You don’t need a garden designer.

My local council (UK) is proposing to take away some allocated allotment land for housing and infrastructure development. Many are opposed to this. We were given the opportunity to voice whether we were for or against this proposed development. One of the points I made in my letter of objection was that although there is a minimal amount of public parks in our city, this is landscape that is forced upon us. Somebody chooses which plants can be planted. Paths are placed to guide through strategically placed structures like trees, children’s play areas, skate park, rivers and ponds. Allotments give people of varying backgrounds the opportunity to express themselves using plants. I choose which plants to plant, when and where. My plants are all kept away from harmful chemicals like glycolphate. The shed can be placed where I choose to place it and I can build it with the materials I choose. Learning what to plant and when takes time and often by trial and error. My children are in a good position in that they observe the cycles of the plants in our allotment and my garden. They will be in a much better position to be creative in a garden than what I was when I completed my formal horticulture training. For most of us the process of learning how to design and build a garden can take years of trial and error. We all need to have a bit of confidence in ourselves, with a little effort we can makes small changes to our gardens. Little by little as we learn from our successes and failures we can slowly build our own philosophy.

The years I have worked as a self-employed gardener, my family have been blessed with all we need, and some. Looking at other peoples careers I have at times been envious of those who have set contracts and have the opportunity working in gardens that have been designed and managed by famous garden designers. I did have a very short spell (a few weeks) working in a garden that had the input and advice of garden designers for the priveledged. Literally buying a garden design/installation from a Chelsea Show and installing it in your private garden looks great in the instant, but over time it can be seen that thought was not put into the context of the individuals garden aspect. Why does one individual need so much land just to show wealth and prestige, how did they obtain their wealth? Working conditions in my experience for the super rich are not good, gardens are run on shoe string budgets. A small garden in the average working or middle class home can have far more plant and wildlife diversity than most large estate gardens I have visited or worked in. In larger gardens money is spent on labourers mowing and trimming lawns, litter picking, racking leaves and spraying. The skilled gardener is left with very little time to do detailed work like weeding, pruning and propagating. Many of the large gardens I have visited in the UK were owned by families who became wealthy through the slave trade, and through the days of the British Empire. Their gardens reflect their disregard for their fellow humans and nature, and the fact that most of them can’t be managed to a very high standards reflects the false economy they were designed in. Forests were cut down, hill, and peasant tenants moved to grant pleasurable views of objects collected from around the globe. Famous designers like Capability Brown were hired to entertain the desires and egos of the rich. The motives in his designs were in my opinion not for society as a whole. I personally would rather visit gardens of the peasants, healers and monks of the past whose gardens provided food, medicine and pleasure to the ordinary people. But these gardens have not been preserved, instead the elite have provided us with substitute products we have to buy. I do not identify with the artefacts and buildings of the rich that we are told is our heritage, and what’s worse is we have to pay to see them in many cases.

Many years ago I decided to employ a garden designer in my very small gardening business. Sometimes we lack confidence and make rash decisions. I was trying to compensate weaknesses in my plant knowledge as well as a weakness in drawing and presenting ideas. Very quickly I learnt that many garden designers have wonderful ideas, but these ideas are not always practical. They may have good graphic art skills and talents, but very few have a practical knowledge from working with plants. Some may be limited to their experiences of gardening and are constrained by theory they have learnt or their signature style they are known for. What I should have done is taken on work that I knew I could handle myself. One of the designs this garden designer drew for me incorporated a very large waterfall and a river. My presumption was that the person who designed it knew and had researched the construction of their design. The implementation of the pond was a disaster with it running dry in a few hours due to evaporation, there needed to be a huge compensation for storage of water that was not thought out in the design. I never did finish this water feature to my satisfaction, but I did learn a big lesson to only take on work that I know I can fix myself if something goes wrong. I have done work for many clients who years after having a design and installation of a garden call me in to prune all the plants. Often they have no knowledge of the plants that have been planted and as a result the garden is a jungle in need of taming. Sometimes the plants are planted close together to look good instantly, but over time they become too big and unmanageable. My favourite example of this is ‘Swedish Birch’ planted in a row to create height and structure. Birch never look good after they have been pruned, if they are reduced many branches span out causing a weakness at this new point of growth as well a place to store disease. They are best left to grow tall. When the gardener is patient and allows the garden to grow at the pace of his/her education in gardening, the garden becomes sustainable. Instant design builds often provide a garden that becomes a burden and expensive to maintain as outside help is required due to the owners lack of gardening experience.

