Breaking the suburban garden mould

Guest Article from The Real Garden

Gardening is a hugely popular pastime in the UK and we increasingly lead outdoor lifestyles with year on year increases in the sales of garden furniture, barbeques, sun loungers and summerhouses.

However the range of products and plants available to the public and the media’s representation of this pastime is extremely limited and out-dated. Many people face the prospect of gardening in a space that was laid out by builders or town planners and is usually based on very poor design. Despite these obstacles to creative gardening, the British spirit of grit and determination has meant that we are still trying our best to enjoy our outdoor spaces. In this series of articles we will examine how gardeners ended up with such a raw deal and suggest a strategy to combat the situation in the hope that we might enable truly creative gardening for all, and break out of the suburban mould.

Designing a garden and gardening itself can be as creative as painting or writing poetry, and a finished garden can be no less a work of art than a sculpted figure or a symphony, yet there are few famous gardeners or horticultural genres to inspire us or set an example for us when we garden in our modern homes. Artists like Turner, poets like Wordsworth and playwrights like Shakespeare defined styles and even helped to form a national identity in their respective genres. Their romanticised visions of nature, culture and discussion of life’s profound issues inspired us in their own ways. The lack of this type of imagery, with the power to relate the beauty of nature and the enjoyment of outdoor life to our personal garden spaces is at the root of our current perception of gardening. We do not see it as an art and our creativity is given a poor frame of reference by contemporary media – truly creative and artistic thinking is not discussed, and our aspirations are limited by the mundane and commercially driven gardening ‘industry’.

There are six main obstacles to creative gardening that prevent the public from enjoying the therapeutic, beautifying, comfortable and practical benefits of gardens, where they provide extra living space and a rare contact with nature. We will explain how we see the first of the six issues affecting modern horticulture below and address the remaining five in subsequent articles of the series – 2012 Gardens.

In the early 20thcentury town planners built many thousands of homes in a relatively short space of time to house an increasing post war population. These huge and sprawling developments that surround many of the old towns and cities of the U.K. are known as the suburbs, (I grew up in one of them). Newer developments since the 1970’s tend to have been on a smaller scale. Commonly known as ‘new build’, they are typically designed for higher density occupation (excluding any comparison to high rise developments) and give less space to gardens and on-street parking as well as interior spaces. The style of housing and design quality made in both, has had a huge impact on people’s quality of life and an undeniable influence over the culture of the UK. The formation of communities and personal/family environments has in my opinion been poorly served by the creation of these suburban and estate environments. Although my opinions should be qualified by acknowledging that the earlier suburban developments were the first of their kind – purpose built new towns and conurbations, and that the designers were pioneers, almost certainly limited by government budgets and policy guidelines. The commendable effect of their work was to make home (and garden) ownership a possibility for many families. The ‘new build’ projects however are more private sector funded and their poor design elements are the effect of maximising profits and manipulating government guidelines and are not excused by the pioneering nature of the suburb builders, although the same faults in their design approach have caused many negative effects on our living spaces.

When faced with making a garden in a suburban or estate type property, a householder first has to assess what they have inherited from the builders or previous owners. This usually consists of three main elements; a hard surfaced area, a lawn and some fences. There may also be a shed, some paths and small areas of open soil or ‘flower beds’, but these elements are usually much smaller in size and of far less importance in their impact on the overall character of the garden. The hard surfaced area intended as a patio is in many ways the most important part of this menagerie, as psychologically it is the only place to go to; the only destination in the garden. Unfortunately it is usually made to the smallest possible dimensions that the developers could pass off as ‘fit for purpose’ and is commonly too small to accommodate 4 people around a table. It is usually positioned immediately outside the back door or patio doors of the house, and in older developments usually consists of a thin layer of concrete laid over the rubble of the house build. In a new build property it is usually made from a square of grey pavement slabs, similar to those used in public footpaths, laid roughly on a solid base. The position of these small areas adjacent to the house discourages the use of the whole garden, making the only ‘destination’ just a few paces from the interior with nowhere to go to beyond it. Because these ‘patios’ are usually so close to the house the comfort of sitting there is influenced by the proximity of the building; the shade cast by it, or hot sun trap effect from the heat of the sun being reflected by brickwork and concrete. A lucky household will have the back of their house facing south west so that they can enjoy evening sun after work. For other orientations the patio (and the view out from the house) can face the unrelenting glare of the sun in a south facing position, or be in deep shade all day–slippery from moss or algal growth that thrives in a north facing aspect. An east facing aspect will be in shade in the evening.

