Category: Environment

March 6th, 2017 by Mark Laurence

I’m pleased to have launched a new website and blog dedicated to this aspect of my work.  Over time the blog will become a useful resource to all those interested in the care of trees in the Middle-East.  My focus and experience has so far been within the UAE but the tree range is similar in most GCC countries.  treecare UAE

Posted in Arboriculture, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Environment, Middle-East, Trees, Urban Landscapes Tagged with: , , , , , ,

February 7th, 2017 by Mark Laurence

On my most recent trip to Dubai, I enjoyed walking through some of the new landscapes that emerge as projects are completed.  The UAE, along with most regions of the Middle-east has a rather limited palette of plants to work with (although that is growing as new plants are tried). What stuck me, however, was how poor the quality of nursery stock was in some cases and what problems are being created for later, especially with regards trees.

This is not new, nor confined to this part of the world but it bothers me that new areas of urban green are sometimes given a poor start with sub-standard nursery stock, often flown in from other parts of the world.

Simple pruning at an early stage would have improved this tree’s framework, removing crossing and rubbing branches.

Wandering around a residential area in Jumeirah, I came across some newly planted Delonix regia, one of my favourite exotic trees.  At first glance it looked nice, a simple planting of trees and groundcover but on closer inspection I was somewhat dismayed at the condition of the them.  The problems of poor framework were caused by their time in the nursery, not due to planting, although some of them could have been rectified by a vigilant planting crew.

This tree tie – complete with post – must have been like this from the nursery. The post did not reach the ground.

Many of the dozen or so trees had ties left on which the tree had grown around completely, making them impossible to remove.  As the planting is only around two years old (by my estimation), these may have been on the trees from their time in the nursery.  Possibly the planting was older and pre-dated the building they were attached to and the trees then grew around the ties after planting.  Either way, it’s a strong indication of neglect or lack of care. In the picture below, all the bark ridge above the tie may indicate “included bark” – bark sandwiched against bark, preventing live tissue growth and a strong branch collar formation.

The tree tie is trapped with “included bark” at the branch collar, which indicates a potentially weak branch join.

Several problems are arising here: pre-planting care in the form of correct formative pruning (five minutes with a pair of secateurs) and Post-planting care in terms of releasing planting ties – if they were not simply left over from the nursery days.  If there is no way to go back and release the ties, a bio-degradable tie should have been used.

This Ficus nigra was most likely damaged long before it was planted in this location.

Damage to the main trunk or structural framework of a tree might go unnoticed when the trees are small but cause major problems as the tree gets older and puts on size and weight.  This can range from the cosmetic to the potentially dangerous in a large tree and at this stage the remedy is costly and the expertise hard to find.


As fast-growing cities like Dubai mature, the needs of landscape shift from creation (in a hurry) to maintenance (at a constant pace).  Skills, awareness of the need for – and absence  – of skills, will become more and more urgent.  If Dubai wants to keep it’s beautiful, green mantle, then there is a whole new phase of arboricultural care awaiting to be discovered and initiated. I have carried out trees assesments and given basic training of correct pruning methods in the UAE, but that has hardly scratched the surface; there is a lot more to be done.

Trees are the urban, biophilic, blanket that clothe and surround the concrete mountains we build.  Trees make hot places not just bearable, but unbelievably beautiful.  Trees absorb dust, cool the air, add moisture and oxygen and enrich our Souls.  We need to honour and look after them, so that they can look after us.

Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Trees, Urban Landscapes Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

horticultural robot
August 23rd, 2016 by Mark Laurence

The way in which we design, create, maintain and use urban landscapes is likely to change radically in the next 15 years (in fact, modern society is in for overwhelming change).  Urbanisation, climate change and the rapid rise of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will see to that. Don’t think that the rate of change will be the same as has occurred in the previous 15 years, for technological growth is on an exponential growth curve, not a linear one.  Cities and systems are becoming smart, connected to the Internet of Things and that is just for starters.  So how will this change the way we design and use our urban landscapes?

