Episode 10: Aesthetic Ecology With Toby Diggens

Have you ever noticed how natural landscapes always seem to work? The colours, shapes, scale and textures of a natural landscape appear pleasing to the eye despite little or no human input. It’s this sense of innate beauty in nature, speaking to us on an almost subconscious level, that interests today’s guest Toby Diggens.

We speak about naturalistic and ecological gardens which incorporate elements of nature that gardeners have traditionally sought to keep out.

SCROLL DOWN TO SEE THE EPISODE TRANSCRIPTION

Key talking points were:

Naturalistic planting and designing – elaborating on what Toby refers to as Aesthetic Ecology
The importance of plants as food for invertebrates
Unpopular plants that are actually good for wildlife
The best wildflowers/weeds for wildlife
Wildflowers that are too badly behaved for the garden
Ornamentals that work well in naturalistic gardens
Resources for those interested in practicing wild gardening
Toby’s top tips for wild gardeners
About Toby: Toby Diggens runs Digg & Co., a design studio focussing on ecological landscape design and architecture. His style is one which brings ecological science into the design process, and marries this with the aesthetic and artistic practice of design. Toby studied Landscape Architecture at the University of Gloucestershire and received distinctions in both Post Graduate Diploma and Masters. His masters work, entitled Second Nature explores how wild life can be brought back into our cities and towns through the understanding of ecology as a function rather than only an aesthetic. A great lover of plants, he sees the opportunity of beautiful landscape design, touched by a hint of the wild, as a moving way to rekindle the human passion for the natural world, and hopes that his work, regardless of scale, adds both drama and beauty, but importantly nature back into the gardens and parks of the UK and beyond.

To contact Toby his email is below: You can also request a copy of his Masters work.

toby@diggandco.co.uk

Or Follow his Instagram

@diggandco

Further Resources

Emorsgate Seeds – www.wildseed.co.uk

 

Books

 

Episode Transcription

 

[INTRO: Roots and All theme music plays]

 

[00:01] SARAH: I’m Sarah Wilson and you’re listening to the Roots and All podcast. I’m here to help you get growing; join me as I explore everything plant-related, both indoors and out, and provide the information you need to create your perfect green environment.

 

[00:19] SARAH: This week I’ll be speaking to Toby Diggens who runs Digg & Co, a design studio focussing on ecological landscape design and architecture. I met Toby through our mutual friend Butter Wakefield and firstly I’d like to say a big thank you to Butter for introducing me to Toby, because I could tell as soon as I spoke to him that he had fascinating and interesting ideas about what gardens and landscapes could be if we let the wilderness in. Toby’s interest is in creating a landscape which echoes the native landscapes surrounding a site, and he experiments with a wider pallet of plants which includes as much from the hedgerow as from the garden centre. I started by asking Toby to fill us in on exactly what makes his style of design special.

 

[00:59] TOBY: I love wild landscapes, whether it’s wildernesses or gardens which have a sort of wild aspect added into them for the aesthetic. I really enjoy spending time travelling not only around the UK but also around Europe, studying the plant communities and wildernesses and how the landscape looks in, you know, as far as I can see some of the most beautiful places in Europe. And that’s really the kind of inspiration I get from them. But I think natural gardens in general are things which I find exciting and there’s a sort of dynamism within them which potentially goes a little bit beyond, something that’s a little bit more, you know, abstract and potentially textural for the sake of that one design idea. With that I suppose comes the fact that the gardens I like to create, the landscapes that I like to create, have a very strong link to the place that they originally were from. So, a sort of historic look back at the landscape pre its development, for example, might offer up a certain set of design considerations, which then add a lot of depth to the landscape and then potentially the plants and the structure that you put into it. And I suppose to say it’ll have a name for what I do, I’ve been grappling with this ever since this kind of idea of wild landscapes, wild gardening, and I suppose evoking wilderness came along, and about the best I’ve got to so far is “aesthetic ecology” – where essentially you take the constructs and the laws of ecology and then you paint them to the fact that all people love a beautiful thing. And so a true wilderness potentially may be quite jarring, because it might be lots of brambles for example, and that’s not necessarily aesthetic unless that’s what you find aesthetic, but typically that’s not, so it’s about blending the ecological capacity of the site with its opportunities to be very beautiful.

