Alternative Materials for Landscaping Use

While many of the materials used in landscaping projects have been around for years – with long-established track-records of successful use – there are many alternatives available for anyone looking for something a little different. Some of these are new materials, while others are old ones which simply fell out of fashion along the way and between the two, there has probably never before been so many options available – whatever your reason for “going alternative.”

Mulches and Growing Media

Alternatives to peat-based compost have come on a long way since the growing environmental awareness first brought them onto the market and the variety of materials available today has grown enormously since those early days. Whether used as the actual plant growing medium, or as some form of soil conditioner or top-dressing, there is an impressive array of products, many made from recycled or recovered materials.

Peat-free compost – often made from forestry and horticultural cuttings – comes in a variety of grades and is an extraordinarily versatile material, ideally suited for use as a feeding mulch, a top-dressing to suppress weeds, a soil improver or simply as a planting compost. However it has been used, it has the advantage that, come the end of the season, simply digging it in will add useful nutrients to the soil and so reduce demand for inorganic fertilisers – a useful saving from both economic and environmental view-points.

Other dressing materials too, such as forest bark chippings, which were once themselves seen as “alternative”, have been joined by newer materials such as coir shells – their “chocolaty” aroma is said to discourage cats from visiting – and shredded wood waste. Similar garden products are now even available made from old tyres in the form of crumbs to add to beds and lawns to improve soil structure and rubber chips for play-areas and paths.

Hard Landscaping Materials

The use of recycled materials, both in terms of the salvage and direct re-use of paving stones, bricks and aggregate and the rise of secondary items made from substances which have been reclaimed has also seen considerable growth in recent years for hard landscaping.

Recycled plastic has become a popular alternative material for decking, fencing and garden furniture, with a variety of products available from companies such as Lankhorst Recycling and Reformed Plastic. Reclaimed timber makes an appearance too, being used for garden furniture and other items, though one long-established landscaping standby – the railway-sleeper – is now a thing of the past; the recent ban on creosote has stopped it being available for general use. For the pro-recycling landscaper, there are even ranges of decorative aggregate, pavers, coping and edging made from recycled glass by the Shetland-based company, Enviroglass.

Fences and Screens

For many gardeners, fences play a crucial role in providing privacy and shelter, and although there is a wide variety of traditional versions available, there are a few alternatives if adding a different sort of screen appeals. Some companies offer conventional types of fencing in reclaimed wood or recycled plastic, which can make very effective boundaries, allowing you to use alternative materials without breaking with the normal look of a fence. However, for a more unusual approach to screening – particularly if the barrier is intended to help deaden noise – it is hard to beat willow.

There is nothing new about the weaving of thin wands of willow to form hurdles – with the addition of mud and dung, it forms the basis of the old wattle-and-daub building material used extensively through history. Where willow hurdles become their most alternative, and arguably most interesting, is when they are formed into green walls of living saplings.

Making this kind of green trellis work is easier than might be supposed and has been used successfully on a variety of scales – even helping reduce the road noise affecting whole villages. Once a row of evenly-spaced willow wands – 15cm (6in) or so apart – has been established, the trick is to weave them together to form a lattice-work, tying them tightly at each junction point with garden twine, to encourage the two rods to fuse together as they grow thicker. Once the required height has been reached, the final cross-over needs to be tied more gently, using soft plastic or rubberised plant-ties – allowing a little movement at the top stops the wind from snapping off the tips. Then all that remains is to weave in – or prune – extra growth at regular intervals to keep your alternative living fence in top condition. Almost any willow can be used to make a green wall, although it is obviously best to select for the best suited to local conditions – and avoid Salix fragilis; as its name suggests, it is a little too brittle to be woven in this way.

One of the best aspects of any landscaping project is the chance it gives you to make your own mark on the ground, altering the appearance to provide a look and a usefulness which makes it “yours” – and no two approaches are ever quite the same. If the idea of being a little bit “different” appeals, then there are few better ways of expressing it than by including something alternative in your choice of materials.