Firstly, we know that there is huge movement of populations from rural to urban life, especially in the developing worlds and most markedly in Asia.  This creates huge pressure for new urban infrastructure and this is not always well planned growth, especially in terms of forward thinking to account for future changes.  Nonetheless, it is happening and happening fast.  The UN expects 66% of the world’s population to be urban by 2050, by which time there will be 9bn of us – so 6bn in cities.  Mega-cities have to grow in a way that sustains huge numbers of people.

Secondly, climate change is also occurring at exponential rates, raising the difficulties of living in any environment but with especial problems for mega cities, most of which are in coastal regions and subject to rising sea levels and worsening weather patterns.  Cities are hotter than the surrounding land due to the nature of materials used, whilst heavy rainfall brings flash-flooding. In arid countries, built environments are in danger of becoming too hot for humans to inhabit. Cities will have to take on these challenges, generating micro-climate.

Thirdly, technological change is happening exponentially and this will impact what we do, how we live, how – if – we work and how we tackle the above problems.  Some view the challenges and changes with fear, thinking they will only exacerbate problems.  They could do, anything can be mismanaged (such as a planet) for example.  I foresee that technology is actually the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the mess we have created, the only thing that can act on the vast scale needed to re-balance an out-of-kilter Gaia.

When we take these three factors into account, we can see that the future of urban landscapes has to be so much more than the addition of the odd pocket-park here and there.  Landscapes have to mitigate the environmental factors, make huge mega-cities liveable for a population increasingly disconnected from nature and provide meaningful lives in an era when many of us may not work in the way we are used to.

A weedy landscape

Weedy and neglected landscape plantings are all too common. No-one wants to pay for maintenance

How will cities become smart and use this to better the environment?  If we are looking to increase the amount of urban landscaping significantly, then the first issue to tackle is cost of maintenance.  No one wants to pay for maintenance and often, no one does.  How many planted landscapes do you see smothered in weeds, wrecking or negating the designed purpose?  Or municipal plantings and car-parks where plants inevitably die and are never replaced, leaving huge gaps.  Shrubs hedge trimmed into amorphous shapes because that’s the quickest way to “maintain” them.  It’s a poor standard and it’s all we’re going to get – no-one is going to pay for trained horticulturalists to do something better.

landscape lobotomy

Landscape lobotomy: maintenance is the quickest, cheapest possible

Yet there is an interesting possibility – automation is likely to remove nearly 50% of jobs in the next decade, especially low-skilled or repetitive ones.  In the landscape trade, there are already semi-autonomous strimmers and grass-cutters on the market, how long before we have horticultural robots maintaining our landscapes?  All the technology is already here, prices are falling and an uplink to an AI would identify every weed known, give the correct procedures, know how and when to prune every plant in common cultivation. Robots would work long hours without tea breaks!  If basic maintenance getters a lot cheaper, we can have more landscape and such robots would be cheaper, eventually.  Living walls would be a prime candidate, with a simple maintenance cradle (much like a 3D printer head) that crosses the wall with a maintenance bot on it.  I’ve seen so many potential living wall projects fall at the maintenance-cost hurdle.  In such a scenario, displaced maintenance crew can retrain as bot-supervisors or true horticulturalist for private clients.

horticultural robot

Horticultural robots will make maintenance cheaper and more effective.

We’re going to have to do more than just make maintenance affordable; rather, that is the factor that releases the possibility to do more urban landscaping.  Many of the elements we need to put in place are already in existence and being used, but we need to join the dots and think holistically.  For example, green roofs are seen as a separate trade from green (I prefer living) walls.  Instead, we need to be talking of biological membranes (biomembranes) for buildings, a whole-system concept, where the living skin regulates the internal environment, filters pollution in both directions, dealing with generation of energy, cooling, clean air and water. Living walls that currently use potable water for irrigation when they could be cleaning up the used greywater that all buildings generate is another example.

building biomembrane

Building Biomembranes regulate building ecology and create vertical landscapes

Systems that provide services that are of consequence to the functioning of a building, street, or neighbourhood need careful management and control, much of which will become automated.  In just the last year, for example, new irrigation controllers have come on the market which not only are connected to you via internet, they also connect to the nearest weather station and adjust their regime according to the conditions.  I use these for living walls; I do not advocate any irrigation for horizontal landscapes in temperate climates.  But things will move beyond this, with AI monitoring ground moisture levels and moving harvested rainwater from one holding system out to another part of the city where it is needed.  And urban farming – especially vertical – will be a large part of mega-city greening, although it might not be on display.  Sophisticated hydroponic systems are springing up in warehouses and roof-top polytunnels all over.  Such food can and should be organic, local, healthy, nutritious.

