Sustainable Design Solutions for Exposed Gardens

This time of the year it can be wet and windy – like any time of the year in Scotland really. According to most scientists, unpredictable weather including storms will become more common everywhere in the years ahead of us. So it’s not surprising that when I sit down with a new client and ask them about their site, wind is something that comes up without fail. Every single time. 

Luckily, there are sustainable design solutions to try to get the most out of each element in the garden. Take a tree. It can help give you wind shelter, provide interest throughout the year, and possibly have berries that the birds enjoy. It also stores carbon and helps with run-off as well as retention of rainwater. Amazing right? Not a lot of hard landscaping elements can match that. There are other reasons why plants are a good option when creating shelter from wind. 

Think about walled Victorian kitchen gardens. When you enter through the gates, you might think that the warm and calm climate is because of the beautiful walls that surround the space. Look further afield, into the estate surrounding the garden, and you will see large shelterbelts of trees and shrubs, far away enough not to cast shade. It is this shelterbelt that makes sure that little wind hits the wall in the first place: without it, the walled garden would not work. Why? Here is a simplistic drawing of what happens when wind does hit a wall.

There is a little bit of shelter just behind the wall, the protected zone. Then a little further on, you see these small tornado-like currents where the wind breaks up as it hits the ground. This can cause real havoc with your plants. When wind hits a tree or shrub, however, the wind gets filtered. Part of the force will be used to move the leaves and branches and the remaining force is now broken up in little streams. The protected zone is a lot bigger, depending on the height of the plants. The wind that does filter through has lost its force and its speed.

To mimic the diffusion of wind when creating shelter, you could use a porous fence rather than a solid fence or wall. Although a lot better, it does not absorb as much of the wind so I would always suggest plants where possible. In small gardens, this can be tricky as the battle between sunlight and shelter can throw up quite a challenge.

The prevailing wind in the North East of Scotland comes from the South-West but wind can change direction within seconds. One minute, the beloved horizontal rain can be in your back then suddenly it catches you right in the face. In larger gardens, it works a treat to have various heights of trees and shrubs surrounding the garden to all sides. If you are in the countryside, leaving little openings that line up with views from your windows means that you extend the garden into the fields and hills beyond. The trees and shrubs frame these views, like a good picture frame, giving the illusion of no strict boundary to your garden. Sometimes a trimmed hedge can do the same, especially when made less formal by planting trees and shrubs in front of it, softening the contours and making the hedge blend in with the landscape. 

This is easy enough to design in a large garden. Like one of my designs for a garden that is part of a working croft. The clients are a young, outdoorsy family. A dream client for me, as the brief is filled with areas for wildlife, growing of food, space for kids to play freely, and space for the chickens. The woodland on the croft provides plenty of wood to build chicken coops, raised beds, and compost bays. Even shelter for their private garden was easily ticked off, as there was plenty of space to create a shelterbelt around the garden. Unfortunately, it is not usually that easy. 

Just before lockdown, I started design work on a decent sized garden of a lovely new build. It has wonderful views to the Bennachie hillside. These views mean that there is little to give you shelter from the wind. I was not surprised when the client showed me the garden and started talking about wind. Wind from the West would funnel through their garden without anything stopping it. The garden backs to another house to the South, already casting plenty of shade. If we would have simply chosen to put trees and shrubs in the West corner, it would be goodbye to both sunlight and views. 

After considering various options, a row of pleached trees was the best solution. The high canopy will allow glimpses of the hills in the distance, while a big part of the wind would be filtered through the canopy. While every second tree will be an evergreen, providing shelter for my clients as well as for birds all year round, the other trees will be fruit trees. Fruit trees tick so many boxes: nectar rich blossoms in spring, followed by fruit for people and animals later in the year. Staking until the roots establish will be an essential job for this to work well on an exposed site. 

There are some clients, however, who would rather have a fence or a wall instead of trees and shrubs. Well selected and constructed, hard landscaping elements can tick a lot of boxes in terms of sustainability. For windbreaks, porous fences work best. And the taller the fence, the more shelter. Options that I like to use include natural or recycled materials. Hazel wattle fences are porous and give a lovely cottage feel to a garden, while recycled composite fences need little to no maintenance and come in a variety of styles. When choosing treated timber, always go for local options and ensure the woodland it comes from is managed sustainably. Your designer can help you select the best option. Never forget to ask for sustainable alternatives.

Katrina Flad runs her sustainable garden design and landscaping business frock n wellies from her home in Aberdeenshire. Passionate about the planet and all things that live on it, she wanted to make a real difference to her environment ever since she can remember. In this regular column, Katrina will bring you design solutions for your garden which are sustainable, practical, and beautiful. Follow Katrina at frock n wellies on Instagram and Facebook

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