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Connecting people with nature – Brownfield gardening

©John Little

Given that the UK gardening market is worth around £5 billion (excluding landscaping and amenity sectors)[1], gardening has to be up there as one of the top opportunities to connect people with nature.  In the third article of our series, we explore the idea of using brownfield design within mainstream gardening…

Gardening is big business; UK adults spend around £1.5 billion each year on plants for their gardens[2]. Over the last few years there has been an increase of features in the media, promoting the value of growing wildlife friendly plants in our gardens. This has led to improved labelling in garden centres of plants that are pollinator friendly and a greater public awareness of the importance of being wildlife conscious when designing gardens.

Approximately, one in four adults in the UK use Gardening television programmes as inspiration[3], and with this in mind, it was heartening to see John Little’s feature on last Friday’s BBC ‘Gardener’s World’ programme. The show featured John’s four-acre wildlife garden in Essex, which he purchased in 1990:

“Back then it was pretty much mown grass dotted with a few ash/hawthorn and of course the obligatory 60’s weeping willow. On a warm south facing slope it was the perfect place for us to mess about with wild plants, waste materials and habitats. We had a 4 acre playground”.

©John Little

©John Little

John has a background in implementing wildlife friendly landscaping. He set up the Grass Roof Company in 1998, which has since enabled him to introduce wild landscapes into schools, public space and onto roofs. The brownfield garden is based on John’s experience of brownfield sites i.e. replicating a ‘disturbed’ environment, planting on waste materials left over from the construction industry. This substrate is nutrient poor and replicates habitats such as a dry chalk downland. Whilst this type of habitat creation has been practiced for many years as part of living roof design, transferring this to the mainstream gardening sector, is a relatively new concept.

John uses a gardening membrane to build the landscape features out of the crushed material (which can include concrete and even crushed toilets and sinks – these have been processed first to ensure that they are safe for use in this type of setting). The membrane acts as a barrier between the nutrient rich soils that are typically found in a garden. The result is an undulating landscape of microclimates and swaying wild flowers such as wild marjoram, wild basil, ladies bedstraw and wild fennel. A recent survey of John’s garden, identified 600 species of invertebrates using the site, but the stats get even more exciting when it’s revealed that three times the number of invertebrates are associated with the brownfield habitat in comparison to other habitats within the garden.

In addition to planting and landscaping, John has installed ‘bee posts’; these are essentially wooden posts with different sized holes drilled into them which are used by solitary bees.

Sand Planter (Photo credit ©John Little)

Sand Planter (Photo credit ©John Little)

“We have been drilling holes in timber for many years to provide nesting space for our native solitary bees. That’s all good, but a majority of our native bees nest in the ground; last year we trialled what we are calling sand planters, a central pipe filled with soil surrounded by a perforated steel ring packed with sand. We are hoping this will be a way of getting a pile of sand into urban places and provide space for plants. The holes in the steel are 10mm diameter, big enough to let our native bees in but still contain the sand. Some bees like the vertical to nest and some prefer the horizontal. We really hope this will help to provide valuable nesting space into the heart of our cities”.

John’s garden is a stunning illustration of what can be created using construction waste, and provides a shining example of how people can create a unique and beautiful landscape at home, whilst simultaneously providing something of enormous benefit to wildlife.

In addition to gardens, John is keen to look for opportunities to use this type of landscaping to mitigate the destruction of brownfield sites for development.  Designing brownfield landscapes around new housing/commercial development, using construction waste from the site, would bring enormous benefit to biodiversity and be a means of reducing waste disposal off-site.

“Our brownfield sites were recently described by Natural England as the ‘rainforests of Britain’ for the diversity of species on and in them. Unfortunately they look ‘messy’ and rarely elicit much public opposition to their destruction for development. Wildlife loves our mess, we just need to design the mess in a way that people can accept – that way, we reuse our waste, create cool looking spaces and provide the best sites for much of our wildlife. This is our attempt at starting that debate”.

John has also campaigned to see these substrates used on railway embankments and motorway verges.

“Strips of rubble/crushed material within the embankments would really boost biodiversity. The railways already use crushed granite and limestone under the tracks, the dust from these materials makes a great low nutrient substrate for the embankments”.

[1] Source: Garden Retail Market Analysis Report 2014
[2] Source: Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), 2017
[3] Source: Ipsos Mori for the HTA, 2015

Further information: A link to John Little’s Grass Roof Company can be found HERE. You’ll find more information on brownfield landscapes via the website. Follow John on Twitter @grassroofco.