A smartly connected landscape means we can maximize the benefit it gives to the people who live, work or pass through it.  With the majority of people living in urban mega cities, we have to create an environment that is fit for ultra-dense urban living.  As these metropolis’ grow, people will have less and less daily contact with Nature, which is not good for our deeper wellbeing.  Biophilia is our innate need for contact with the natural world: plants, trees, flowers, insects, sunlight, water, earth.  A concrete jungle is not a substitute for the real thing but we mostly won’t have time to “get out there” and experience wild Nature.

I think inner city pollution will blow over – excuse the pun- in the next 5-10 years as we start a massive switch over to electric transport, most of it driverless.  In fact, drone taxis are already under development and as buildings and living habitats reach skyward we can expect the landscape to move with them.  It will become commonplace to have high-level dronepads – even private ones.  Some people might not even go down to the ground much!  So landscapes and biophilia must come to them.  Fortunately, there is a rash of building-integrated vegetation going on and I see this trend increasing.  Incidentally, if you wanted more good reasons for using bots to maintain planting, imagine working on living walls or trees that are 50 stories up!

As for the wider environment and the looming crisis of climate change, I can only hope that emerging nanotechnologies give us the tools to clean up our act and neutralise the positive feedback loops we are creating.  Scientists are already working on nanotechnologies which capture and convert carbon into useful materials and one day such microscopic machines may roam our land and seas, removing plastics and other dangerous waste.  If this is done at a molecular level, we turn problems into resources.  We’ll be printing our houses (already being tested) compounds made from waste materials but without the current worries of using say, bricks made from recycled plastic which off-gas VOCs.  We can only hope these technologies emerge before it’s too late to save the climate in a state that we can survive in.


So the next 10-15 years are going to see change at an unprecedented rate and it may not all be a smooth ride.  I am excited by it however and think that there is much to be done to ensure that we create new urban environments worthy of habitation and that we take care of all environments and indeed the whole planet.  Smart cities are coming and at their best they could loosen our imaginations and liberate us from a monotonous life of work and stress.  Let’s make that the scenario that happens…

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Landscape Futurism, landscapes, living walls, Smart Cities, Sustainability, Urban Landscapes, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

July 10th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

This article first appeared in Pro Landscaper Gulf – a .PDF copy can be seen here on page 12.  It is based on tree consultancy work I have undertaken in Abu Dhabi in recent years.

Irrigation is taken as a necessity when landscaping in arid climates.  It is a view that I wouldn’t like to completely contradict, yet I have seen a fair bit of evidence that tells me many plantings, and trees especially, are over-watered.  Of equal importance is the fact that many of the irrigation methods are wasteful of water and sometimes damaging to the trees themselves.


Tree sprinkler damage

Lawn Watering with sprinklers is damaging the trunk of this Millingtonia


We have to discern the different needs of trees and understand that what is necessary for one species is overkill for another.  I particularly speak of natives verses exotics.  Ghaf and Sidr you will see growing wild and without irrigation but imported exotics need a regular supply.  I have seen Ghaf blown over in irrigated plantings, caused by shallow rooting from an easy water supply.

Bacterial wetrot in Delonix

Bacterial wetwood in Delonix regia caused by overwatering. It also reduces the flowering, for which these trees are famous.

How the water is put on is just as important; pop-up sprinklers in lawns can damage the trunks of trees, causing aerial rooting in species like palm or fig, discolouring bark and causing stress-induced rots to occur in others.  Exotics like the Flame tree (Delonix regia) get over-watered, causing a reduction in flowering and a susceptibility to bacterial wetwood (slime flux). Even drip irrigation is not ideal, as it applies the water at the surface and promotes shallow rooting.  Trees with shallow roots are vulnerable to drought and so dependent upon the irrigation supply – a vicious circle.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

In the UK, we are used to putting in a subterranean irrigation ring around trees, which gets water to the tree roots at a deeper level.  For watering established trees, perforated tubes can be utilised, inserted vertically throughout the root zone and either manually watered, or connected to standard irrigation systems.  Supplying water at a slightly deeper level means less water used and wasted. A word of warning though – most feeding roots occur in the top 300 – 500mm of soil, so watering too deeply can also be wasteful.