 

[03:06] SARAH: So why’s that style of gardening important to you?

 

[03:09] TOBY: It comes from a, I suppose a deep place within me. I was brought up in the countryside and brought up amongst the more wild places and then throughout my life I tended to travel to those wild places, and as a consequence I got into landscape architecture and then the natural progression, I suppose, was to essentially evoke the landscapes that I loved being within. And it’s just, you know, the time that I sort of learnt about them and studied them. It’s important also I suppose because of the fact that we’re living in a time where the human pressure on natural environments is ever more known about, and potentially ever increasing. And so the chance for the landscape architect, or anybody to be honest, to have an opportunity to show off what natural beauty can offer – not only from the very aesthetic standpoint, but also from the functional standpoint of green spaces actually doing what they’re used for health-wise but also structurally it’s, you know, taking CO2 out of the air, it’s cleaning the air. Potentially it’s cleaning the water courses as well, so I suppose it’s again that blend of the ecosystem working alongside the aesthetics, which is, well that’s important, so you feel like every time you make a move, you create a design, you’re essentially having not only a positive impact on the beauty of the place, but also the actual, sort of, structural function of it.

 

[04:36] SARAH: That’s quite interesting, I mean you did actually answer one of my later questions which was you should consider the place in which you’re siting the garden, or the landscape that you’re working on, to see what grows there naturally and what would have been the natural state of things. So how do you know how far to take the design aspect of it? Is that where you as a designer comes in?

 

[05:01] TOBY: It all depends on the collaboration that you’re undertaking with the client, and so you have to obviously match, potentially the client’s desires, dreams, hopes with potentially your knowledge of the natural capacity of the site. And it’s treading that really interesting path to deliver, you know, the end result as it were, which can be a great journey because I may come to a site and I’ll look at it and I’ll say “cor look at this, you’ll need certain types of plants” and the client may say “well I don’t really want those”, and yeah because what you can then potentially do is work within the brief to actually re-include those at a later level, in a more aesthetic environment, and as a consequence they become less jarring. I think it’s about being completely open to the fact that everybody has ways and they have inspiration that comes from everywhere, and yeah I suppose that one thing that it’s nice to be able to do when you come to a site is to start educating people into the vibrancy and the diversity which potentially already exists within the site, which can be phenomenal. And I’ll just take a tiny example: I went to a great friend of mine’s garden the other day, he was really keen on getting some advice on what to do with it, it’s on a very steep slope. It turns out the people before had created this phenomenal hill of wildlife gardens, was just meadows sweeping over this hillside, you know, this beautiful hazel coppice. And I said, you know, if it was me the softest touch possible here, we’ll bring the garden back to life. There’s no doubt that it was a little bit ramshackle in places and a little bit of management wouldn’t have gone amiss, but the main architecture of the site was actually already pretty amazing – so quite a good canvas to work on to start with.

 

[06:54] SARAH: Do you think there’d ever be a time where you actually went somewhere and went “do you know what, this is perfect as it is”?

 

[07:02] TOBY: I suppose yes is the answer. I suppose I would hope that in a funny sort of way, because that’s the landscapes that I’ve been inspired by and if I was to walk into a landscape and there was this phenomenal set of plant communities and magical architecture and lake that was playing off the trees in a special way, you know, I would get goosebumps and I would say “no I don’t think I can do any work here” but {laughs} in reality I think that you’re very rarely walking into a designed wilderness as it were, and so there might always be suggestions that you could make. And typically, if you were being called upon for your advice and your service, for example, it’s normally tied to the construction of a new house or a new owner, and so even if all it is, is a management report where you’re just suggesting methods of maintaining the landscape that is there today, you’ve still essentially got a part to play because, as we both know doing what we do, you know, a landscape is the only kind of artistic creation which never sits still.

 

[08:08] SARAH: Yeah, that’s very true. So when you say that you work with people that are building houses, or typically redoing things, because you like the natural aesthetic do you think that would maybe mean that you eschew hard landscaping, or is that something that you embrace?

