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Being sustainable and environmentally conscious is extremely important to me, so I try to ensure the gardens I design incorporate elements that reflect my values and contribute to the planet.

I do this in lots of ways.   For example, I:


·       Reuse as much as we can which already exists on site.

·       Keep mature shrubs and trees wherever possible.

·       Incorporate flowering plants which provide food for pollinating insects around the year.

·       Use local skilled landscapers and suppliers who will minimize the use of plastic and have a reduced carbon footprint.

·       Always try to encourage my clients to consider having a water feature as part of the design which will attract wildlife into their garden.

·       Consider the use of edibles and herbs so clients can enjoy eating from their own gardens and getting involved in the joy of growing their own food.

·       Encourage my clients to choose materials for walls and paving which can be sourced within the UK thereby minimizing the carbon footprint.

·       Faux lawn turf is so damaging to the health of your garden soil (having taken thousands of years to develop into its rich form) So I will provide all other alternatives to faux lawn turf as this should never be an option – not even a last resort!

The following Q&A session with Homes & Garden magazine provides further insights into how and why our gardens can help to protect the environment and the future of humankind.

Q&A Metro
'Homes & Garden'
Felicity O'Rourke

1. Do you believe that if we look after nature, nature will look after us? Are our gardens like a mini rainforest – and that no matter how small our outdoor spaces are, we can all contribute to helping the environment?

Yes, certainly. Through our global dominance, we have exploited natural resources and destroyed ancient ecosystems, and it is only recently that we realise that this has been to the detriment of ourselves and our natural world. We might be the dominant species on the earth but we are not superior and certainly not immune to our own extinction. In recent years we have become so detached from nature, we tend to forget that we are nature, so of course we must turn to nature and work with nature to protect our future.

Gardens are mini-ecosystems. Collectively, UK gardens amount to the size of the Lake District and Peak District and this example emphasizes the role that we all have in our individual gardens or outdoor spaces in contributing to a richer and more diverse environment overall.


2. How important are our gardens for our mental health and how/why?

In the last 18 months we have seen how people have sought out nature and green spaces when they were isolated and afraid during the pandemic. Our appreciation of life and the living world is hardwired into our own genetic makeup, giving us an innate emotional and beneficial response to nature, known as Biophilia. As we have found during Covid, all gardens and green spaces can bring a beneficial improvement in well-being. They do so in the following ways:


The feeling of being away: Giving people diversionary, time away from their usual everyday life – a form of escapism.

Fascination: This is passive interaction, entered into almost involuntarily, catching and holding one’s attention which could be watching grasses moving in the breeze for example


The extent of fascination: Providing enough opportunities to capture our interest, regardless of the number of times the garden is visited - eg encouraging wildlife into the garden to make every visit unique.

Compatibility: Enabling people to view and access the garden with ease eg. Using pathways or terracing for instance.


These 4 key elements are the basis of why gardens can be so captivating, uplifting and therapeutic and have certainly helped me during difficult times.


3. How do you think we as a human race have contributed to climate change? Is it too late to change the situation or can we all make a concerted effort to change things?


Just think that we have evolved from care-free hunter gatherers where we roamed and took what we needed and nothing more. As soon as we evolved to settle down and grow our own crops, we began to worry about the future and how we would feed our families. Paradoxically the success of our agricultural revolution has resulted in our over-population of the world which has left us almost enslaved to modern day agricultural farming practices. Then the industrial revolution came where we used fossil fuels to build and spread ourselves over larger areas. It is now the scientific revolution which has given us the ability to monitor and record this adverse impact and so now we can see how these ‘achievements’ of the past have ironically tipped the global environmental scales towards climate change.


According to the IPCC, we now have less than 10 years to employ rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society in order to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.


The best path to limiting warming to an increase of 1.5 C by 2100 involves cutting net human CO2 emissions 45% by 2030 and then cutting emissions further to net zero by 2050.


So yes, it isn’t too late to change things but we must change now with passion and motivation, in all areas of society. The recent pandemic has highlighted our own vulnerability and our incredible capacity to change in the face of an imminent threat. We now need to stop seeing that climate change is a threat in the distance and see it as something we must tackle now with the same level of urgency.

4. You used to be a commercial airline pilot – did your reason for changing careers to become a gardener have anything to do with climate change?

I took a break from aviation for a number of reasons:

  • Raising a young family and juggling fairly inflexible shifts

  • After the exponentially, steep learning curve of becoming a Senior First Officer, the schedule of flying trips felt too monotonous.

  • Flying with one person and often never flying with them again, meant it was difficult to develop long-term working friendships with crew members.

  • It wasn’t creative and once having children, I felt the need to become more creative once again and I took to gardening.


However, it was a few years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer that I turned to my garden for therapy and escapism when things in my life seemed overwhelming. It gave me the ability to focus on something outside of my inner anxiety in a nurturing and creative way. It helped me too, in the aftermath, when I was diagnosed with clinical depression and when fatigue and exhaustion set in by drawing myself outside for physical activity.

Garden Design seemed like an obvious choice for a career change as it requires not only technical skills but also the creative element I had been craving.

The Garden Design Diploma course started as a therapy in its own right to rebuild myself. However, it has given me a renewed proactive environmental purpose to make gardens more beautiful and diverse not only for my clients but for benefit of wildlife too.

