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Yes, You Can and Should Garden: Part I

This is the introduction to a multi-part series on how to garden.

I have recently decided to start a garden design business. Academia, after all, don’t pay like it used to. So in addition to my own gardens, I’m now working on several other people’s gardens. I’m an absolute obsessive about gardening. I routinely spend 8 hours a day in the garden (if my children are willing to stay outside that long). One of the things I am most obsessive about, however, is that people don’t have to be obsessive to have a great garden. Most of my friends would love to have a great garden. They just do not have a lot of money or time to devote to creating it. They feel overwhelmed at the task and think it is too much work. I’ve heard, “I always kill plants,” or “I have a brown thumb,” or “I don’t have the energy.” My neighbor once asked me over to give her advice about where to plant a tree. I suggested some spaces and turned to leave. She clutched my arm as I started to leave. She told me she had no idea how to plant a tree and wanted me to walk her through it step by step. I think there are a lot of people like this. Much of the advice on the internet for any given gardening task (starting seeds, digging a bed, designing aesthetically attractive gardens or containers) I’ve read is often, I think, unnecessarily complicated. It involves either too much work or too much expense.

There are many, many reasons to have a garden. Growing your own food is cheaper, 6_2013_Broccolimore fun, usually tastier, and is as low as you can get on the food miles. Grass lawns consume enormous amounts of fresh water. Water run-off from lawns is both wasteful and harmful to marine life. Planting trees strategically can lower your energy bills (without even getting into green roofs or living walls). For a relatively low outlay, it can increase your home’s value by up to 12.7%. Most important (to me), however, is the psychological and health benefits a garden brings. A good garden should make you want to be outside. It should make your lawn (if you have one) something you actually use. Being outside, or seeing beautiful plants on your stoop when you come home from a hard day, or on the windowsill while you’re working, boosts mood, concentration, and energy. An outdoor space devoted to a seating or eating area just invites leisure. Many years before I became a crazed gardener, I was a surly teenager with pink hair. My parents hire a landscape designer to do their gardens. One garden, in particular, was just so beautiful. Back then, I couldn’t identify a single plant besides impatiens. Didn’t matter. I never got tired of looking at it, it never failed to cheer me up.

Of course, you should hire me and I’ll design you a great garden! However, in the assumption that you’re not in the DC area looking for a professional designer, here’s my plan: I want to create a from-soup-to-nuts gardening guide (and hone my own gardening philosophy in the process) for people who want to start gardening but lack money, time, and energy. My focus will be on being as simple and low-maintenance as possible, and as frugal as possible. Sometimes, the frugal option is not a low-maintenance option or vice-versa. When that is the case I will describe both options and indicate which is which.

So you know where I stand, here are the basic tenets of my gardening philosophy:

1) Pretty much anyone can have a garden of some kind. You have a yard that is a bare patch of weeds that is 4 feet by 3 feet? You can cram some serious beauty into that tiny space. You live in an urban apartment? You can have windowboxes filled with herbs or flowers. If your apartment has a roof or patio or balcony, you can have a lovely container container gardengarden with ornamentals, edibles, or both (or, my favorite, edibles that are ornamental). A few containers of simple plants on your front steps can cheer you as you enter your home, especially if they are wafting a lovely smell.

2) Many people who want to start a garden, especially if they are ecologically-minded, focus solely on growing edibles. That is fine! That’s great! I think everyone should have the garden she wants to have, full stop! I will, however, be focusing a good amount of attention on ornamentals as well as edibles. Here’s why: first, they look better, of course! Ornamentals can give you that feeling of outdoor joy. Second, there are many benefits to interplanting edibles and ornamentals. It looks better, it cuts down on pests or diseases jumping from plant to plant, it attracts pollinators which increases your food yield. Ornamentals can also provide environmental benefits that edibles alone cannot: they can be the mainstays of rain gardens or drought-tolerant gardens. They also provide a bigger boost to home values.