 

[08:26] TOBY: It’s always been a really interesting question in my mind; how close can you drag the landscape back up to the house? And I think that with new technologies and new designs and new ways of people thinking about the holistic approach to designing a site, there is the potential to maybe do away with a little bit of hard landscaping in places. Nonetheless I 100% recognise the fact that, and agree with the fact that, designed places for people, which create routes through the garden to essentially a pergola or a deck out over a pond, is no bad thing because actually it allows you to embrace the landscape more. And in a domestic scenario it’s one of those things that lends itself to a design where, if you were to walk a thousand time to you pond without hard landscaping, it would be a muddy path, and so you think to yourself “well it does just make perfect sense to actually pave the path beautifully”, and so when you finish the work and the client’s happy and he or she has got their mates coming round, you know, they’ve got something to be proud of. And at the end of it, because these are beautiful, biological aspects I suppose, of the landscape architecture that shows itself off better, because of what you’ve done to enhance the landscape from a hard perspective, so I don’t think that it’s a bad thing to do hard landscaping, although I would say that in housing developments where hard landscaping is used willy-nilly as a way of designing efficiency and convenience in, there should probably be a bit of a check on that. And that’s where the idea of obviously sustainable drainage systems and permeable paving potentially comes into its own. It’s quite a good debate there.

 

[10:16] SARAH: Yeah {laughing}. Well I think it’s very much a misnomer that hard landscaping is low or no maintenance, because it’s not, and it’s got a finite life whereas something that’s green and natural can evolve, as you say, so it’s not always just an easy solution to just bung in.

 

[10:34] TOBY: Yeah, and it’s expensive {laughing}

 

[10:35] SARAH: Yeah, and it is very expensive, in lots of ways. Obviously I think probably your clients come to you because they respect the way that you design, and that’s probably what you’re known for and what you’ll become more known for, but do you think on the whole it is a little bit of an uphill battle to get people to appreciate wilderness a little bit more? Do you think it’s not, or we’re not quite there yet with our appreciation of it as an aesthetic?

 

[11:02] TOBY: That’s a very good question. I think that the appreciation of wilderness is definitely something that, there probably needs to be more of it, but it would be a very good idea for people to spend potentially more time within wilderness, or at least perceived wilder areas, because then they would potentially start to understand the kind of structure and the, and the overall beauty. I think a lot of potential wildernesses are brought to people through media, and it’s hard to actually appreciate all of the different aspects and be kind of clothed in the experience, as it were. I think that we’re sort of touching on a really interesting time in landscape architecture, and in design in general, which is that we’re becoming aware of out impact when we develop things. I’m not sure of the exact number, but quite a large percentage of the carbon dioxide emissions are created by the development industry, so you know, construction, and that must include landscaping, in cities for example. And I think there is a great opportunity, and it’s exciting to be able to be a part of a team of people who sort of sit at the intersection between traditional architecture and building things in a hard manner, and very much what the biological aspects of the world can potentially do to help and enhance the built form of cities and gardens. So I do think that it does probably take a little bit of potentially educating and, you know, just gentle sort of pushing towards maybe a slightly more evocative, a slightly more exciting vision, than maybe the one that the client has thought up themselves, and I suppose that’s where you could say the value of the landscape architect or landscape designer comes in, is that it’s not necessarily just about bringing your ideas, but it’s about bringing actually the ideas of the client out more. And with that will obviously come your ideas, and the way your ideas are grounded, and so you will, probably together, push that design – or it certainly in my case will push that design into a more, sort of wild, natural aesthetic. Which hopefully {laughs} after every job, shows itself beautifully and becomes something that people, you know, would look for and hope for in the future.

 

[13:22] SARAH: I think that, without wishing to sound too airy-fairy, I think that those wilder landscapes do touch people, but maybe on a more subconscious level, and I think perhaps maybe it’s a language that we’ve slightly forgotten, so I don’t think we’ve forgotten it that much, it’s just maybe buried a bit deep. So people do perhaps need a bit of prodding to appreciate it. In my garden, this year, I’ve been quite outrageous and I’ve left lots of weeds, well so-called weeds and wildflowers, to just do their thing. So, on a kind of domestic scale, I’m always aware that people are always talking about plants for pollinators, but should we be thinking about plants that provide food for, say the larval stages on insects; do we need to be thinking about sources that are beyond just nectar and pollen?