In the background the two large trees with darker green are Swedish Birch that have been topped. (Any reputable arboriculturist will advise never to prune Swedish Birch . They should be left or felled, never pruned.) They now have many branches growing out in all directions. The tree is no longer has a long straight stem as seen when they grow naturally in a forest. There are weaknesses in the structure of the tree where the stem has been topped and branches have been pruned over the years.

In the beginning of the Christian account of creation, God created the garden of Eden and all man and woman needs were provided for. Sometimes I wonder if one of the skills we lost at the ‘fall of Man’, was the ability to see all that God has provided for us. Today we are specialists, on person grows the food, the other fixes computers for example, and another persons trade or work can seem beyond our capabilities,almost a mystery. When I started gardening seriously, I felt inferior to other horticulturists, despite having some formal training. Tribes living away from civilization use the materials that are around them to provide for all their human needs, they can’t pop down to the garden center to tie a branch that is blocking a pathway, they have to improvise. Specializing in one small sector of the gardening industry is not always helpful. Being able to present pretty garden designs without knowing the uses of plants, their growth methods, as well as how to prune and care for them, can mean plants are put in the wrong place.

I am grateful that my father on weekends and holidays encouraged me to help him on construction sites when I was a child. It gave me a good foundation of building structurally sound products. I now use these skills when doing hard landscaping. Having seen how skills are often transferable from the construction industry to being a gardener, I try to keep an open mind to using other crafts to broaden my approach to gardening, and perhaps bring solutions that I have never thought of before. A good friend who passed away used to tell me, “Steal with your eyes.” Duncan Fraser could fix cars, build houses, run a transport business, pastor a church, just to name a few of his skills. I watched Duncan on a building site once, he would make friends with artisans and show them respect, asking questions and showing an interest in what they were making. He was like a sponge taking in many different techniques and storing them in his creative brain. We all have life experiences we can call upon when we design a garden. The more we practice, the closer we will get to finding what we really want for our garden.

Garden designs by designers who are only able to present pretty garden designs without knowing how big or where plant best grow as well as how to prune and care for them, can mean plants are put in the wrong place.

Garden designs by designers who are only able to present pretty garden designs without knowing how fast, how big or where plants best grow as well as how to prune and care for them, can mean plants are put in the wrong place. I have not had the opportunity to work in a fancy RHS ornamental garden (or the like), and in a way I think that this was to my advantage. I worked mainly in small gardens for elderly gardening enthusiasts who knew the plants in their garden. I did as I was told, and learnt many different approaches to gardening. These gardens had plants that grow well in their locality. I did tree surgery courses and was able to see how plants reacted to hard pruning. Carpentry and rural skill courses have also broadened my approach gardening. Learning to sharpen carpenter saws is similar to sharpening pruning saws. I don’t think that being practical is all genetics, I play musical instruments, read and have other interests, I don’t wake up every morning wanting to do DIY repairs. Learning to play the harp presently is forcing me to remember what it was like as a beginner learning to practice the piano. Teaching my children to play the piano sometimes frustrates me when they can’t do simple techniques that to me now are second nature. Learning the harp is humbling me. It reminds me of how inferior and inadequate I felt when I cared for peoples gardens as a fresh horticulture graduate. My favourite gardens that I have worked on have been built with whatever material was available due to lack of money, and designed within the constraints of the limited skill and space the owner had. Most of these clients have lived through the Second World War and have experienced rations and doing without. They don’t throw away plastic, rusty nails and screws or old pieces of wood for example, it might be useful one day. Plants and structures are placed with function in mind.

My allotment and home garden have been thriving this June/July 2021 with warm weather and regular rain. Weeds, herbs, fruits, flowers, grow together in harmony providing food, craft material, medicine and household products. Each time I visit my allotment is like finding a treasure, the soil is always giving me and my family gifts. Amongst other tasks I am doing a lot of training of my fruit trees by tying and pruning branches. My first thought was to order some gardening twine and wire through Amazon, to do the training of my plants. Thankfully in doing some other practical tasks that meant I had waste material, brought me some solutions that cost me no money.