3) Many people are into planting only U.S. native plants. (That is, of course, if they live in the U.S. It would be a bit odd to live in Spain and insist on a garden of U.S. natives unless you maintain a botanical garden or are a seriously homesick ex-pat.) There are good reasons for that: native plants are unlikely to be invasive, they are likely to thrive in our climate, they will attract pollinators. Many, probably most, of my go-to plants are natives or hybrids of natives. However, there are some U.S. natives that have some problems thriving (my bee balm and phlox get powdery mildew every summer without fail). And there are some non-U.S. natives that have a long history that establishes they are not invasive, thrive here, and attract pollinators. Some examples of plants that meet all these criteria in my own gardens (which of course does not guarantee they will thrive in yours – more on that later): Caradonna salvia, limelight four o’clock*, Russian sage, certain sedums, kniphofia, delosperma, alcea rugosa, centranthus ruber, and begonia boliviensis. Some may disagree with me on this, of course, so I will try to remember to note which plants I discuss are natives in case a reader wants to use solely native plants.

4) Many people are also into avoiding hybrids and focusing on heirlooms or species plants. This is also something I’m not particularly religious about. Some heirlooms are great. Hybrid marigolds and impatiens are ugly and dull, but some of the heirloom/species ones are awesome. I grew heirloom tomatoes last year, which were not only amazingly delicious, but thoughtfully scattered their seeds for me so I have twice as many plants this year, for free. (Hybrids are usually either sterile or the seeds produce a plant significantly different from the mother plant. If you’ve ever been unsuccessful in growing seeds from fruit you got in the supermarket, it is likely because many of the fruits you buy are hybrids.) Heirlooms often have a beautiful look or scent that was weeded out when hybridizers were striving for some other characteristics. It should be noted that hybridization should not conjure up an Island-of-Dr.-Moreau-like vision of freakish mutations that were never meant to be. Hybrids are not necessarily the brainchild of an evil Monsanto-like corporation bent on world domination. Many hybrids occur naturally via cross-pollination by bees or butterflies. Others are the result of home gardeners having a little fun and experimenting. Some hybrids also really do have more desirable characteristics than the species, and I use them when that is the case.

5) I don’t use any chemicals and almost no fertilizers (with two exceptions). First of all, it’s better for the environment. Second, I don’t want to deal with that kind of maintenance. I can live with a few insect-eaten holes, as long as a plant isn’t decimated. If a plant needs constant tending with chemicals (I’m looking at you, hybrid tea roses), then it’s a plant I don’t need. I might give a spray or two with neem oil, but that’s it. The right plant in the right place in the right soil doesn’t need fertilizer or chemicals. Extremely reluctantly, I made a new exception this year. We got our yard treated with pesticides for ticks and mosquitoes. Doing so probably kills pollinators – most worrisomely, honeybees. Last year, I tried every natural method (getting rid of standing water, planting tons of mosquito-repelling plants, etc). If it worked at all, it didn’t work well enough. None of my family wanted to go outside because they were bitten alive by mosquitos, and one of my sons contracted Lyme disease. The other exception I’ll get to in a later post. Happily, I’ve noticed plenty of pollinators, and no mosquitoes or ticks.

6) Getting rid of lawn is generally good. However, unless you will really never use it, keep some grass around. Grass is simply the single best plant for standing up to foot traffic. If you have kids or dogs especially, they’ll spend more time outside if there’s some lawn.

Here are the topics I thought I’d cover. Please let me know in the comments if there are any others you’d like me to take on.

1) How to select sites and prepare beds and containers.

2) Knowing plants: what are annuals, biannuals, perennials, sub-shrubs, shrubs, and trees? Which plants would suit your garden?

3) Sustainable practices: selecting drought-tolerant plants, rain garden plants, using rain barrels, etc. How to avoid using chemicals and fertilizers, and still stop critters from eating your plants. Best practices for grass lawns.

4) Design principles: how to make landscaping look good.

5) Seeds, bulbs, and propagation 101.

6) How to put plants in the ground and make sure they stay alive with as little maintenance as possible.

7) How to put plants in containers and make sure they stay alive with as little maintenance as possible.

8) Design for special populations: gardens that especially suit children or people with disabilities.

Any other questions? Let me know in the comments what you want to know!