 

[14:10] TOBY: Yeah, absolutely. I think the pollinator thing is a fantastic headline for the plight of insects, and I’m sure that we all read the headlines about there being large declines in insects over the last sort of 35-40 years, which is tragic obviously, and something that again we can hope to be a part of reversing. But I think there’s absolutely no doubt that focussing on pollinators could potentially push you in the direction where you may actually not be having any long-lasting benefits for the site overall. So when you design your garden, for example, you should be thinking about the structure of it, not just in the flowers, but also in all the different types of leaves, all the different types of plants and, an amazing study done that I read when

I was just finishing up my masters, which was done by James Hitchmough and a few others, where essentially they found out that native plants, and that’s not just flowering native plants but native plants in general, were typically of a higher value to insects when studied, and even plants which came from Europe and especially plants that came from the southern hemisphere. And whilst all of those other plants were useful they were nowhere near as useful as the natives. And at the same time as that one thing that stood out starkly was the study that was conducted which was sort of that side themes, which was that native trees are absolutely vital, and that non-native trees tend to have a very low ecological capacity, so I would 100% recommend leaving native plants if they look lovely, but also using native trees – and there are, not a great number versus the number of trees in the world, but a good number which you can use structurally and aesthetically in your garden which are native, which will obviously be having that positive impact. So I think yeah it’s important that we focus on creating more of a habitat for nature than specifically focussing on the fact that, let’s say, an aster does well for a honeybee – both of which aren’t native, so we have no idea that that’s doing any good for any other insect.

 

[16:19] SARAH: Yeah, that’s very true. There’s also the problem that a lot of plants get demonised in some ridiculous ways; I mean, I leave ragwort in my garden, which I know is the food source for the cinnabar moth, and I live in quite a rural area, so I’m sort of very careful that it stays within, you know, I try and keep it in the middle of my garden. But are there any other plants that you think have really bad press that are actually very, very good for wildlife? Because I think the cinnabar moth, although I have seen it on other plants, I have also read that it is the sole food source – which I don’t actually believe, because as I say I’ve seen it and I’ve heard of it munching other things – but, for some of these things that we are so keen to get rid of, they will be perhaps the sole food source for certain species, so are there any that are really unfairly demonised that you can think of?

 

[17:06] TOBY: One personal love of mine on the sort of wild plant flush at the moment is all of the thistles, and there are lots of different types of thistles in the UK, many of which in their own right, in the right habitat look absolutely stunning. There’s the marsh thistle which is Cirsium palustre which in, where we live in Devon is, you know, it carpets this area of rushy, slightly wet meadow. In the evenings if you were to walk up through these thistles when they’re flowering, it’s absolutely carpeted with moths. That’s just one example; one other thing that I do know is crucial is if you were, for example, to start a meadow in your garden – which obviously I think is a lovely thing to do, not only aesthetically but biologically – quite a lot of our meadow butterflies specifically lay their eggs on types of grass and obviously that grass requires being longer than 2mm or 5mm or whatever, and so yes, there are a lot of interrelationships or symbioses with plants and various butterflies, you can do a lot to obviously add to the overall dynamism of your garden by potentially leaving areas a bit more wild because you don’t necessarily have to study every single butterfly and which grass it lays its eggs on, but there’s a high likelihood that one of the grasses in that wilder area, one of the butterflies will, and so you’ll wake up one summer morning and there’ll be butterflies all over your garden, where once there weren’t. And it’s not to do with the fact that you got lots of flowers, it’s actually to do with the fact that you’ve got a little bit of long grass.

 

[18:44] SARAH: Yeah, wow, that’s interesting.

 

[18:45] TOBY: So, it is fascinating that one. And obviously the more into it you are, the more you read about it, the more you realise how many things not necessarily just go and pollinate one plant, but actually lay their eggs specifically on one plant, and that’s obviously quite key to keep the generations going. One thing I wrote down actually was on the same subject as your ragwort, I had a lovely experience this summer where I was walking through, you know it was so parched everywhere, and there was this meadow that Avon Wildlife Trust did in Bristol, and it just looked stunning because there wasn’t hundreds and hundreds of plants of ragwort, but there were about 30 or 40 that just stood erect and above the grass height. It reminded me of the prairies in Goldenrod and I thought amazing, you know, here’s our own version of Goldenrod, looking absolutely stunning with butterflies all over it, yeah I’m a bit of a fan of ragwort myself {Sarah laughs} at the moment.

