Issues in Garden Design – Designing Gardens With Limited Space and for Health and Play

Perhaps the trend towards smaller gardens makes good design even more important. It is often said that designing a small garden is more difficult than designing a large one. In a small space there can be issues of privacy; the need to disguise borders whilst still maintaining enough usable space. Choice of plants is critical because each plant has to earn its living in more than one way – a small tree, such as Amelanchier lamarckii, for instance, will provide spring blossom, attractive spring foliage, summer shade, autumn colour and winter structure – a shrub such as Choisya ternata will be evergreen, provide spring flowers, sometimes with a second flush in September, and a gorgeous scent when its leaves are brushed, whereas something like an oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), spectacular though its flowers are, will only bloom for a short period, and leave behind rather scruffy foliage for the rest of the season, or a hole if it is cut down, and in any case dies down in winter. It really doesn’t earn its keep where interest needs to be maintained throughout the year within a limited space. Although the space is small, planting should not be limited to small plants which can make the space seem even smaller. Climbers are an essential ingredient in a small garden, and this is where green roofs and living walls come into their own. Gardens in built up areas can be very sheltered, so allowing a wider range of less hardy plants to be grown, on the other hand, they can be very shady, which offers its own set of planting opportunities. Good design will maximise the opportunities presented by any setting, and create a coherent space, full of interest that offers an enhanced quality of life.

However, budget may be another problem. Garden designers, like everyone else, are facing recession. It may be difficult to persuade people to splash out on what is seen as a luxury, and when they do decide to invest in having their garden designed, the budgets available may constrain the design. We have to be inventive about how we retain the quality of design whilst limiting the cost, for instance by specifying smaller but faster growing trees, rather than spending money on mature specimens. Garden designers are also having to diversify by looking towards designing public spaces, writing, teaching, supplying plants and offering garden maintenance as supplementary sources of income.

Some of the public spaces garden designers have been called upon to design in recent years include hospital and hospice gardens, and there is a growing interest in the impact of gardens on health and well-being. According to a paper presented by Roger S. Ulrich PhD, to the International Exhibition Floriade conference ‘Plants for People’, entitled “Health Benefits of Gardens in Hospitals”, there are significant benefits to patients of viewing environments dominated by greenery, flowers or water, in terms of reducing stress, diminishing stressful thoughts, promoting recovery, elevating positive emotions and reducing negative emotions such as fear, anger and sadness. These can be measured in terms of blood pressure, heart activity, muscle tension and brain electrical activity. There is also a decrease in anxiety, pain and the length of stay in hospital when an appropriately designed garden is provided, and an increase in levels of patient satisfaction. As far as the design goes, an over dominance of hardlandscaping at the expense of planting, is detrimental to these positive outcomes, and abstract, ambiguous artworks can aggravate stress rather than reduce it. So concentrating on planting and natural scenery seems to be the best policy for a designer, which allows him or her plenty of scope to think about appealing to the senses – sight, sound and smell through the use of scented plants, water for sound, making the garden attractive to birds which will sing, choosing plants for year round colour, texture and movement. Soft and gentle colours, avoiding any violent clashes, may provide a calm and stress-reducing atmosphere, such as greens, lavenders, pinks and blues, although gentle yellows and whites can also be uplifting. The garden needs to be calming and relaxing, but still retain interest.

Gardens can also have a beneficial effect on mental health. Having the opportunity to work in a garden can be therapeutic, and at a time of growing obesity, any outdoor activity can help. Children, it is often said, are becoming out of touch with where food comes from and garden designers can help by designing public and private spaces that put them back in touch with nature and consider their educational and play needs. What children need most from a garden setting is space to play. Quite aside from all the play equipment such as trampolines, swings, tree-houses, Wendy houses, sandpits, swimming pools or paddling pools that can be provided, just having a range of colours, textures, sizes and shapes of plants can provide a stimulating environment. Places to hide, shrubberies to build dens in, mud to dig in are all play opportunities. Tall grasses and tall perennials that tower over the children’s heads, with paths winding through can be magical, as can very small plants. Conkers, acorns or cobnuts to collect, and ponds to do pond dipping are all stimulating and educational opportunities. A garden is a good way of introducing children to wildlife, and no child’s education can be complete without having the chance to grow something from seed. Of course, as designers we must take into account safety issues, including putting a grate over ponds, making sure boundaries are secure, and not planting the most poisonous plants, although no garden can be completely risk free, and there are so many poisonous plants, it is better to educate children not to eat them than trying to avoid them altogether.

Good garden design can be so beneficial to society that it should thrive in the 21st century in spite of recession.