Tree roots growing along the line of irrigation pipes

Tree roots growing along the line of surface irrigation pipes

In coastal cities, problems can arise from a naturally high-level, saline water table.  Halophytes (salt tolerant plants) have evolved to cope with this, but for some imported species, salinity can be a problem.  You also have to be aware of the quality of the irrigation water itself, which if drawn from the ground, may have a high saline content. Get your water supply tested if you are unsure.


Ultimately, I believe that planting styles and expectations of “landscape” must change.  A more natural style, with more xeriscaping and use of natives or other arid loving plants from different parts of the world (but from similar conditions), will emerge.  More important, in my view, than using strictly native species, is building plant communities that function and thrive in place without much human care or maintenance.  As climate zones shift rapidly around the world, nature cannot keep up and it will be down to us to create landscapes that sit well in their altered environments, whether native or not.  I believe we can do this with considerably less use of irrigation.  The water we do use should then be grey water (from taps and sinks), which is a much better way to conserve processed water use.

Canopy of Delonix regia

Canopy of Delonix regia

The goal has to be minimal water use, natural, ecologically benign planting and urban environments which feed our biophilic needs for connection to nature.

Zizyphus spina-christi

Zizyphus spina-christi, crown of thorns tree. A native of the UAE

Posted in Arboriculture, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Trees Tagged with: , , , , ,

July 10th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

This review first appeared in Thinking Gardens in February 2016.

This book represents a new wave of thinking about “natural” planting that has been emerging in recent years; actually it has been developing for the last thirty or more years but like all new things, they tend to follow an exponential growth curve. I’d say that right now we’re near the base of the steep upward bit with this one. Left unchecked, exponential growth tends to end in collapse but this idea deserves to stay the course. To do that it has to translate from a style into a design language and that’s what this book is really about.

This is a very US-centric book, unsurprising since Thomas Rainer is from Alabama and Claudia West, though of East German origin, lives in the US. I would have liked her influence to have given the book a more European feel; it would have been richer for it and more globally relevant.

The book has already been reviewed on TG by James Golden but although I’ve read this I’m not referring to it, save for one point. Needless to say, that review is also very US-centric; my purpose is to give a more UK/European viewpoint.

The thinking in this book is very design-led, in which the authors refer to landscape archetypes, which I think is very useful. However, they only select three – grasslands, wood and shrubland and forest. Given the vastness and variety of American climate types (which has just about everything), I’m surprised they didn’t mention desert landscapes, arid-mountainous or Mediterranean (as in Californian coastal regions); I suspect they have simply not worked with these climates, yet to omit them from a listing of archetypes is limiting. It is clear too, that their interest lies mostly in the grassland or prairie archetype.

Desert Archetype

There are many archetypes other than the three mentioned in this book. Desert near Dubai, UAE.

Referring back to the JG review, he wanted to add another archetype, Edges. I would argue that the wood and shrubland archetype is an edge, or rather a transition. Only in farmer’s fields do we have an edge as such. I would think of these archetypes as parts of a sine wave, one transitioning into another as climate and topography dictate. This sine wave also rolls around the globe over time, one archetype superseding another in any given place. Remember that the Sahara desert was woodland just 10,000 years ago, when we emerged from the last ice-age. This fits with the theory that there is no such thing as an ecological climax.

Another interesting thing to come out of this book is the idea of “designed plant communities”. You could say that any grouping of plants together is a designed community but the context they use of grouping plants by habitat-type rather than just their visual look is refreshing. This makes good sense, provided that such a designed grouping is appropriate within its wider environmental context. Taken to its logical extreme, however, you end up with native plants only.

