While many sustainable solutions for gardening are designed to address the shortage of rainfall, in Scotland that does not seem an obvious problem for most of the year. If anything, heavy rainfall, combined with the typical clay a lot of my clients have in their garden, can be tricky to work with. There is no one solution to this challenge and as a designer I have to carefully assess the site and future use of the garden before making any decisions.
A Precious Resource
Sustainable garden designers view water as the precious resource that it is, rather than treating it as a nuisance. In my own garden the benefits of water have been used to their full potential. A naturally occurring pond at the bottom of the garden dries out during summer and is left for wildlife to enjoy; a stream that used to be underground has been excavated as a feature in the garden which is a great spot for animals to access year round fresh water; and a natural swimming pond that we share with wildlife is under construction, fantastic to reap all the benefits of cold water swimming.
In general, water fails to run off when soil is compacted. We should not forget, however, that hosepipe bans are increasingly common during summer months, even in parts of Scotland, so while thinking about wet soil, we equally have to think about water retention. In short, it is the improvement of water cycles that we are after. And there is one solution that gardeners instinctively do anyway: planting plants.
Not all plants do well with changes in soil water levels, but there are plenty that do. Many Scottish natives seem to be born for this job. By planting, soil life is encouraged through root growth and root renewal. Leaf fall ensures there is slow topsoil buildup. All this eases the compaction of soil. On top of that, the plants act like a sponge when it rains, and slowly release water back into the atmosphere and soil in drier periods. It can be this simple to improve water cycles in your garden!
Planting, however, is not always the solution as I recently found out. A garden with high footfall, compacted soil, poor drainage, and little space for planting was a challenge on an entirely new scale. There are always things you can do, although these are not a quick fix.
Firstly, you can build up your soil. Raising the soil with a generous layer of organic matter such as compost or wood chips will avoid you having to work with the compacted soil and will also regenerate top soil in the long term. Raised beds can do the same job.
Another option is to install drainage which leads to a water reservoir that slowly releases the stored water, which can help not just with drainage but with water cycles. It does the same job plants do, without the added benefits for soil life. Installing drainage and water reservoirs is a job best left to the professionals and can be costly and disruptive. Sometimes, though, it is the only way forward.
At times, a high water table will cause standing water. In that case, drainage will have to be led further afield or you can choose to use this to your advantage and create a wildlife pond, which is a pond without a liner filled by the water table that has a myriad of benefits for wildlife. The nature of such a pond is that it will possibly dry out in summer, leaving mud and debris at the bottom: an increasingly rare resource for animals these days. Always make sure there is a safe way in and out for animals, so that they do not get trapped.
If you need a bit of help to either improve the water cycles in your garden or to embrace their natural beauty, garden designers are here to help.
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 her 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.