When coronavirus is – we hope – a distant memory in 10 or 20 years time, what will the average British garden look like?
Once upon a time we believed that by 2020 we’d be whizzing around in flying cars and have android butlers, bur our Jetson’s-fuelled fantasies have been tempered by more dystopian predictions. Our gardens are now, more than ever, a refuge from our world, but in these uncertain times, it’s worth wondering what they might be like in 10 or 20 years’ time.
I asked people across the industry what they expected for the future of gardens – not predictions, exactly, but possible scenarios based on present innovations, issues ad trends. So, what will or should, a typical UK garden look like years from now?
The Lifestyle Split
Our future is that, space-poor, time poor and lured by the promise of no maintenance we continue to embrace products such as fake turf and gas fire pits, and create outdoor rooms with kitchens, TVs and sound systems, drone pads, gyms and hot tubs. An alternative scenario, preferred by those I spoke to, would be a more relaxed garden which, instead of having a large carbon footprint, contributes to the environment. Design-wise, this means more planting, less paving, hedges rather than walls – and “embracing the value of wildness” says Anna French, one of the founders of the Landscape for Future group. This “messy” aesthetic will no doubt be challenging for tidy gardeners.
Useful is Beautiful
Planting will have to do more than just look pretty. Many landowners today are recreating meadow and woodland habitats, and others with smaller plots are gravitating to a broader diversity of wildlife friendly plants that don’t require huge resources to grow. The trend is for functional plants – those that are productive, help wildlife, and capture water run-off or air pollution or multi-taskers that do several things at once. Alistair Griffiths, RHS Director of Sciences, calls this “Right plant, right place, right purpose”, updating a well-known planting maxim, and says the charity is researching which plants might be best for which task.
Autonomous driverless vehicles are still in their infancy, but the future layout of cities, and our gardens, could be altered if they take off. Without a car in the drive, homes could reclaim their front gardens for food growing, rain gardens, or street-long wildlife corridors. It is thought the global value of the autonomous market could be worth upwards of $1 Trillion by 2025.
A real lawn is living, and permeable, and sequesters some carbon, so is more environmentally friendly than paving, but though most of us couldn’t imagine living without one, the future of our grassy swards is questionable. As summers get drier in parts of the country, and sprinkler and hosepipe bans more frequent, how do we keep them green? “Imagine Hyde Park without a single square metre of grass” says dry garden guru Olivier Filippi, who faces months of drought in the South of France. “What will that look like? What will you do with the open space in summer, the baked soil? These are the questions we have to deal with now and you will have to deal with in due time.” You may have to ditch the football pitch, but this will free you from the mower, and a shed to house it.
Old is New Again
Many new construction materials are being tested, from bio-composites like Hempcrete to neo concrete like Lignacite, not to mention recycled plastic – which, although not yet proven stable and resilient enough for outdoor applications, would help ease our guilt over those stacks of black plastic pots.
Designer John Wyer worries that “natural materials like stone will become a luxury” and there will be a rise in demand for cheaper, highly engineered products such as composite decking and ceramic paving. There are concerns about the carbon footprint of manufacturing these materials, and how they eventually break down. Landscape Architect Marian Boswall uses reclaimed materials instead, or those, like timber, that are low impact and will one day decompose back into the earth without polluting it.
First, there will be no peat in the growing medium you buy in bags from the garden centre, but that’s not what this is about. Thanks to erosion and other factors, the world could run out of topsoil in 60 years. Although hydroponics is one option for soil-less growing, it wouldn’t be practical on a mass scale. Instead, it will all be about soil recycling, with companies like British Sugar selling the soil washed off its beet crop. Soil scientists like Tim O’Hare, who worked on the Olympic Park in London, are looking to reuse what is already in gardens and parks. So, as well as finding ways to take advantage of the heat and gases our compost heaps generate, in future the compost itself could be valuable. They don’t call it black gold for nothing.
A Tech Fix
Robot mowers have been on the market for awhile, and landscape pros think similar labour-saving devices will soon be available on a trade level for tasks like hedge cutting. A few years ago soil sensors and other tech managed via phone apps was big news, but many of these products have since disappeared – presumably gardeners weren’t ready? However, smart watering systems are popular, and in times to come it may become standard to have in our veg growing beds monitored by automated systems, as in commercial greenhouses. But many people don’t want technology in the one place still unconnected to the Internet of Things. Even Hay Hwang, who created the LG Smart Garden at Chelsea in 2016, thinks the best way technology can help in in “educating people on how to garden and encouraging them to be eco friendly.”