*Four o’clocks can attract Japanese beetles (although that didn’t happen in my garden). Many gardeners therefore use them as bait amongst edibles. The Japanese beetles go for the four o’clocks, and leave the cukes alone.

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Garden Brings Tranquility To Cancer Center’s Urban Locale

In the heart of busy New Haven, Conn., is a little piece of tranquility for patients going through chemotherapy treatment at Smilow Cancer Hospital. In fact, the Betty Ruth and Milton B. Hollander Healing Garden, perched on top of a seventh floor setback of a 14-story building, has become a defining feature of the hospital’s overall design.

When the client proposed the idea of a healing garden, landscape architects and planners Towers|Golde LLC (New Haven, Conn.) initially went in the direction of a modern, high-style landscape design. “The ‘aha’ moment wasn’t until we had our first meeting with a group of cancer survivors,” says Bob Golde, partner and principal on the project. “The overall impression we walked away with was, ‘Don’t give us something that looks designed. What we want is what we see out our back door. We don’t want to feel like we’re in a big, urban medical center.’”   

That insight inspired the Towers|Golde team to switch gears. Rather than following the original slick, contemporary design approach, the firm decided on a more organic and natural aesthetic. The resulting design won Gold in the acute care category of the inaugural Landscape Architecture for Healthcare Communities Awards from Vendome Healthcare Media (parent company of Healthcare Design).

Since many of Smilow Cancer Hospital’s patients come from suburban communities, the designers felt that a pastoral garden style would have more appeal, says Channing Harris, senior associate and project manager.

To accomplish this, a variety of seating benches were dispersed throughout the plan in semi-hidden spaces that could be used by small groups or individuals wanting more solitude. The benches were custom designed in tropical hardwood or a combination of wood and steel, some in crescent shapes to define more private areas.

Sections of Ipe wood decking visually break up the seating areas and are reminiscent of a backyard landscape. The curvilinear nature of the garden path also works to make certain spots cozier and more private, while at the same time highlighting various aspects of the garden itself.

A combination of plants was used—from witch hazel and evergreens to shrub forms and grasses—to make the garden green year-round. Because of the garden’s rooftop location, drought- and wind-resistant plants were included, too.

The facility also wanted to incorporate pieces of sculpture into the design. Due to the subjective nature of art, the designers were tasked with finding universally calming pieces.

When a hospital administrator who’s also involved with the Bonsai Society of Greater New Haven suggested that the group help procure plants for the project, the team decided that bonsai trees were a perfect sculptural yet natural element to blend in with the design. Bonsai trees now sit atop granite-clad platforms near seating areas, with the platforms allowing a permanent location for other sculpture pieces to be rotated through the space in the future.

The focal point of the garden design, however, is a water feature and reflecting pool. “There are some wonderful boulders that frame the edges of the babbling brook that goes through the garden,” Harris says. “We surprised everyone when we told them they’re completely fake.”

Real boulders weren’t an option given their weight and the garden’s rooftop location, so the designers worked with a company that makes molds of rocks using a fiberglass-reinforced concrete and a unique painting system to create lightweight—and lifelike—hollow shells. By mingling the faux boulders with real rocks, stones, and gravel in the stream, the desired effect was achieved.

Milntown’s garden designer, Richard Lucas, strikes gold

Richard teamed up with The World of Beatrix Potter™ Attraction from Bowness on Windermere in Cumbria, and Hooksgreen Herbs from Staffordshire, to design and construct ‘The Peter Rabbit™ Herb Garden’.

The garden occupied a challenging island plot, so the design had to be creative to be able to be viewed from all four sides. Richard’s idea was to recreate different scenes from ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ on every side of the garden.

The centrepiece of the design is a Victorian lean-to greenhouse, with scented geraniums in terracotta pots, old garden tools and a model of Peter Rabbit hiding in a watering can.

In front of the greenhouse the borders are planted with a wide range of herbs and cottage garden perennials, all set off by the red brick walls.