What may be harder to work out is how much of this philosophy fits into a garden. Even the largest garden can’t fit in a whole wood, let alone a prairie, so of course, we must work by inference. This aspect of things is not really discussed in the book and most of the pictures are of large gardens in amazing settings; domains of the lucky few who we landscape designers occasionally get to work for. Yet for the majority of small garden owners, instruction for the adaptation of these principles is missing.

Millenium Park, chicago

The Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago by Piet Oudolf exemplifies modern Naturalistic planting. This is large ribbons or drifts of plants rather than the species intermingling favoured in this book

Millennium Park, Chichgo

The same garden in November; form is held in the stems and shapes of the seedheads but use of some woody plants might add more winter form?

I feel that the book only really looks at one archetype, that of New Perennial/Prairie style gardens and there is a big focus on this at the moment. I might compare this book with Oudolf & Kingsburys “Planting, a New Perspective”. That book, whilst not getting down to the archetypal design level, is more European in focus, so possibly a good companion read. Yet it too, mostly deals with perennial-based planting, as you would expect from these gents. The work of Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough comes to mind too. The fast-changing essence of many of the plant species used means that these perennial plantings are subject to rapid change, even degradation, over time as some of the most desirable and favourite species are so short-lived (Achillea and Echinacea for example).

I think the Wood and Shrubland archetype is the most likely to resonate with those seeking to create a garden, yet the ones of great importance to me, in a European and specifically coastal Southern England context, is that of the unmentioned Mediterranean or Arid-Mountainous archetypes. Whilst some areas of the Mediterranean clearly fit the Wood & Shrubland archetype (ie broadleaf and evergreen woodlands and Maquis), others such as Garigue, Salt Marshes and Rocky Shorelines, do not. I think this range and essence adds up to its own unique archetype. Arid-Mountainous too is quite distinct (although again with areas that fall into the realm of other archetypes), yet gives us wonderful, tough plants like Perovskia. The Dutch biologist Brian Kabbes has done much to inspire and educate us with his exploration of plants in Kyrgyzstan.

Perovskia arbrotanoides

Perovskia arbrotanoides growing wild in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Brian Kabbes


To me, one of the biggest drivers in creating naturalistic planting communities has always been about resilience. To my mind, planting should survive without irrigation, so low water-use plants are attractive. I can’t think of a single garden in the UK that couldn’t survive without irrigation, the desire to use pop-up sprinklers is ridiculous and surely industry-driven. Climate is changing now beyond speeds that Nature can shift plants and ecologies around the globe, so it is something we humans must do if we want a future landscape of any description (oh, and for our own survival). So we have to transmigrate landscapes from one continent to another to keep pace; yes, with all the risks that entails when introducing new species (and it would not be just plants we’d have to relocate). So learning about plant communities and how to build them is a vital skill which this book begins to explore, yet could have gone much further in instructing us on.

Mediterranean Archetype

This coastal garden I designed in Southern UK loosely mimics the Mediterranean archetype, and uses a full range of grasses, perennials, sub-shrubs, herbs, shrubs and trees.


In the European context then, archetypes other than grassland/prairie might be more useful and translatable into a garden context. That this book has not covered these is not really surprising but it is a mistake to think that the new language of resilient/natural/sustainable landscapes is dominated by perennials and grasses. This aspect is possibly a trend within the underlying drive for a natural interpretation.

A European version of this book is needed, which could perhaps take it to the next level of design language development. In this respect, inspiration can be drawn from another book, “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, which although about architecture and space, is also about soul, spirit, context and community, realised through the use of a language of patterns. In a very real way, “Planting in a Post-Wild World” attempts to create an archetype-based design language and is a valuable contribution to that. We just need the language to be global, or to see this book as a regionalised attempt to cross boundaries and develop new thinking.

This is an important book and I recommend it; for all its limitations it shows the way to develop landscapes that are truly new and profound.

Posted in Book Review, Design, Environment, landscapes, Natural Landscapes, Regenerative Planting Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

hazel pruning methods
January 9th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

In my previous post I talked about a regenerative planting methodology for urban landscapes, in which I suggested you would manage, rather than maintain your planting areas. So how exactly do you you do this? Both involve work and the difference is a subtle but important one, in both attitude and application. Think urban forester rather than garden pruner. The picture above illustrates this perfectly, so let me explain.

