The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the UK is currently running a campaign called ‘Greening Grey Britain’. And all jokes aside about the English weather (having just got back from a full week of mist and cloud, gosh, there is truth in the jokes!), there is a serious objective here. Over the past decade, the Brits have been paving over their front gardens; so much so that there has been an increase of 39 square kilometres of ‘grey’ within front gardens alone; one in three now have no plants at all.
And so the campaign is a call to action, asking the nation to:
‘transform hard, cold, grey areas into living, planted, beautiful places that enrich lives and benefit the environment’.
When I saw the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers’ (AILDM) National Design Award winners last month, my heart sank. I thought of grey Britain and realised that we are at serious risk of going the same way ourselves. Yes, we are fortunate to have our blue skies most days, but we seem to be increasingly ripping out trees and shrubs and replacing them with paving and pools. We don’t want anything that might drop a leaf on our hard surfaces, heaven forbid, so we’ll just have a few neat plants along the side and then paving all the way.
Technically, I am sure the winning garden (above) of AILDM’s most prestigious Allan Correy Award did excel, but if there was 10% green space I’d be surprised. Is this really a garden?
As I looked down the list of AILDM winning gardens, the story was the same. Only one, the ‘Plantscape’ winner, had a clear majority of green over grey and almost all were about expensive, showy constructions, not living, beautiful gardens. The marginalised planting was static, year round green infrastructure, any flowering shrubs clipped free of buds and seasonal variation not required. Even the categories of the awards were defined in terms of money: the ‘Residential $150,000+’ category and the ‘Commercial More than $100,000’ category.
AILDM is in a tricky position. It can only award winners to gardens that enter the race. And clearly property owners are asking for paving and pools. The awards are also based on meeting a brief, documentation excellence and innovative solutions to difficult sites, alongside planting and other criteria associated with aesthetics and end product.
But it seems these award winners do symbolise a sad trend in gardening. A trend of ripping out trees and mixed garden beds, of outsourcing garden maintenance and focussing on impressive builds at the expense of the myriad benefits a ‘true’ garden provides. An increasing number of robust, scientific studies show significant physical and mental health benefits; the ability to filter the air and reduce pollution; the reduction in flood risk; the benefits of a balanced ecosystem; all provided by biodiverse gardens.
Ironically, the RHS also site one campaign aim as reducing the risk of heat waves, aided by the cooling effects of shade, evapotranspiration and the reflective properties of plants. If the UK think they have a problem with urban heat island effect, what about us?
I love plants and I love writing about plants, but my real passion is exploring garden design and articulating what makes a particular garden so good. Why does it make all the worries of the world disappear when you are in it? What makes the arrangement of plants so satisfying to the eye? My personal blog is primarily full of uplifting reviews of stunning gardens around the world, picking out ideas that we can all use in our own spaces. I believe gardens and nature are an enormously powerful source of inspiration, mood elevation and stress relief and prefer to write in a way that aims to promote and realise these benefits. But there is an elephant in the room that perhaps needs mentioning. If the increasingly small circles of gardening types sit back and ignore the trends that are happening in front of their eyes, perhaps we will reach a point of no return.
A point where the only nurseries that can make ends meet are those that churn out the Murraya and Buxus. A point where our ecosystems are so out of kilter that they can never return to good health. A point where gardens are so unfashionable that reversing the trend and spending the money to return constructed spaces to green spaces becomes almost unthinkable.
I identify with being a garden designer. I grew up thinking that a landscape was a view of fields and forests or a Capability Brown country estate with groves of trees, sweeping lawns and a flowing stream. But after six years in Australia, when I hear the word ‘landscape’, I now think of paving and pools. And whilst a paved area for a table is undeniably beneficial, and a small pool in a large garden a nice addition for an active family, do we not have our gardens way out of balance?
Is it just me, or do others think we might need a Greening Grey Australia campaign, in this remarkably blue-skied country? And if so, how on earth would we go about it?