Mr.McGregor’s vegetable patch was also represented, with rows of beetroot, lettuces, cabbages and broad beans. True to the story, the gooseberry bushes were covered with a net – the one that Peter Rabbit got caught up in, and lost his blue jacket, later to be made into a scarecrow by Mr.McGregor!

The most photographed part of the garden though was Peter Rabbit in the radish patch, surrounded by lettuces, french beans, nasturtiums and calendulas, with a backdrop of lakeland slate walls. On the other side of the pathway an area of garden has been neglected and so has long grass, dandelions, foxgloves and nettles whilst an old rusty wheelbarrow rests against the slate wall.  The navelwort plants used in the display actually came from Milntown. Two of the Milntown Gardeners Adam and Juan “rescued” a whole batch of seedlings that were self sown on the Milntown greenhouse roof and Flybe allowed Richard to transport the plants free of charge to England where he grew them into gold medal winning plants!.

Visitors to the show continually remarked on how true the depictions were to Beatrix Potters own artwork in her story books, and they loved the tiny details of snails on the walls and a blackbird’s nest in the hedgerow.

The Royal Horticultural Society’s judging panel was suitably impressed and awarded Richard the highest accolade of a Gold Medal.

Richard said…. “It has been a lot of hard work over many months, designing, planning, and growing plants to be in perfect condition for the show, but to be judged by the highest horticultural authority in the UK and be awarded a gold is fantastic!”

“Being at Chelsea is always great and being here as an exhibitor is even better, It’s an inspirational experience, and I’ll certainly be bringing back new ideas and new plants for Milntown Gardens.”

Richard will also be bringing back some ‘Peter Rabbit’ radish seed to be sown in the newly redesigned kitchen garden at Milntown. It is actually an old variety called ‘Long Scarlet’, that is no longer commercially available but which Richard helps to conserve.

This is the second time that Richard has achieved Gold. The last time was in 2005 when he co-designed a garden with iconic 80’s pop star Kim Wilde.  On that occasion both he and Kim made a clean sweep of all possible awards.

Kim visited Richards garden on Monday and was completely bowled over by his Peter Rabbit Herb Garden design, Kim said “ having worked with Richard before I sort of knew the high standards that he would achieve, however this garden completely surpassed my expectations, it is wonderful!”

The Milntown Gardens are open daily (excluding Tuesdays) until the end of October. Admission fees are £3.00 adult, £2.50 OAP, £1.00 child, £6.00 family and 10% discount for parties over 10.

Milntown Garden Tours with Richard Lucas will take place on 17th July, 21st August and 25th September. Booking is essential as places are limited to 12 per tour. Please call 812321 to book.

New York Botanical Garden spotlights historic women

Occasionally, landscape gardening goes well beyond flowers and shrubbery to encompass questions of national identity, culture, even social change. The era from 1900 to 1930 in America was one of those times, thanks to several enterprising and unsung women.

Well before American women could vote, these college-educated few rose to the pinnacle of their fields as garden designers, writers and photographers. Declaring American gardens to be distinct from those in Europe, they took as their mission the beautification of America, whose cities were polluted and whose residents were suffering from decades of grinding income disparity and rampant industrialism.

The New York Botanical Garden — itself a creation of that Progressive “push-back” between the height of the Gilded Age and World War I — explores these women and their work in “Groundbreakers: Great American gardens in the 20th century and the women who designed them,” a suite of exhibits on view through Sept. 7.

“Groundbreakers” explores the work of garden designers Marian Coffin, Beatrix Farrand and Ellen Shipman, and garden photographers Jessie Tarbox Beals, Mattie Edwards Hewitt and Frances Benjamin Johnston.

It combines original hand-tinted glass “magic lantern” slides and the hefty photographic equipment used to make them; detailed drawings of some of the greatest estate gardens of the time; gardening journalism and literary writing; and breathtakingly colorful flower gardens — most notably one evoking the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller garden in Seal Harbor, Maine (complete with Ragtime musical accompaniment).

“These women were the leading lights in their fields. And in a broader cultural sense, the work they did helped elevate the quality of life for many people across America through these landscapes and their photos and writing,” said Todd Forrest, the botanical garden’s vice president of Horticulture and Living Collections.

