Q&A with Marian Boswall, Author of Sustainable Garden
At Verm-X, we believe that our outdoor spaces can create kindness - to animals, to our surroundings and to the planet - which is a concept that has been growing in popularity, with more people turning to organic farming and regenerative agriculture.
Recently, we had the pleasure of reading Sustainable Garden: Projects, insights and advice for the eco-conscious gardener by Marian Boswall, which offers helpful tips, guidance and step-by-step projects designed to help build a low-impact, considerate outdoor space.
Marian is a leading landscape architect, horticulturalist and the co-founder of the Sustainable Landscape Foundation. She was a lecturer in Historic Garden Conservation at Greenwich University for several years, and she writes and lectures on sustainable design and was awarded Garden Columnist of the Year in 2019.
She has also been featured as a Country Life 'Top 50' Garden Designer, House & Garden 'Top 50' UK Garden Designer and Country and Town House 'Top 10' Garden Designer.
Marian was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
What is a sustainable garden?
A Sustainable garden is one that is based on kindness. Kindness to yourself and to others, from the tiniest soil microbe we rely on, to the visiting animals, guests, neighbours and people on the other side of the world that may get our water as rain on their land. We are all connected.
How did you become interested in building sustainable gardens?
I worked in historic garden conservation for many years, in areas of outstanding natural beauty and on sensitive sites. There is not much call for a large design ego when you are looking after something that has been there and will hopefully continue to be there for many times longer than I will!
Treading lightly is inherent to everything I try to do, and it’s now becoming widely understood as a vital way for us to protect what we love.
What are the benefits of a sustainable garden?
The human benefits stretch from enjoying every moment and not worrying so much about what the neighbours are doing or the magazines are selling, to the physical and mental benefits of connecting to the land, to the deep seated need for us to survive and to leave a healthy planet for those that follow us.
Where is a good place to start, if you’re a novice gardener looking to build a sustainable garden?
The first advice would be to observe, to spend time looking and learning and not to worry too much about making mistakes, just enjoy the journey! Understanding your site and what it needs is the most important thing you can do, so take time to do that.
Excerpt from Marian's book Sustainable Garden: Projects, Insights and Advice for the Eco-conscious Gardener
How do you control pests, like slugs and snails, naturally?
Once you have a balanced ecosystem you stop thinking about creatures as pests. They are part of the garden and have an important role to play. If you’d rather they didn’t share your prize dahlias or delphiniums, then I would try physical barriers like crushed baked egg shells, coffee granules etc. But the best thing is to encourage in the birds and predators that eat them, so you are creating more biodiversity rather than less!
What are some alternatives to peat compost and how do you get started composting for yourself?
I have a wormery outside the kitchen door that takes all food waste (except things like lemons and oranges which are too acidic).
The worms process it and produce a wonderful rich liquid fertiliser. Other waste goes into a compost bin or pile. The trick here is to balance browns and greens – ie carbon and nitrogen – so that you get a lovely nutritious compost.
Try a comfrey or nettle compost tea too, (step by step instructions are in the book) our soil is the most important thing in the garden and on the land. We are the soil we eat and return to after all! You can also buy delicious compost from the Land Gardeners or people like Dalefoot and New Horizon.
We’ve written about ways to help bees and hedgehogs previously. What’s your advice for creating a wildlife-friendly garden?
Wildlife needs the same things as us – shelter, food and water, so provide that and they will come! Trees and hedgerows, choose ones with berries, and allow the berries to be eaten before cutting in late winter.
Choose plants for pollinators and make sure they have not been dowsed in pesticide before they are sold to you. Avoid using poisons peat and plastics. Leave seed heads on flowers and grasses.
Provide water of different depths – use a brick for bees to sip from and make sure you have an exit slope for small creatures.
Log piles and old gateposts make super houses as do cracks in walls and paving – these are all wildlife homes, so encourage lots of different types of habitat.
You can also buy ready made bee hotels and bat and bird boxes, or make your own with an old wine box like I do in the book!
You’re also a chicken keeper, have you found that your chickens contribute positively to the biodiversity of your own garden?
I love my chickens and use their poo for the garden.
If you were creating the dream garden for hens, what would it look like?
It would have lots of places to shelter, to roost and to scratch about, with some grains and seeds left on the plants and insects to discover. A piece of dry earth to create a bath and plenty of little spots with shallow water to drink.
Chickens are notorious for causing havoc in a garden and sometimes the area around the coop can become rather barren. What hardy plants do you recommend for planting in and around a chicken coop?
My chickens are in a wild patch where they can eat wild chamomile and clover, as well as grass. They are sheltered by trees, thistles, nettles and cow parsley which they have an occasional peck at too. We have a very busy sparrow hawk and buzzard population so I have a large 10x10m enclosure for five hens with a netted roof to stop them becoming big bird food!
Are there any plants that chicken owners should avoid?
I expect so but in my experience the chickens know what is good for them.
What’s one thing you wish everyone was doing in their garden right now?
Enjoying the garden and taking time to connect with themselves. Less of a To Do list and more of a To Be list.
You can find out more about creating your own sustainable garden in her excellent book, Sustainable Gardener, Projects, insights and advice for the eco-conscious gardener. If you’ve got green thumbs and have any thoughts, advice or questions, we’d love to hear from you. Tag us on Facebook or Instagram and we’ll get back to you.