It shows two hazels in my garden, both planted as young bare-root trees in the winter of 07/08. The one on the left was coppiced down to the ground in the winter of 12/13, the other has been pruned to keep a structure of older wood, with all suckering growth removed annually. What is the difference? The coppiced hazel has been less work overall and has not been touched since it was coppiced, the pruned tree has been pruned annually, which was not great amount of work but this is just one tree. If there were a hundred, it would be a different matter. The main difference is that the pruned tree has catkins, the coppiced tree does not, but I think this is a difference of genetics, rather than pruning technique, as they have always been like that. The shape of the pruned tree is also wider in its spread and will become gnarled as it gets older.

So in terms of management, if you go the coppice route you do nothing much to the trees except coppice them every 4-5 years. I would suggest that 50% of the trees are coppiced so that not all structure is removed at once. Notice that the growth of the coppiced hazel is straighter, making for a productive yield of canes and poles that can be used in the local community. Other trees that can be coppiced include sweet chestnut, lime, alder, ash, willow and hornbeam. Birch and oak will coppice, but from young trees only. Willows and dogwoods grown as bushes for their winter colour can be coppiced or “copparded” (inbetween coppice and pollard) to around 300-600mm every two years to keep the winter stem colours strong.

Salix elaeagnos

Salix elaeagnos (foreground)

By adopting such techniques in our larger masses of urban street planting and parks, we would deliver a more biodiverse, beautiful and biophilic interaction for all concerned. It would also cost less both to establish and possibly to maintain, than traditional planting. The above willow is beautiful and graceful, yet I have seen it all too often used in municipal car-parks and reduced to a-n-other shrub that is caressed all to frequently with the indifference of a hedgetrimmer.

Time to re-wild our inner selves, and our urban landscapes. We can do so much better than the average landscape we see in our towns and cities.

Posted in Arboriculture, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, My Garden, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

regenerative tree planting methodology
December 29th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

Almost all urban landscapes are contrived and designed, due to their artificial nature and short timescales of development and use.  We see increasing use of mature rootballed trees and extensive hard landscape and this is normal for intense inner urban areas; I do get concerned that the increasing complexity of urban planting systems divorce trees particularly from their natural functions and prevent the occurrence of the biological interactions/communities that go to make up an ecosystem.  For example, I have seen trees planted whose surface levels are around a metre below the surrounding paving level.  No matter how well designed, this seems fundamentally wrong to me.

So I’m thinking that there must be a way of dealing with the majority of less intense landscape zones (especially where there isn’t the financial budget that a high-end development attracts) to provide urban regeneration, ecological restoration and biophilic connection, all on a modest budget.  This would create a new method to allow for wide-spread adoption in urban and suburban zones.  I think the solution comes from Nature’s own process of natural regeneration and a developed philosophy of minimal (but specific) preparation.

silver birch regeneration

silver birch are pioneering species for natural regeneration

Starting from the observation that Nature is very efficient at regenerating itself, what can we do?  Too often, I have seen unnecessary interference in this process.  I still recall that a few years after the great storm of 1987, I walked through some nearby National Trust woodland of pines and birch.  A great deal of damage had been done with many trees blown over.  Birch had however, regrown abundantly from dormant seed and was already three or four foot tall.  The NT then sent in the bulldozers to clear out the fallen wood so the area could be – replanted.  I watched them tracking over all the natural regeneration.  Why didn’t they just leave well alone?  The restoration of the woodland was only slowed down by such clumsy interference and this was not even a productive forest.

If we simply broke up paving in our urban centres and loosened up the sub-base, what would happen?  Nature would soon find a footing and things would start to grow; however, that process would be too slow and unpredictable for human sensibilities.  So what if we did a little more, adding a small amount of topsoil to the rubble, planting small (1+1 year transplants) bare root trees and shrubs,  with plugs of understory forbs, ferns and grasses. Starting so young, we’d generate a successful community in no time.  These could be designed as narrow ribbons – two to four metres wide, inserted into suitable wider areas of paving.

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

The above area was one I thought would be suitable for such an approach; there are many such areas throughout all urban spaces.  They cry out for regeneration, yet seldom can this be done for lack of adequate finance.  Below is a quick sketch showing how it might look.