“This brief Progressive era is especially important to look at now as historians ask themselves how, in our present gilded age, we’re going to get this kind of momentum again,” explained Sam Watters, the historian whose “Gardens for a Beautiful America” book (Acanthus Press) helped inspire the show, and who curated its photographic segment.

Among the nation’s first specialized career women, the women highlighted in the show not only designed gardens for private estates but educated and informed the public through lectures, writing and photos, Watters said.

Their work helped inspire the construction of landscaped parks and gardens across the country, the expansion of tree-lined streets, and the widespread planting of the lush lawns, bordered by flowers and ornamental shrubs, that remain emblematic of American yards today.

“Garden club women, inspired by the garden photos they saw, started going to prisons. They put a rose garden in the courtyard of Sing Sing. A big formal garden with a fountain was put in a prison in Michigan. And they planted gardens around train stations across the country,” Watters said.

“It really was landscape gardening as social activism.”

On the great estates, the cutting edge of landscape design at the time, photographs were commissioned and schoolchildren brought in, with the edification of the masses in mind.

Whereas 19th-century American gardens replicated gardens in Europe, these new gardens combined Asian architectural elements, English-style flower borders, European ideas of space and distinctly North American settings for a unique sensibility. And before there was color photography, the lush hand-tinted coloring of Johnston’s lantern slides awed and inspired home gardeners.

The show is ambitious and sprawling, and experiencing it in its entirety requires the better part of a day. Although the exhibits can be viewed in any order, the story flows best by beginning in the garden’s Mertz Library Rotunda with “Gardens for a Beautiful America: The women who photographed them,” curated by Watters. Along with photos, books, magazines and journals of the period, the exhibit features examples of the era’s imposing wooden camera equipment — gardening photography required serious biceps — along with a few original lantern slides.

Two of Farrand’s masterpieces are on view in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and in “Mrs. Rockefeller’s Garden,” a dazzlingly colorful indoor horticultural exhibit. Shipman designed the garden’s Ladies’ Border, and Coffin designed the Montgomery Conifers Collection.

The show also includes a “Poetry Walk,” featuring poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, many inspired by her garden in Austerlitz, New York; a section on “Groundbreaking Women in Science”; a series of concerts, films, lectures and poetry readings; a free iPhone app with previously unpublished photos; and a section for kids on the science and art of landscape photography.



New York Botanical Gardens, 2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx, New York, through Sept. 7


All-Garden Pass weekends through June: $25; $22, student/senior; $10, children 2-12;

weekdays weekends through Sept. 7:$20;

$18, student/senior; $8 children, 2-12

INFO: or 718-817-8700

West Bridgford Garden Designer At BBC Gardeners’ World Live

A West Bridgford garden designer  will be taking centre stage this week at BBC Gardeners’ World Live, as he displays his incredible Show Garden for the first time. See details.

Talented designers from around the UK with an interesting story around their design were selected to display at this year’s show, being held at the NEC in Birmingham FROM 12-15 June.

Jason Loh from West Bridgford launched a campaign on social media to try and raise the money needed to build the garden and received an incredible amount of support. Through social media, knocking on doors, crowd funding and sending out letters he managed to raise the £20,000 needed to fund the project.

Jason says,

“Our entry for the Show Garden competition, titled ‘The Journey’, was inspired by a season of significant lows and inspirational highs. The design captures the imagination and encourages reflection. Character. Perseverance. Change.

Just as professional athletes focus on their goal, our journey of life is shaped by what or who is our focus. Do you know that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy?”


Click for full size

Jason Loh design

The Journey


This will be Jason’s first feature at BBC Gardeners’ World Live having previously won Premier Gold Silver Gilt at the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show 2012. Entering this garden, there is an opportunity to reflect on life and consider the road ahead. The feature wall marks The Journey of life, with its significant lows and inspirational highs. The texture of the dry river path changes underfoot, becoming more comfortable as you reach the goal at the end. The progression is also marked by the increasing size and development of the rock formations and plants, along The Journey.

Visitors to the event can view the garden at stand GA17.

