Use anything from broken bricks to old tyres to Tube train windows
I was 10 when I designed my first garden. Using only reclaimed and found materials, it was a considered, carefully constructed space. A rectilinear layout gave way to a reflective circular water feature. Mountains of moss softened the curved boundaries: the rusty metal edges of a 20cm cake tin. My miniature masterpiece won first prize at the village flower show.
I still remember how much fun I had making it, digging around in the back of cupboards and scouring my parents’ garden for pebbles, sticks and leaves. I had inherited a fondness for treasure hunting — for furniture, clothes, jewellery and bric a brac — from a magpie mother. I still can’t walk past a piece of discarded furniture on the street without wondering how I could get it home. If only my flat were bigger.
My mother and I still trawl reclamation yards together, often not even buying things but admiring the oddities and imagining their colourful former lives. A favourite recent find at her local haunt — Watling Reclamation in Northamptonshire — was a beautiful stained-glass orangery roof. I’m still scheming to find a home for it.
On these trips I’m always surprised not just by the quantity of salvaged materials, but the variety and quality of them too. There are miles of chimneys, ironmongery, door handles, tiles, bricks in every shade, stable doors and troughs. All in workable condition. Yet there is a noticeable absence of these materials in modern gardens.
I’m often envious of the interior designers I work alongside as a landscape designer, who revel in their “antiquing” trips to Kempton Racecourse and auction showrooms. There is so much space for the old in interiors — and thanks to the work of pioneering designer-salvagers such as Retrouvius, based in west London, it has become accepted that even in a modern space there will be a mix of old and new.
In gardens we seem to be more black and white — urban and suburban gardens of the past decade have been modern spaces with clean, hard landscaping and simple palettes. And while landscapers may be planting trees and easing our minds over our carbon footprints that way, we are still part of a construction industry that creates 100m tonnes of waste a year in the UK alone. Many designers do repurpose materials on site — but in the wider industry it is, like on housebuilding sites, often easier and cheaper to rip things out and start again.
On a recent podcast for Harewood House’s 2022 craft biennial, Retrouvius co-founder Adam Hill said that in 28 years of business, he has only once known an architect build a week of “salvaging” into a work schedule.
Often during renovations, unused building materials are just buried in the garden. As fellow designer Bob Richmond Watson recently found when planting rootball yew in one of his projects — “Someone had clearly tried to grow a house there too, judging by the number of bricks we found.”
The savvy builder will sell old cement pavers on eBay, rather than planting them in the garden. Facebook Marketplace too is full of affordable second-hand pieces, from outdoor kitchens to paving to planters.
If you’re looking to make the most of your existing materials, craftspeople can help. A skilled carpenter can look at materials and work out how to repurpose them, often to beautiful effect. In one current north London project, carpenter-designer Phillip Gallimore and I are building a studio: timber from the client’s existing garden shed will become cladding, and the hunt is on for a decommissioned London Underground carriage window to use as the skylight. It’s exciting — we don’t know exactly what the finished product will look like; fortunately we have creative, trusting clients.
But the challenge of creating gardens with reclaimed materials on a larger commercial scale is not to be sniffed at. If you’re designing a terrace and hoping to use a combination of, say, salvaged setts and creasing tiles, you’ll need technical expertise to pick out the right quantity. Often tight budgets and timeframes don’t allow for this, so designers specify materials they know they can source easily. Reliable suppliers with huge stock levels who promise next day delivery are favoured.
But previously reliable suppliers have had a challenging year, not being immune to the global supply issues caused by Brexit and Covid. Waiting lists are long. Many landscapers have had projects delayed. Clients have been, understandably, frustrated. Popping down to the local reclamation yard suddenly seems more appealing.
When it comes to lower-budget gardens, I am preaching to the choir. Community gardens and allotments everywhere are heaving with creative uses of old materials. One (sadly now closed) favourite was the Nomadic Community Gardens in Shoreditch, where tyres and wheelbarrows served as raised beds and sheds were crafted from unwanted building materials.
In the new Get Started Gardens category at RHS Hampton Court this year, designed to encourage would-be horticulturalists, Amanda Grimes presented a Punk Rockery garden, made up of building leftovers such as concrete and broken bricks.
On a larger scale, John Little of the Grass Roof Company is pioneering ways to use brownfield sites and waste building materials. It turns out plants aren’t as fussy as we thought — and green spaces grown on brownfield sites can be brilliant for wildlife too. In the Victorian walled garden at Knepp Castle, Tom Stuart-Smith is following a similar route, planting into crushed concrete as part of an experimental rewilding project.
You can form collections of old troughs, curious garden sculptures. Even gnomes, if your heart desires
Part of the fun of creating your own garden over the years is the opportunity to form collections; of old troughs, curious garden sculptures. Even gnomes, if your heart desires. And if you don’t like what you have, you can modify it. Look at the Japanese art of shou sugi ban, where timber is burnt to weatherproof and give it character.
Follow the “screwed not glued” philosophy, making sure resources can be repurposed when the time comes. In a garden this could mean using a sand base instead of cement under a terrace — more sensitive to the ground below and easy to relocate without doing damage. It also gives ample planting space in nooks and crannies. Dry stone walls, where appropriate, are a sustainable way of building. Their modern-day equivalent, the gabion wall, is a great use of old stone and brick from a renovation (or found buried in your garden) that can embody the history of your garden.
From sought-after antique furniture to crushed concrete and Underground windows, there are now so many interesting and effective ways to adopt the reuse philosophy in a garden.
My 10-year-old self would be excited.
Robin Lane Fox returns on December 11