Sketch showing regenerative planting

Sketch showing regenerative planting

The benefits of such an approach would be huge.  It would cost far less than using a traditional approach to landscaping such an area, maybe half (I haven’t costed it!).  The care would move from maintenance to management, using a rotational coppice methodology, rather than trim and tidy (which always ruins a plants natural habit. Biodiversity would be hugely enhanced, air pollution mitigation would increase, wind buffering, urban heat island reduction, stormwater runoff (they would act as rain gardens) and of course, our biophilic needs, our connection to nature.

Someone needs to be bold and try it; talk to me…

Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Living wall Maintenance
November 29th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

We are now a decade into the explosion of living or green walls.  There have been many successes and some notable failures along the way, some of of which may be system-induced and some caused by inadequate or inappropriate maintenance regimes. Assuming we now have systems that work at least reasonably well, what is required by way of maintenance to keep walls looking good?

First of all, we have to acknowledge it is the large, commercial projects which get the attention and sit within the public eye.  If anything goes wrong with these, it is noticed, big time. Commercial walls, I have found, are governed by financial pressures and that can sometimes mean that over time, budgets are cut and maintenance regimes compromised. When maintenance goes out to commercial tender, it is usually the cheapest price that wins.

Secondly, we have to understand that there is a profound difference in the way we perceive vertical landscapes from horizontal ones.  With ordinary planting beds, we would plant probably between five and nine groundcover plants per m². Living walls are planted at between 30 and 100 plants per m², a highly artificial and crowded environment.  Yes, we are treating these as groundcover which knits together, but unlike horizontal beds, gaps between plants are not deemed acceptable.  It is also harder for plants to spread or fill in laterally, depending upon the system they are planted into. Visually, when you look at a living wall, you look straight on at eye-level, then upwards. So the lower sections of walls can come under intense scrutiny.  Any failures have to be replaced and the rate is higher than that of horizontal planting, for the aesthetic reasons just stated.

Thirdly, living walls depend upon the right plants being chosen; they have to have the right characteristics of habit, growth and longevity. Some common garden plants are notoriously temperamental, short-lived or subject to pests such as the notorious Vine Weevil (which seems to attack an ever-increasing variety of plants). As a designer, I have previously used many plants that I don’t use now, and I find the list is shrinking, as you learn about a plant’s ruggedness over time. We are still pioneering a new methodology and now I’d rather use a smaller palette and feel more confident about it’s long-term success.

Fourthly, finally and perhaps of greatest importance, is the maintenance given to a living wall. I prefer the term living wall to green wall, because it reminds us that they are just that, living. They are also put into an extremely hostile and unnatural location and aspect. Sometimes those who look after them don’t do a good enough job. Many commercial landscapers are not horticulturalists and don’t really know that much about plants.  That may sound shocking (and I’m pointing fingers at no-one, for this is just they way things are) but a Kew or RHS trained gardener is unlikely to be employed in a commercial company. Even knowing what to do for the best health of a plant on the ground could be inappropriate if done to the same plant on the vertical.

maintenance-03 maintenance-02 maintenance-01

The pics above show living walls in three different systems, all in poor condition (including one using my older system); I’m not saying where or who because blaming is not appropriate nor my intention; rather, awareness raising is. The fact is that each and every system out there has good and bad examples to show. It is interesting to note that training efforts have been begun in at least one university, but this type of knowledge is a hands-on, college affair. Right now, it is only learnt on the job and this is art of the problem; many operatives simply don’t know their plants. If you don’t know the name, you’re not going to know anything about how it grows or when and how you should prune it.

My answer (and this goes much against my designer instincts) is to restrict the planting palette to those most able to survive. I always want to use more varieties, but it is sobering when you see them dying because they can’t cope with the conditions, or falling off the wall because the roots have been eaten by Vine weevil or millipedes. Beautiful grasses that  have high levels of old, straw-like debris among the new healthy leaves are a no-no and geraniums may or may not look good in the winter months; such plants must be used with care. Patterned designs seem to fall by the wayside too; bold swathes are fine until one species fails and dies back, then you are left with a gaping wound.