The second major component of the suburban garden, the lawn, reinforces the effects of the patio. It usually replicates the shape of the garden- situated in the centre of it, with perhaps a thin strip of ‘flower bed’ around the outside. This area of grass is usually the largest component of the garden and forms a featureless block of uniform colour that is frequently too muddy to use and requires hard work to keep it from growing into a wild patch of moss and weeds. The lawn often grows right to the outer limits of the gardens boundaries; up to the base of the enclosing fences, which are the third major component of our urban garden. Commonly made from panels of the cheapest wood, and treated with a limited range of coloured preservative paints, the patterns of individual pales in each panel is repeated in a uniform way. The fence is then erected in straight lines to form a rectangle which hems in our field of vision and focuses our attention on the inadequacies of the garden’s other components. They bring more hard, flat and featureless surfaces into our living spaces, reinforcing the linear box shapes of town and city environments and their mundane colours. Recently fence preservative ‘products’ have been marketed for aspirational gardeners in a wider range of colours, and occasionally it seems that the desperation of a householder to escape the suburban mediocrity is expressed by the purchase of one these products. Unfortunately it is usually applied in a uniform way to the entire fence area, making an overbearing and sometimes inappropriate colour statement.

The simple layout of the three main components described above has been repeated hundreds of thousands of times all over the country. The great majority of homes are able to view their entire garden space at a glance, not giving any of the occupants the slightest incentive to go out into it. Their glimpses of the garden from the house contain no detail to hold their attention and probably sub consciously discourage them from using it. In order to build an inspiring garden that is an asset to the quality of life of the house’s occupants, the occupants cannot simply begin a creative process; they must first counteract the conditions caused by this depressing array of poorly designed features. Some of the changes required to do this are expensive and involve the disruption of building works for replacing patios, or moving large amounts of soil in order to remove or re-lay turf. The most frequent result of this is that superficial additions are made to the garden instead of realising the benefits of altering some of the fundamental aspects it.

Real education about design and horticulture has been suppressed by the marketing strategies of the garden and leisure industry, which must inherently act to protect its future profits. This has lead to the town planners’ and developers’ massed produced gardens, remaining un-altered in their fundamental structure and basic content, giving rise to a new style of garden that began to emerge in the 1970’s.This is when, in the eyes of the industry, the gardening public became consumers instead of gardeners, and garden design emerged as something completely different to other design genres like architecture or engineering. The haphazard evolution of our gardens from their original massed produced layouts to their present commercially influenced and superficially augmented state, has produced a standard of living space for the majority of home owners that they are not happy with. They may not be specifically aware of this, but they view the garden as a ‘not very inviting or exciting’ space or even as a mess. However if they do focus on how lacking this aspect of their homes is, they more likely than not feel powerless or confused about how to change it.

The failings of suburban design are evident in public spaces like streets, parks, car parks and shopping centres which, with a few exceptions, are built and planted with no imagination or design thought. They are spaces simply churned out by ‘designers’ who have been taught the same limited range of knowledge (or facts) at college. Most people are not aware of how poorly built and planted their environment is, and how that lack of quality subliminally affects them every day. They are used to the suburban or metropolitan norm and associate the pleasure of getting away from it as the ‘holiday experience’, rather than the lifting of the oppressive sensory barrage that forms their daily environment. It is not surprising that many people are unaware of the possibilities for making the outdoor spaces in their own homes into therapeutic and reflective spaces, with true comfort and usability. Many subconsciously accept the suburban norm and ‘put up with it’ and do not think about improving their lot. If they are not put off gardening altogether, they will probably have settled for, or they will have been discouraged or disabled from being creative by, the entrenched suburban mould.

This article was supplied by Suffolk garden designers, The Real Garden who provide a comprehensive and bespoke service with the highest regard for discrete and professional care for clients.

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