Advance ticket prices start at £22.50 – please check the website for more details

Five finalists in garden cities contest revealed

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Dunckley to design 360 degree garden for Hampton Court

By Matthew Appleby
Wednesday, 04 June 2014

Garden designer and owner of Birchfield Nursery in West Sussex, Jack Dunckley is striving to be one of the youngest ever winners of a gold medal at this year’s RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, 8 – 13 July 2014, with his garden The Just Retirement Garden; The Journey Through Retirement.

Jack Dunckley's Hampton design

Jack Dunckley’s Hampton design

The garden will be the largest at Hampton Court at 20x8m. Visitors can view the garden at 360 degrees – the first time this has been allowed at the show.

The garden takes inspiration from the progression to retirement. Plants will be sourced from Italy to accompany those grown at his own nursery.

Featured plants include Lavandula, Echinacea, Artemisia and Salvia.  Custom-made Chilstone panels are also incorporated into the design, to allow for separation and add an aperture for people on the outside to get a glimpse though to the main part of the garden.

 He said: “I’m excited to be back at Hampton Court and with a garden I feel exceptionally proud of.  At 21, retirement is not something that is in the forefront of my mind so it’s been a challenge making sure the three stages in the garden (youth, maturity and retirement) capture these moments in time.  

“I’m hoping the wide variety of tranquil plants, in particular Lavandula and Echinacea, raised borders, custom made Chilstone panels and pavilion will illustrate these key life stages to visitors and that they will be able to relax and take in the senses the garden stimulates.”





A design for life: Can new garden cities solve Britain’s housing shortage?

A design for life: Can new garden cities solve Britains housingshortage?
Homelessness charity Shelter’s design for a new garden city (Picture: Shelter/Wolfson Economics Prize)

We build these cities… we build these cities on rock and knolls.

Well, that’s the plan, at least. Earlier this year, the coalition government announced that up to three garden cities would be constructed in a bid to halt Britain’s housing shortage.

A garden city is an attempt to combine housing and green areas in one. Although the basic idea is an old one – the garden city movement was founded at the end of the 19th century – urban planners, politicians and economists believe it could shape the nation’s future.

The government has set aside funding from a pot of £2.4bn to potentially build three garden cities and chancellor George Osborne has earmarked Ebbsfleet in Kent as the first of those sites, which will see the construction of 15,000 new homes.

The garden city movement was founded in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard on the principle of providing a mix of the urban and the natural in a riposte to the poor conditions and overcrowding of the time.

MORE: George Osborne announces plans for new 15,000-home garden city in Ebbsfleet, Kent

The world’s first garden city was established in Letchworth in Hertfordshire – and was home to Britain’s first roundabout. Almost 70 years later, Milton Keynes, which became notorious for its roundabouts, was formed as a ‘new town’, taking inspiration from the garden city template. Howard’s ideas led to the formation of Welwyn Garden City, also in Hertfordshire, which became Britain’s second garden city in 1920. Ebbsfleet will be the nation’s third proper garden city.

In yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, there was a government pledge to reform the planning system to pave the way for new garden cities.

The concept’s current standing has been emphasised by this year’s Wolfson Economics Prize. The second most lucrative economics award after the Nobel Prize, it has asked its entrants to design a new garden city ‘which is visionary, economically viable and popular’.

Five entrants were shortlisted yesterday for the overall prize – worth £250,000 – out of almost 300 applicants. The winner will be announced in early autumn. Applications came from architects, planners, surveyors, economists, students and children from all over the world.

The five shortlisted designs, which were judged anonymously, are made up of entries from planning consultants Barton Willmore; housing development expert Chris Blundell; urban design specialists URBED; housing charity Shelter and planning company Wei Yang Partners.

The Wolfson Economics Prize was founded in 2011 by Conservative Party peer Lord Simon Wolfson and is run by the Policy Exchange think tank. In a survey published this week to coincide with the shortlist announcement, it emerged that three out of four Britons are behind new garden cities as a means of tackling housing shortages.