Grow Chemical Free
The argument over whether to ban chemicals like glyphosate rages on, but it is a safe bet that there will be stricter controls on weedkillers and pesticides in the future, meaning we will all have to go organic, get more comfortable with weed and blights, and figure out how those nematode things work. Yes, slugs and snails will eat hostas into extinction, and you won’t see your roses for the greenfly, but the bees will be happier.
It’s already obvious that in some areas climate change will lead to wetter winters, with more floods. Managing excess water in our built-up surroundings will make big changes but there are some things we gardeners can do – namely switch our hardscape to permeable surfaces such as gravel, to allow better drainage. Sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), which include ponds, swales and rain gardens, will capture run-off. And it’s smart to use old-fashioned collection systems like water butts, because for many of us, summers will get hotter and drier, and drought-tolerant planting and harvesting rainwater go hand in hand.
Batten down the hatches. “The picture is one of variability and unsettledness, “ says Keith Jones, National Specialist in Climate Change for the National Trust. “We are having fewer storms, but they are bigger. Gardens will have to be more robust to put up with the winds”
Big Tree Hunting
Aside from the onslaught of pests and diseases attacking our oaks, ashes and chestnuts, many of our street trees are coming to the end of their lives without replacements being inter-planted in time; or are being removed by Councils. We need the urban tree canopy for shade, to reduce air pollution and mitigate the heat-island effect, capture carbon and water, provide wildlife habitats and boost the well-being of city dwellers. Keith Jones fears that we might also be losing old country trees too, as they now come into leaf earlier and for longer, meaning they are “in sail” for longer and more likely to be felled by those storms. Planting millions of saplings might reap benefits many decades from now, but the interim will be difficult if we don’t care for our mature trees. The government has committed to planting 11 million trees by 2022, as part of the UK’s efforts to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Sadly, most of us might not have gardens in the future. Landscape Architect Jaquelin Clay point out that rising land prices and the intensification of use on residential land means garden grabbing will continue. Developers will keep building smaller houses with small or no gardens, as people don’t have the time or interest to look after them. The lines between private and public space will blur, and communal areas will take over. In a best case scenario, this means more shared gardens, such as Nigel Dunnett’s at the Barbican; or a worst case of wind-dancing rubbish stuck in shrubs around a bald football pitch.
I’m not overjoyed at the prospect of communal areas replacing gardens, but Adam White, president of the Landscape Institute, is convincingly enthusiastic about outdoor spaces for the future, and especially the ingenious ways that people are greening up derelict areas with pocket parks and pop-up gardens. He cites a batch of new parks inspired by New York’s High Line polling up around the world, including under freeways like the Bentway in Toronto; underground, like the subterranean Lowline in New York; and in abandoned spaces, like Spreepark in Berlin. At home we have community-led projects such as the Peckham Coal Line, an elevated park along old coal sidings in south London.
GYO …With the Others
As we’ve seen, it only takes a few days of food insecurity before people start growing their own, and this, in combination with the trends for community gardening and well-being, will see an increase in shared food gardens, says Tim Waterman, Associate of the Bartlett School of Architecture. Awareness-raising projects that grow small amounts on, say, rooftops won’t solve the supply problem, but their spirit – in combination with the layered planting lessons of forest gardening – would reap rewards. The Plants for a Future database (pfaf.org) suggests a wide range of edible, medicinal and useful plants to help you garden out the apocalypse.
Green infrastructure fans love ways to plant buildings, from living walls and vertical gardens to visionary projects like the green apartment block, Bosco Verticale, in Milan, which is weeded and pruned by abseiling gardeners. Mark Laurence, who consults on sustainability and adaptive landscapes, thinks buildings with “green skins” or “bio-membranes” are the way forward, but without expensive maintenance costs. It could be as simple as growing more climbers – one recent RHS study looked into how ivy insulates walls in winter and cools them in summer.
Back To Nature
“Nature deficit disorder” is a growing issue, says Adam White, which must be addressed if we’re to make people care enough to want to conserve our landscapes. There are 27 million gardeners in the UK, so we have the ability to make a difference. It’s our choice. Get it right, and our backyards could be harnessed to help wildlife, be carbon sinks, clean the air, mitigate flooding and grow food. Get it wrong, and one day “gardens” will be places you visit only on your VR headset.
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