How to create a sustainable garden

In addition to a gradual growth in awareness of the climate emergency facing us all, it’s very clear that recently people have been connecting more closely to their gardens and outdoor spaces. It was heart-warming to see this interest develop following lockdown and the ‘enforced’ time that people spent at home.  I can’t say whether this upsurge of interest in gardens – and appreciation of a sustainable approach to garden design-and-build – will prove to be temporary or longer term.  I certainly hope for the latter.

When we start work with a new client, our aim always to create a place of enduring meaning and value. Now, more often than ever before, we find ourselves experiencing a ‘meeting of minds’ as more clients proactively ask us to ensure that – as we set to work transforming an underused space  – their new garden also delivers a positive environmental impact.  There is a mutual awareness, interest and commitment to sustainability being part of the client brief.  I could not welcome this more. Gardens and grounds that are designed, built and nurtured with sustainability at the forefront of our minds can (and should) be a big part of the solution to the environmental challenges facing us all.

Key principles of creating a sustainable garden

To deliver a sustainable garden, we apply the following principles throughout our design-and-build processes:

1 Proposing designs that have a good balance between hard and soft landscaping.

Sustainable garden with large flowering beds, hammock and holly hedge
Garden designed by James Scott

Hardscaping refers to everything inanimate in a garden design; softscaping refers to all of the horticultural, living elements (not necessarily actually soft!). Soft landscaping is not only aesthetically pleasing, it benefits the environment hugely too.  Obviously, plants and trees improve air quality and boost biodiversity – other key benefits include reducing soil erosion and softening noise pollution.

2 Designing gardens that are self-sufficient and don’t require extreme maintenance techniques. For example, avoiding excess use of fertiliser, over-dependence on irrigation. We can make significant water savings by reducing the need for artificial watering systems on-site (once new gardens are fully established), designing planting schemes to be as self-sufficient as possible.  We also choose composts that are peat-free.

3 Designing with vernacular materials in mind. This enables us to ‘take advantage’ of local resources where possible, which are relatively energy efficient and sustainable.  By cutting back on the transport required to get materials to site, we can drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the whole project.

4 Sourcing all materials carefully.  We avoid materials with a high carbon footprint, relying largely on timber, recycled steel and natural stone. We steer clear of concrete not only because of its production process, but because it its hard surfaces create surface ‘runoff’, leading to  soil erosion, water pollution and flooding.  Permeable materials such as gravel are also helpful in cutting down on hard surfaces. We also ensure that our stone suppliers source their stone ethically.

5 Actively seeking to encourage biodiversity in our design work. For example, this might include planting wildflower meadows and borders, including water for wildlife and/or replacing fences with green boundaries.  All of these can provide wonderful wildlife habitats.  A garden can become a piece of performing art when it attracts birds, bees and butterflies.

6 Incorporating some edible planting. 


Sustainable garden with raised beds viewed through a greenhouse door and windows
Garden designed by James Scott.

Where possible. it is advantageous to bring a kitchen garden into the ornamental space. Even the tiniest garden can accommodate edible plants in pots and other containers.  These look great on a terrace or balcony space. Enjoying home-grown herbs or vegetables can be a wonderful way to cut back on buying plastic-wrapped products. Of course, a greenhouse provides plants with a safe haven protected from extreme weather and insects.

7 Reducing, re-using and recycling. This mantra applies to creating a sustainable garden as much as it does to any other project. Some simple examples include: re-using hardcore during the build process, repairing garden furniture rather than replacing it, repurposing unwanted window panes as lids for cold frames.  Re-using rainwater is a popular option – the simplest method for doing so is with rain barrels, which require no special plumbing.


The current trend towards more natural, sustainable gardens is hugely welcome.  It definitely fits with The Garden Company’s  ethos.  On a personal note, I have always felt most comfortable putting less hardscaping into a scheme and more planting, along with choosing materials that meet a garden’s needs with the minimum possible environmental impact. Of course, there is no room for complacency.  I feel very aware of the significant climate emergency and biodiversity crisis that is facing all of us. I can see many opportunities for us to do even more as a business – and as an industry.  We have an exciting and rewarding role to play, creating sustainable spaces with our design choices and landscaping methods.

To find out more about our recent residential design-and-build projects, created using the principles outlined in this post, click here.  We also build gardens for other professional designers using sustainable building practices.  Click here to browse some examples. And if you would like to learn more about sustainable gardening practices, click on the RHS guide to ‘planet-friendly’ gardening here.


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