0506-garden-cities1 (2)

0506-garden-cities-2 (2)

Miles Gibson, director of the Wolfson Economics Prize, said that if all five of the proposed garden cities were built, they would provide homes for 400,000 people and construction jobs for 400,000 workers.

‘There are opportunities to improve the quality of people’s lives by building garden cities, rather than tacking 50 odd houses here and 100 houses there on to the end of an existing settlement,’ he said.

‘We can’t continue shutting people up in what are the smallest homes in Europe at just 76 square metres. People are entitled to aspire to better quality housing for themselves and that does include a reasonable amount of outdoor space.’

Gibson said a garden city must be green and have plenty of open space. ‘It has to be a mixed use place with jobs and offices and retail facilities to create a community,’ he added. ‘It needs to be well connected to the existing transport network but not necessarily so well connected that it becomes a commuter town. It’s got to have a life and an identity and a community of its own.’

But can these spaces become a reality?

‘We haven’t done garden cities in the UK for 100 years and we haven’t done new towns in the UK for 40 years, so there’s no doubt there’s a skill and collective memory issue that would have to be addressed if any of these were actually to be built,’ said Gibson.

‘Nobody is expecting anything overnight – this takes careful planning. We hope that what the prize has done is make people feel it is possible. Our entrants all argue that this can be done and what it needs is a national political consensus that it should be done and then it will happen.’

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, whose shortlisted design proposes a development at Stoke Harbour that could eventually accommodate 150,000 people, said: ‘Creating new garden cities is an essential step towards building the homes we need. From families struggling to keep up with their housing costs to young couples seeing the dream of a home of their own slip away, we’re all feeling the effects of our housing shortage.’

Rising property prices are caused by a shortfall in new builds, according to Shelter, who say 250,000 homes need to be completed each year to meet demand. It said Britain is short of that target by about 100,000 houses a year.

‘New garden cities can’t solve the housing shortage on their own,’ said Robb. ‘They must be combined with other measures that will get us building the homes we need right now, from helping small and medium sized builders access the finance they need, to ensuring that land is made available for building new affordable homes.

‘Soaring prices and years of rock-bottom house building have pushed the housing market to crisis point. We need to see urgent action to give hope to all those watching their dreams of a home of their own slip further out of reach.’

For more information on the shortlisted designs go to

A Smart Sensor That Quantifies the Soil in Your Garden

Edyn is a smart garden system that consists of a Wi-Fi-connected sensor and water valve. Both are solar powered and have a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery when not in full sun. Photo: Edyn

The smart water valve reacts to data gathered by the sensor as well as meteorological information from the surrounding area. It knows when your plants are thirsty and adjusts its watering schedule accordingly. Photo: Edyn

Founder Jason Aramburu thought up Edyn while trying to figure out ways to test Biochar, a sustainable fertilizer he developed. Here are the early prototypes, which are much clunkier than the final version. Photo: Edyn

The hardware is accompanied by an app that tells you the best plants to grow based on your soil. Image: Edyn

The big goal is for Edyn to gather loads of information for a massive database of soil research. Aramburu hopes more specific knowledge about what grows best where and why will empower more people to grow their own food. Image: Edyn


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Edyn is a smart garden system that consists of a Wi-Fi-connected sensor and water valve. Both are solar powered and have a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery when not in full sun. Photo: Edyn

The smart water valve reacts to data gathered by the sensor as well as meteorological information from the surrounding area. It knows when your plants are thirsty and adjusts its watering schedule accordingly. Photo: Edyn

Founder Jason Aramburu thought up Edyn while trying to figure out ways to test Biochar, a sustainable fertilizer he developed. Here are the early prototypes, which are much clunkier than the final version. Photo: Edyn

The hardware is accompanied by an app that tells you the best plants to grow based on your soil. Image: Edyn

The big goal is for Edyn to gather loads of information for a massive database of soil research. Aramburu hopes more specific knowledge about what grows best where and why will empower more people to grow their own food. Image: Edyn

There are plenty of ways to kill a plant without trying. Trust me. But even hardcore gardeners have a hard time knowing what’s really happening underground. Jason Aramburu created Edyn, a Wi-Fi connected gardening system, with the goal of doing for gardens what wearables have done for our bodies.

