Tread Lightly

A leading landscape architect with a busy practice serving well-heeled clients, Marian Boswall confesses she is ‘a hippy at heart’, so when she was asked to write a book about sustainable gardening, she jumped at the chance.

“I’m a bit of a Trojan horse. I think that a lot of very affluent people are hippies at heart and it’s all coming out as lots more people are getting in touch with how they’d really like to live rather than how they think other people want them to live.”

Marian has teamed up with award-winning garden photographer Jason Ingram to create the timely book, which combines her philosophy of treading lightly on the earth with practical projects and advice for the eco-conscious gardener, such as how to make a dead hedge and a herb spiral, or how to create a rain garden and a pond in a pot.

A specialist in historic garden landscapes who lectured in Historic Garden Conservation at Greenwich University for several years, an environmentally friendly approach comes naturally to Marian.

“The lovely thing about sustainable gardening is it’s how we’ve been working anyway. If you’re working in a historic garden you always re-use what’s there, understanding what’s gone before and treading really lightly and that’s the beginnings of sustainability. It’s quite a gentle approach but it doesn’t have to be woolly,” she says.

When Marian and her team visit a client’s garden for the first time, they take off their shoes and listen to the land. Then they back this up with solid research into what the garden used to be, and what species they should be working to attract.

“We always spend time listening to the land. We take our shoes off, we sit there, we think. I have a wonderful team, they’re happy for me to meditate, to think about what the land would be if we weren’t there, to think about what’s gone before. We always start quite rigorously with research into the history, the topology, the geology, the soils, the flora and fauna which are already there. We look to see what the local SSSIs are, what the local biodiversity action plans are and what the target species are, so that we’re always working in context and trying to work with what would like to be there even if we weren’t there.”

There is something quite spiritual about Marian’s approach to designing landscapes and gardens. She describes how in January 2020, she went to Guatemala to see her godmother who is an archaeologist.

“I just had this extraordinary epiphany sitting on top of one of these amazing temples on dawn of New Year’s morning that that whole civilisation disappeared because of deforestation and disease and drought and I thought this could happen again.”

Shortly after coming back to the UK, by then in the grip of Covid-19 anxiety, she gave a TEDx talk about how we need to look after ourselves.

“People say let’s save the planet, but the plants are going to be fine, it’s ourselves that we need to worry about,” she says.

On the positive side, she is delighted that people have taken up gardening in their droves during the pandemic, and that her 12-strong practice has “never been busier”. A devotee of Instagram, she loves the way in which people use the platform to share images of the natural world.

“I love Instagram for the positive stuff. If it is a beautiful sunrise I know that I will switch on Instagram and see seventy beautiful sunrises – how exciting is that? That is the important news of the day, it doesn’t matter how many masks we’re wearing or vaccinations we’re taking, really it’s the fact that the sun keeps coming up and being beautiful.”

Sustainability is in her genes, born as she was to parents of the “make do and mend” generation.

“My parents were war babies, you would never buy biscuits in my family, my mother would always have made them. We have piles of ironed Christmas wrapping, I love hand me downs and second-hand shops, that has always been the way.”

When she moved to Kent 25 years ago, the lady she bought her house from told her she’d never used any poisons in the garden and as a result it was teeming with wildlife.

“I just thought that’s very lovely I’m going to carry on with that. When the first gardener came along to help me and said, ‘I’m going to spray the driveway’, I said ‘No we’re not, because that’s not how we roll’. You have to explain to people it might be a bit more work, but it’s so worth it.”

If she could suggest three simple changes people could make to be more sustainable in their gardens, the first would be “don’t poison anything”.

She clarifies this by adding that it depends how far you want to go. While it is easy to avoid products actually labelled as poisons, some people might think slug pellets are ok because they are described as ‘bio-friendly’. “They’re probably not bio-friendly if a badger eats them,” she points out.

You might want to go a step further and think about what washing powder you use, she says, adding: “I always say it’s with no judgement because I’m not perfect and nobody is perfect. It’s just us all trying to do our best.”

Her second piece of advice is “no peat”. “That’s a big deal. Our soil is our best asset. It’s the biggest carbon sink. It’s a bit like picking a scab off your skin and expecting it to be fine. It’s not going to be fine. There are some really good alternatives to peat out there.”

She is a passionate advocate for making your own compost, even if it’s just a bokashi food waste bin in your kitchen, or a wormery on your balcony.

“You become so aware of what you throw away that it changes your whole mindset. If you’ve got too much food for the worms going in your wormery every day, you’re buying too much and if it doesn’t break down quickly enough, then it’s interesting to know what the balance of what you’re eating is.”

Her third sustainability principle is “no plastic”. When buying plants for clients, she tries to source grey recyclable pots, or to buy young plants loose from nurseries. She and her team also “plant small”, choosing nine-centimetre pots where possible, which reduces the amount of fossil fuels used in transportation and means the plants do the bulk of their growing in situ which can lead to healthier specimens. She also believes consumers should vote with their feet by asking garden centres whether they can recycle pots and returning them after use.

In her own garden she follows the principles of forest gardening, beginning with a layer of ground cover, followed by emergent plants and then shrubs and trees.

“You get these lovely layers and you create an eco-system so everything supports each other. You get this wonderful whole little biome. I also use companion planting and I plant by the moon, I believe in bio-dynamic planting and it has great results. I am happily messy. I leave areas for wildlife. I don’t tidy up too quickly. I’m happy to prune and make things look smart, but there’s lots of seed-heads and things left out for the wildlife. In my garden I’ve got slow-worms, the occasional adder, voles, mice, all the way up to the owls. Sometimes people say, ‘I don’t want any rodents’, and I say to them, ‘If you don’t want rodents you can’t have owls.’ They do kind of go together.”

She grew up gardening with her granny, who passed no judgement on any mistakes she made, even when she was set to work weeding the cobbles around the old gatehouse where she lived as a child.

“My father really didn’t like grape hyacinths and we used to spend ages getting them out from between the flint cobbles. I remember my mother used to be quite cross because I would take too much earth out with each one, but Granny never cared. She was just so kind and for me being in a garden is that feeling of being surrounded by love and being with someone who really wants to be with you.”

Then her family moved to Italy, where they could pick tangerines and lemons fresh from the trees. After studying French and Italian at university, she moved to London and became a management consultant, but after having two children and moving to Kent, she retrained in landscape architecture. She now runs the Sustainable Landscape Foundation with fellow designer Arit Anderson, to recognise best practice in the industry.

In her own work life, she now wants to concentrate on regenerative projects with a focus on permaculture and food sovereignty.

She says: “It’s wonderful that sustainability is at the top of everyone’s minds at the moment, but what we don’t want to do is make it a great whipping stick. No one should feel oh well I flew away on holiday therefore I can’t be a sustainable gardener. Everyone can do a little bit of something.”

  • Sustainable Garden: Projects, insight and advice for the eco-conscious gardener by Marian Boswall, with photographs by Jason Ingram is published by Frances Lincoln on 15 March.
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