean that the newer layers of soil and turf will have to merge with the remainder, and whilst this will take time, the effects of the damage is broadly unknown, though in new lawns it is not likely to be much as they do tend to grow and last.
Harking back to my observation about the floodwaters, hard landscaping is also a contributory factor to water management and drainage. With new housing estates encroaching onto green fields in areas like Kempsey and St. Peters and St. Johns, then the water drainage and runoff become serious issues for the neighbouring areas. Lawns and gravel allows water to seep through and slowly work their way to brooks, rivers, and seas, or to build up the water table in the locality. They are gradual mechanisms that break up the runoff. But with increasing areas being given over to tarmac and concrete and rooftop, then this mechanism is becoming bypassed, as water has to be managed by drainage. And it doesn’t take much for these drains to become blocked up and for water to flood out by a roadside, miles from any river.
Obviously, hard landscaping contributes to this, so for many of my clients I first try to inform them of the reasons for leaving ‘soaking up’ space on garden designs to help better water management. Maybe use gravel rather than tarmac for a drive. And then there are the products we use in the landscaping itself. Sourcing sustainable, carbon neutral products is key here, as well as recycling old materials for new purposes.
Limestone is a good alternative to many items, as it is also a carbon sink in its own way whilst also being decorative. There are questions as to its suitability for long term projects and there are some cases where they might be too exposed, so in these cases an alternative should be considered. Essentially, the lesson to learn is that we should consider what alternatives exist to the standard way of hard landscaping materials. (I know that over the last two decades railway sleepers have been quite popular for support structures and hard garden furnishings. I have also heard that car tyres are making an appearance in out of sight requirements, being filled with earth to give them weight to act as buttresses).
So the alternatives do exist if we can manage to think creatively and with a little flexibility in design: recycling items can not only lead to cheaper ways of doing things, but can help in the longer term too.