Call it the quantified garden. The system, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, consists of a Wi-Fi-connected sensor and water valve that assesses soil nutrition and waters your plants based on actual data. Stick the sensor it in the ground, and it gathers all sorts of information—things like ambient temperature, humidity, light intensity and soil electrical properties—which gets simplified, contextualized and passed along to you, the gardener.

It’s a smart idea, if not entirely novel. Soil sensors have long been alerting us we’re this close to drowning our tomatoes, but the end goal for Edyn is much more ambitious than a creating a clever piece of hardware, says Aramburu. The real intention is to create a massive database of what plants grow well in which climates—information that Aramburu hopes can someday be used to usher in a new age of sustainable gardening and farming.

The Seeds of Inspiration

The idea for Edyn came to the soil scientist a couple years ago when he was living in Kenya working on his last project Biochar, a type of sustainable fertilizer. Aramburu realized there were few ways to verify the effectiveness of his product outside of professional soil testing. Problem was, soil testing is slow, expensive and didn’t allow him to track what was happening in real time. So Aramburu made a rough prototype of a sensor and began testing the soil himself. “It was basically a box on a stick,” he says. “These were really more for a scientist to use.”

When Aramburu moved to San Francisco last year, he knew that in order to build the massive database he’s reaching for, he’d have to make Edyn’s industrial design more accessible for the everyday gardener. He turned to Yves Behar at Fuse Project, who created a cheery diamond-shaped tool that pops out of the ground like a flower and a water valve that can be connected to an existing water system like a hose or sprinkler to control when plants get fed.

The sensor, which has a microprocessor built into its body, works by emitting a small electrical signal into the soil. “We actually measure how that signal is attenuated by the soil,” he says. A significant enough change in signal (the result of humidity, temperature, etc) will spur the sensor to send you a push notification alerting you to the new soil conditions. At the same time, this data, along with meteorological information, is telling the valve if and when it should water each plant.

An App for Context

Gathering the data is one thing, but making sense of it is an entirely different challenge, which is where Behar and his team came in. They developed a smartphone app that contextualizes all of the soil data. The app will inform you on what to grow, when to grow it and what other plants would work well alongside it. It’ll also, for example, make sure you know when there’s too much humidity in the soil or if your dirt is too acidic and could use some lime or compost.


The Edyn sensor in the wild. Image: Edyn

Over time, this (anonymized) data is stored and aggregated with other Edyn users around you to form a more holistic picture of your area’s growing climate. “We’ll be able to say, ‘well, Katie is having success growing basil in Potrero Hill in San Francisco. That’s very close to you, so you might have luck growing it as well,” Aramburu explains. It’s easy to compare the Edyn system to the quantified self movement, but Edyn has the opportunity to actually build a robust, actionable set of data that personal health information could be used for because of its sensitive nature.

If adopted by enough casual gardeners, or as Aramburu hopes, smaller scale organic farmers, it could spur localized food production and actually have an impact on food supply. “We already do a really bad job of feeding the world and it’s only going to become more difficult,” says Aramburu. “I’m hoping this will become a tool to enable agriculture around the world, to help people grow their own food and increase food security.”

Business help for IT student garden designers

Local garden landscapers, Jamie Hurt Landscapes, stepped into the classroom to help Year 9 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) students to develop their own garden schemes.

This business-led approach helped students to complete the graphics unit of their ICT using graphic design software.

Students were challenged to work for a fictitious garden company called Dig-IT and to design the marketing materials to promote the business. They were further challenged to design their own garden which could be used on the company’s website.

The business owner, Jamie Hurt, explained to students the basics which needed to be thought through when designing a garden scheme. He explained about accurate measurement, listening to customer needs and making sure that the garden achieved everything required of it.

The students relished the opportunity that the gardening challenge gave to them and all students passed the unit with great results.

Students not only applied their newly-found graphics skills, they also learnt more about careers in landscape design and asked lots of questions about running their own business.

Jamie was delighted with the response of the students and has already said that he will be keen to work in this project again.