The lack of definite structure inherent in a natural approach to soft landscaping using native plants, shows strong geometric building designs off to their best advantage without unnecessary distraction.
There are too many instances of good architecture complicated, rather than complemented, by sad clumps of shrubbery, where a little extra thought would have made all the difference.
The randomness and seasonality of native planting is important when trying to blend a building into the landscape. This is especially so in national parks which often have strict planning regulations, or in greenfield sites where local authorities often insist on certain natural features (a woodland copse or a hedgerow) being incorporated into the overall development.
Nowadays, an increasing number of businesses or public authorities are keen to demonstrate their green credentials and also wish to provide green space where staff can relax during breaks.Whatever the motive, it is important not to forget one of the central reasons for including natural habitats in landscaping proposals - to highlight concern over the continuing degradation of the countryside.
Moving to more practical considerations, what 'natural' habitats can you reasonably expect to provide? The key is appropriateness. Obviously a wild flower meadow, pond and woodland area, while intrinsically good in themselves, are going to look ridiculous jammed into an acre of land in the middle of the town centre. Nor is it sensible to include a hawthorn hedge in a region where the norm is a drystone wall.
Almost everyone wants a wild flower meadow, but if the topsoil is high in nutrients it will never be effective (unless you are prepared to wait 30 or 40 years). And remember that seeds can take longer to establish on subsoil (the preferred option) so it may not look so pretty at the official opening. Done well, good results can be expected after two or three years, improving every year thereafter.
A credible woodland effect will take at least 20 to 25 years, until a decent leaf canopy has formed and primroses and wood anemones can be planted. In the short term, plant a few standards for instant effect and a lot of young whips, which establish quicker and soon catch up in size. It is important to plant for the future.
Hedgerows are good for boundaries and can act as a surprisingly good security fence when prickly species are used. Instead of berberis, consider including brambles and hazelnuts, which can be eaten, and dog rose and honeysuckle for their aesthetic appeal.
Bear in mind that whatever the soil type or climate, there is a natural plant community that will thrive there. Adapt to the local conditions rather than imposing something inappropriate onto the site. This suggests the importance of having a landscape designer who understands the local ecology.Wild flower seed mixes often contain plants which do not grow naturally in the local area.Musk mallow is rarely found in the Tees Valley, for example, except where introduced in seed mixes. If regional distinctiveness is to be important then this sort of detail matters.
It is preferable in natural landscaping to use seeds or plants of local genetic origin, again to preserve regional variety. At least one wild flower seed firm can provide such a service but bear in mind that such things can't always be produced instantly. The Wildflower Ark, a charitable project in the Tees Valley, offers plants of local Tees Valley stock on a small scale, and this type of provision could serve as a prototype for other environmental groups. Similar projects should offer such a service in other regions in the future. As initiatives such as Local Agenda 21 and the Rio Earth Summit finally start to establish themselves, using wild flowers of local genetic stock in landscaping projects will become increasingly important.
Be aware of cheaper seeds, which have usually been sourced from continental origins. The European forms of many wild flowers are larger and coarser. Not only do they look out of place in the UK and are harder to manage effectively, but they upset local conservationists who worry about cross-pollination diluting the local gene pool. It all sounds a bit esoteric but it is another issue to consider.
Finally, to ensure that the architecture is not overpowered by plants, ensure, if possible, that there is a straightforward landscape management plan in place. Creating new natural habitats is not an excuse for no maintenance - leaving nature to get on with things. Frankly, that usually results in a complete wilderness. To look good, all soft landscaping has to be actively managed. It should not be more expensive, nor require more specialist labour than more conventional landscape maintenance programmes. However, it does require a clearly thought out, intelligent plan which is simple and easy to follow.
The Wildflower Ark can be contacted on 01642 594895