So you may be thinking, should we do this at all?  My answer is an emphatic yes, we should and must. We need to green the vertical in cities, for it is often the only space left available. We have all the needs of biodiversity, pollution mitigation and biophilia to account for and living walls provide those where no other greening method can – not even trees. We still have much to learn however, and the skill of maintenance has to be appreciated more by all involved. In fact it needs to be venerated and it’s practitioners respected and paid more.

Systems, at best second or third generation, need to evolve and be better understood.  Or rather, plants need to be understood more, and their optimal needs met.  We have, as I keep saying, hardly scratched the surface of what is possible and of what needs yet to be done. We need to learn more, try more and expect more.

Let’s get to it.

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Green walls, landscapes, living walls, Sustainability, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

A stream runs down to the pond
June 16th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

I have been lucky enough to have designed and built a lot of water gardens in my time; I’ve been looking back over some of my pictures, and thought I’d share them here.  Working with water is like nothing else; it is enigmatic, frustrating, contrary, exciting and absolutely rewarding in a way that few other mediums can be.

A Naturalistic pond with simulated wetlands and planting

A Naturalistic pond with simulated wetlands and planting

Pond bio-filters clean the water, naturally

Pond bio-filters clean the water, naturally

A stream runs down to the pond

A stream runs down to the pond

A stream runs through a gravel-garden

A stream runs through a gravel-garden

A bridge of sleepers over the stream

A bridge of sleepers over the stream

A gentle waterfall emerges from within willow bushes

A gentle waterfall emerges from within willow bushes

Posted in Design, Environment, landscapes, Ponds, Water Gardens Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

December 7th, 2014 by Mark Laurence

Last winter I did some interesting work in Abu Dhabi, concerning the care of trees.  I can’t name one of the projects (a royal palace), but one was Mushrif Central Park undergoing a major redevelopment (and now reopened – March 2015).  In both places I undertook a survey of 100+ broadleaf trees (as opposed to palms), assessed their condition and trained staff in basic arboricultural pruning techniques.  Such information is lacking out there as most such trees, with the exception of things like ghaf (Proposis cineraria) and acacia (A. tortilis) are imported from abroad, so knowledge of the necessary arboricultural techniques of pruning, especially of broadleaf trees, is generally absent (palms they are well used to dealing with).


As you can see in the pics, the trees in the park had been “salvaged”, which is perhaps not a good word. A specialist tree-lifting company from the US had been engaged to train ground staff in the techniques of boxing and lifting the trees, no easy task in a pure sand soil and 35-40degC – and that’s the winter temperatures. I then had to attend to the care and aesthetics of the tree.  My assessment was that most of the trees had been badly pruned in the past, causing poor crown developments and in some cases allowing disease to enter.

Containerised Trees in the nursery area

Not surprisingly, some of the trees suffered severe shock in being lifted, but most survived, with varying degrees of die-back and then regrowth. Much of the work was simply about deadwooding and the teaching of correct pruning cuts and methods. Access is always the main issue and there was no way to teach the guys how to climb – that is a job for a specialist training school, so we were restricted to a cherry-picker and for the most part, hand tools.


Many trees suffer, surprisingly perhaps, from over-irrigation. This causes surface rooting which makes trees dependent upon continued irrigation, plus natives like ghaf become prone to wind-throw from lack of deep anchor roots. Exotic trees such as Delonix (below), grown for their beautiful red or yellow flowers, bloom less well when over-watered and become prone to bacterial wetwood infection.


Places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are developing at an astonishing speed and their landscapes are growing at a similar rate. Knowledge is the thing that lags behind, and it will take some time for this to catch up. I’m sure it will; there is something alluring about creating beautiful landscapes in a naturally hostile climate. This becomes a critical issue in the light of climate change and global urbanization, which is happening fastest in the hotter regions of the world; landscapes moderate climate and make such places livable, whilst biophilia demands that we need close contact with greenery in this urbanised world.

More needs to be done to increase the knowledge and care of trees, including species selection and nursery practice, reducing over-irrigation and teaching good pruning methods, but it can be done. I’m looking forward to the next phase.

Posted in Arboriculture, Dubai, UAE, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,