 

[19:44] SARAH: Yeah, it’s a good plant, it really is. I dunno how it survives anyway, because when I went out to look at mine it was absolutely shredded to pieces, there was not one bit of it left, so whether it’ll have had the chance to seed around or come back next year I don’t know {laughs}. It was stripped, so I should think the moths, you know, do a good job of keeping it in check anyway.

 

[20:05] TOBY: Well yeah, I suppose the natural order of things would dictate that slowly but surely things even out, but ragwort requires open ground to germinate so the reason you see such massive proliferations of it sometimes in the countryside is that it’s nothing to do with the ragwort’s fault, it’s somebody has potentially not looked after their field enough and not moved on livestock before they’ve poached the ground, and so it opens up the ground to ragwort which loves to colonise bare patches.

 

[20:34] SARAH: Right, so is there anything that I probably shouldn’t allow in my garden? You know, it’s not a huge space, is there anything that’s particularly badly behaved that I should hoik out?

 

[20:45] TOBY: Well I wrote down a couple of things for this actually, because you know everybody’s got their pet hate. I was chatting to a guy who digs drains the other day and he hates willows because they get in his drains. So if you don’t like things getting in your drains then get rid of willows. But brambles, obviously in a small space, will take over so rapidly that there’s really little you can do other than try and keep them ultra contained somewhere, or just get rid of them because they keep coming back. They’re great for wildlife too but I think in a small space it’s just, there’s not enough of it. Blackthorn similarly, if you have you know a blackthorn sucker that gets in under a fence or something, it’ll just keep running, and eventually you’ll have a thicket, and realistically blackthorn loves to be hacked out – it was once eaten by all sorts of grazing animals, so it naturally wants to regrow – so I would say that blackthorn maybe is something that you should try and keep a check of. And at the same time as that, you know, nettles, everyone says “oh, have a little patch of nettles in your garden”, but if you have a small space then a patch of nettles could be quite a valuable space and they will just continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger. So, don’t get me wrong, if you have space for nettles and they’re amazing for lots of butterflies then, by all means, have some – and they’re great for tea as well – but if you’ve got a small space then I think nettles, you can just do without them. There’s a lot of other plants that do well.

 

[22:14] SARAH: Yeah, yeah that’s true. Dock is my personal bugbear, so I do get that out. But then that’s a shame, because I think I’ve probably taken some out that are the different type, I think they’re the meadow dock and they’re actually beautiful, so you do need to be a little bit careful I suppose, when you’re waging war on these things. Are there any ornamentals that would compete? Because, again, I’ve left my kind of wildflowers in a separate area to my ornamental bed, but actually I am going to try and mix the two together, so what would compete with the wilder species?

 

[22:50] TOBY: I always take the view that once upon a time, the ornamentals that we all have in our gardens were once wild, so once again it comes back to the study of plant diversity and ecology to work out what might work in the right place, and that’s why I always start with design. I’ve done some trials on this at home in some test beds that we’d sown with a standard UK meadow mix and then put in lots of different ornamental perennials from pretty much all over the world and I’ve found that Persicaria bistorta, so that one’s good. Lots of different Thalictrums seem to work, as long as they’re from Europe. The sort of well known Cirsium rivulare, the sterile clone atropurpureum can hold its own, it’s holding its own really well in quite a sort of damp meadow that I’ve sown. The slightly taller Achillea filipendulina, that one, which I think actually comes from Russia but from the steppe in wet places on the steppes, has done perfectly well and has actually increased in size. A lot of the asters do really well, European Digitalis foxglove species; our standard foxglove needs a bit of bare ground, but the rusty foxglove and the woolly foxglove have been absolutely fine, and again you need to disturb the ground every now and then to reinvigorate the seed and let the seeds set on bare ground, but again that’s about a management thing. And interestingly, the last one, there’s a grass I think actually comes from North Africa called Pennisetum macrourum which is absolutely stunning, sort of a big version of the standard little pennisetums that you see, but it’s got a much more compact, more sort of elongated head that’s stunning. And actually everyone always says it does terrible things in a standard ornamental bed because it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, so I thought well I’ll chuck it in the grass and see what happens, and it’s created this beautiful sort of architecture within the grass, but it’s just sort of slowly, slowly, slowly creeping out – it’s perfect for that job. So I suppose, in all, it’s about finding and looking up plants and I think more and more it’s gonna emerge through all the studies that I’m doing where this happens, and look for the plants that sort of naturally live in those scenarios anyway, and you’ll be surprised at what they sometimes do.