This June I did some repairs to my bicycle and in doing this I was inspired to do some small changes to my home garden and allotment.

Removing the sprocket for the first time on my bicycle. I bought a fitting that is place in the vice to help remove the sprocket.

Having got rid of a lot of my petrol and electric powered tools, I created space in my workshop for a good bicycle stand to do maintenance on our bikes at home. Repairing bicycles is not my favourite hobby, I am learning through my mistakes and I have a manual ‘Haynes complete bicycle maintenance’. I also watch YouTube videos and ask questions when I visit our local bicycle supply shop. I had to refit the sprocket as the one I had, had worn out. I was informed at one of the Bicycle shops, that this year due to Covid, the Suez Canal blockage, and Brexit all the bicycle suppliers have run out of these sorts of parts. Whilst this person was talking I thought to myself of how vulnerable we are in the UK to shortages of most products that we import. We don’t make things anymore, we just push papers around and contract others to do work for us. I found a part, at the local market bicycle repair man.

Amongst other tasks I am doing a lot of training of my fruit tries by tying and pruning branches.

June/July 2021: The weather has bee warm with regular rain and plants are thriving at my allotment. A lot of plants need to be pruned and trained/tied in.
June: 2021 Fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, weeds and plants grown for craft all live together in harmony on my allotment.

Repairing bicycles is not my favourite hobby, I am learning through my mistakes and I have a manual ‘Haynes complete bicycle maintenance’.

Fitting the sprocket was not a problem, but I found adjusting the gears difficult. I try to do all the work on my bicycle to reduce my household costs. Each time my chain fell off and got stuck between the sprocket and wheel, I questioned my lifestyle choices. Why can’t I find a well paid and steady job that will allow me to pay someone to fix things for me? Why does it seem I am working all the time, when in reality my paid working hours are shorter than most? I replace my bicycle tyre, asking myself what I could use this wast material for, I am enlightened with and idea. My decision is to cut the tyre into strips and use it to protect trees when I tie them with string or wire.

Cut bicycle tyre into strip using metal cutters that were given to me, an old man throwing away his tools.
Wrap rubber bicycle tyre strip around tree.
String from bales of Hay tied round tree to train it. The string is nylon, very strong and durable.
Untangled wire and nylon string from bale of straw used to train rosed onto a brick wall.

I think in the future we should be more prepared and not only react when there is a crisis.

It’s hard to find who we really are in societies where the state and big businesses provide most of our needs. We are born in state of the art hospitals, educated in institutions with the latest knowledge at our fingertips. Corporations provide secure employment with predictable work methods and patterns. Media moguls entertain and help us relax, food and household goods are cheap and readily available in one stop shops or online services. Religion is organised and presents all the answers to the mysteries of the universe. Instantly we can escape the reality of our every day life using aeroplanes, cars, and trains to explore the globe. Yet at times we feel very vulnerable despite the wonders of modern living. During lock down many suddenly felt the need to get closer to nature through growing plants in their home garden. But for many this was an insurmountable challenge. It’s hard to find who we really are in societies where the state and big businesses provide most of our needs. We are born in state of the art hospitals, educated in institutions with the latest knowledge at our fingertips. Corporations provide secure employment with predictable work methods and patterns. Media moguls entertain and help us relax, food and household goods are cheap and readily available in one stop shops or online services. Religion is organised and presents all the answers to the mysteries of the universe. Instantly we can escape the reality of our every day life using aeroplanes, cars, and trains to explore the globe. Yet at times we feel very vulnerable despite the wonders of modern living. During lock down many suddenly felt the need to get closer to nature through growing plants in their home garden. But for many this was an insurmountable challenge. I think for the future we should be more prepared and not only react when there is a crisis.

Whatever your background, you know best what you need from your garden. The trick is to use the ideas you have for your garden, your skill set, and what material and plants you have around you to inspire you to create a garden. Doing this means that the garden will always give us something to do, and will motivate us to be creative.

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