 

[25:13] SARAH: Yeah. Well I think that’s the key to having a landscape or a garden that is low maintenance; if you can get the plant communities right in the first place then you’re not constantly fighting against nature, and, you know, {Toby says “absolutely”}  things should reach a much easier equilibrium, so I think we will get better at that, I think we will do less of this artificial propping up of our borders and more of our, you know, actually planning things sensibly and observing, because as you say you’re doing the work now, and I think people like James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett have been doing the work for a while, and maybe people like Nigel Kingsbury, but actually there aren’t that many people who are going “you know what, we’ve gotta get sensible with this, we’ve gotta actually look at what works next, you know, and what can work cheek by jowl”. It is going to be trial and error for people, you know, especially in their own sites which have got their own specific conditions, so there is an element of the unknown about it {Toby says “Definitely”}. So it definitely is an interesting journey. So, if people wanted to grow plants that were slightly more in their wild form, you can’t always buy those in nurseries, so what would you suggest people do if they want to get hold of the things like that?

 

[26:24] TOBY: Depends on the garden centre or nursery, but there are a couple where I have actually started to notice 9cm pots of some of our native meadow species, so that’s encouraging for sure. It is hard to find very specific native-only or near-native plant selections, and at the same time as that have a knowledge that you’re only essentially looking for those plants, because you know there are lots of nurseries out there who will be suggesting lots of different plants, and they’ll come from all over the world. So if you’re keen on reigning back your scope and looking at – I think Europe’s a better version of our sort of native-ness than just England, we’re only a tiny extension of Europe and as a consequence all of our plants post the ice age came from there anyway, so most of the European plants that you can find will probably do pretty well in our scenarios, it’s just they didn’t happen to get here when the ice age retreated. But there are a couple of great websites actually. I don’t know if you know Emorsgate or I think it’s wildseed.co.uk, I spend a lot of time looking through their selections and they grow on a lot of plants and then take the seed, you can actually purchase the seed and then either sow it into a meadow or sow it into a border, or as me and my mum quite often do, bring on the plants so they’re slightly larger, and as a consequence you can put it into more drastic scenarios and then see how they do, so they’ve got, you know, a little bit more bulk. The last option is that there’s- I don’t think it’s illegal to take seed off the heads of the plant, so in the autumn very regularly we’ll go out seed-collecting so that you actually may well find a very bigger strain of a native plant that then obviously you can potentially put into a new scenario and see if it works, so that’s quite interesting and I would highly recommend doing that if you’ve got some species-rich meadows nearby – bearing in mind you’re not allowed to dig up any wild plants, so absolutely do not do that, you know especially if it’s something like an orchid, because orchids actually rely on a fungus to live on, so if you dig up the orchid you’re condemning it anyway, it’s not going to live in a pot.

 

[28:36] SARAH: Right. So don’t do that.

 

[28:38] TOBY: Yeah, so don’t do that {they both laugh}. But since we’ve moved forward in this kind of more holistically-looking way of designing, it’s likely that there’s going to become more and more people from the supply side, actually, suggesting these plants in a more sort of pointed manner, rather than just being part of the big stock of plants from everywhere.

 

[28:58] SARAH: And the other thing that I think might be useful to mention is, um, there probably aren’t a huge amount of them, but can you recommend any good books or websites for people that are thinking about doing this in their own gardens?

 

[29:11] TOBY: Yeah, yeah definitely. Start with The Wild Garden by William Robinson, and I’ve actually got the version which if foreworded by a guy called – I think it’s Rick Darke, and that’s a fantastic book to basically go into the mind’s eye of the man who first thought about gardening with nature. So, it’s a tome, you know, it’s where you should begin. It’s absolutely phenomenal how so many of the plants that we all use today are the ones that he was using and trialling. The Dynamic Landscape is a little bit more of an educational book, something potentially a bit more for the professional but if you’re really keen I would highly recommend it; it’s almost a group of scientific papers written by the likes of Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough and certain practitioners from Europe, and some of the wisdom in there is phenomenal, especially from a public landscape’s perspective and minimal costs to minimal maintenance because of limited budgets. Meadows: At Great Dixter and Beyond by Christopher Lloyd is another gem, and he’s very much I suppose, was almost the protagonist of this exact, this very similar kind of style of trialling plants in the wild or in more habitat-based settings. And then lastly a book which was brought out by James Hitchmough last year – or the year before, I can’t remember – called Sowing Beauty, which again is, if you’re into this kind of style, is just an encyclopedia of knowledge; the man is a genius and has done so much research into creating a beautiful, aesthetic but wild and functioning ecosystem, that it, you know, you can, every page you can be glued to if you’re into it.

 

[30:54] SARAH: Yeah, yeah that’s a brilliant book and it’s got a lot of, kind of, applicable knowledge as well. So just, I suppose the last word really, is if you had any advice for people who are thinking of doing this in their gardens, ‘cause it is quite brave actually, and it is quite unusual, what advice would you give people?

 

[31:14] TOBY: I just jotted down “be patient”. The world didn’t evolve overnight, and the plants and habitats that you might decide to create in your garden are going to have to – especially if you’re starting from scratch – kind of get used to living next to one another, for want of a better way of describing it. And over time things are going to change, and you will get disappointment when potentially a plant you absolutely love on its own doesn’t work in the scenario that you’ve put it in, but yeah, don’t be downhearted and just keep working with the site, keep being patient and watching things as the seasons change and you may find that there’s a particular time when planting a certain set of plants actually works better because they can, for example, get their roots down before the frost, or actually you may find that just before the grass starts to grow you can insert plants and they get their heads above the grass and off they go. So it’s about being very responsive to the site, and every site as we know is so different. And the other thing I would say is that a lot of people think that the natural method of gardening is very hands-off; I would actually say that it’s the opposite, it’s just a very different method. Where with normal gardening you’re becoming knowledgeable about a particular shrub, exactly what type of butterflies it likes, and its habit and form, you’re looking at the site as a whole; you’re looking at, potentially, the woodland section that you’ve created or the meadow section that you’ve created, and you’re trying to manage them like those archetypal landscapes that you’re trying to mimic in the wild. So, just as an example, meadows are a sort of semi-wild but also semi-human landscape that were managed for hay. They are absolutely beautiful, but they require work, and so don’t think that because you’ve jumped off the traditional gardening bandwagon onto the wild gardening bandwagon that you need to down tools and sit there, because actually it’ll turn into a mess. But it is about being very responsive to the site, and allowing it to do things that maybe you would have been a bit tentative to do in the past, but it’s fun, you know, it’s really beautiful to watch wildlife become encouraged to be amongst you, and I think that’s probably the most proud thing you can feel when it works is that not just you have beautiful plants flowering away, but you’ve got insects and bees and birds and mammals and everybody’s in there all together because you’ve actually created a little miniature ecosystem, and that’s really special.

 

[33:53] SARAH: So there you have it. We need to create our own unique landscapes that work with instead of against nature, and sometimes we should let the weeds in. Thanks Toby for your time and for your refreshing point of view. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from Toby in the future, and if you’d like to find out more about his design company and the research he’s produced and where you can find him online, do check out the show notes on the website where you’ll find all his details. I asked Toby to give a name to what he was doing in the interview and he said the best label he could come up with for now is “aesthetic ecology” which does seem to be a pretty good description of this style of gardening and designing. I visited Pam Lewis’s garden Sticky Wicket a few years ago and I was deeply influenced by the styles in which she gardens; weeds, wildflowers, ornamentals all coexisting together in a designed fashion that was a haven for wildlife, and it was about as magical garden as I’ve ever visited, and I feel like Toby is working very much in a similar vein to Pam. The people gardening in this style are few and far between which is why I was so delighted to meet him and to interview him. I’ve put a couple of pictures up on the blog from my visit to Sticky Wicket so do have a look at that if you’re interested because Pam no longer opens her garden to the public and you can just about still get a hold of a copy of her book, Sticky Wicket, which is out of print, but you can get secondhand copies. I did call the book’s publisher and they have no plans to reissue it, but who knows, maybe in the future as this style of gardening grows they may recognise this as one of the few books that deals well with the subject of wild gardening. So a very big thank you again to Toby for speaking to me, and I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and I will catch you all next Tuesday.