5. What are your main concerns about climate change – can you explain?

My greatest concern lies with the big global picture. Climate change is causing the sudden release of excessive water from the polar ice caps. This has already led to extreme, catastrophic and unpredictable weather events, but I fear that these will only become more severe and more frequent in the coming years. Millions of people from some of the poorest countries of the world will become refugees. It will cause global death, disease and poverty, as well as extinction for already endangered animals. No one wants their children to grow up in a world like this, it is our worst nightmare. We must face the horrible truth now so we can motivate each other to make a difference now, as it will eventually affect us all, no matter how protected we think we are.



6. People assume gardening is green – but that is not always the case. What are the main offenders in the garden that actually work against nature, not with it? I’m thinking pesticides and chemical fertilizers and toxic weed killers – but I’m sure there are other offenders that we don’t even know about.


You have to be determined when it comes to being ‘green’ when you garden. Not only is there the plastic plant pot issue, but the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weed killers.


There are lots of organic methods available for targeting specific problems including the use of nematodes to tackle slugs and snails. The nematodes enter the slugs' bodies and infect them with bacteria that cause a fatal disease. A moist warm soil (temperatures of 5-20ºC) is needed, so this method is most effective during spring to early autumn and controls slugs for up to 6 weeks.

Organic insecticides such as natural pyrethrum (derived from the flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium) control a wide range of invertebrates including whitefly, small caterpillars, aphids, thrips, leafhoppers, capsids, ants and some beetles, if they are present on the plant at the time of application.


Despite new legislation which will ban all peat containing compost from 2024, compost containing peat is widespread. I used ENVAR compost in my show garden at Hampton. It is peat free compost which is made from food waste and green waste derived from council waste collections and is a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative. There are others out there too, it is just a question of actively seeking them out.


7. Like the brown plastic plant pots our plants come in – they are not recyclable. What can we do with them so they don’t end up in landfill? Should we be reducing plastics – if so, any good tips?

The independent UK garden centre chain, Dobbies have plastic plant pot and tray return points.

B&Q stores collect plant pots and trays for community-based project re-use schemes.

Axion Recycling is carrying out a pilot ‘bring back’ scheme at garden centres in the North West of England this summer. It plans to collect pots and trays from about 200 nurseries and growers in north-west England then shred, wash and separate them before recycling them into plastic sheeting used in the horticulture industry, or into new pots. The scheme will be known as Pot-to-Pot and will run for three months this summer. If it works, they might set up a wider and more permanent scheme involving DIY stores.

We all need to question every plastic item we buy for the garden: how long will it last? Is there another more sustainable material alternative?

The idea is to reuse, reuse and reuse again - compost bags as rubbish bags, scour plastic labels every year to reuse and store plastic pots and cloches out of direct sunlight to prolong their lifespans.


Buy recycled plastic or biodegradable products where you can.

Consider using yoghurt pots and other recycled objects to make seed pots.

Biodegradable pots, made from a range of materials such as coir, wood chips, rice husks, miscanthus or seaweed, are becoming increasingly popular, especially with organic gardeners. There are two types: ones that last a few months and can be planted straight into the soil, where they gradually break down and add humus to the soil; and more rigid ones made from plant materials such as rice husks and latex which last up to three years and can be composted.



8. Any cool ideas for using up old household items in our gardens – I’m thinking old tyres as planters, a colander for growing herbs, net curtains instead of plastic weed matting (I’m totally making this up by the way so over to you if you have any good tips!) or other alternatives that we can use

You can use washing up tubs/old sinks/ bath tubs as ponds/water features – just sink it into the earth so small animals can get to and from the water and create a shelf within it so that any animals that fall in will have an escape path.

You can plant up toilets and all manner of household items if you so wish!

Using up spare wood to create raised beds, may seem like a sustainable option, but then the flip side is how to treat or stain them in an environmentally safe way, in order to enhance their longevity. Afterall, is it worth building a veg trough using your own left-over wood which will require a chemical treatment and perhaps an internal butyl rubber liner, when you could recycle your left-over wood and source a more robust and appropriate hardwood for the job?

Thinking sustainably isn’t straightforward, but I feel that we should all, at the very least, be considering our options so we can justify our choices.


9. Any other tips to make our gardens more ecologically sound – and green?

Follow a ‘No Dig’ Policy: Don’t dig your garden soil unless you’re planting, this stops carbon being released into the atmosphere and also help to increase populations of earthworms and beetle larvae.

Create corridors of planting across your garden: Plant up bare ground and open areas to connect all parts of your garden. Create holes in your fences to allow hedgehogs (if you are lucky!) to travel between gardens.

Help pollinators: Ivy is a great source of nectar for solitary bumble bees, moths and hoverflies in the winter. A small patch of stinging nettles behind a garden shed can provide a suitable place for a range of butterflies to lay eggs.

Encourage Birds by providing an all-year round source of food: By planting winter and early spring fruiting planting like crab apples and hawthorn trees, birds will be encouraged to visit your garden throughout the winter months to feed. 

Create Insect Hotels: Put logs under bushes and around garden edges to provide refuges for a host of wildlife and allow ivy to grow on top for protection. Vertical, half-buried logs under trees are a good habitat for invertebrates, such as woodlice.

Include Water features: If space permits build a pond. Even just a small source of water like a bird table attracts wildlife into your garden.

Create a Diversity of Planting: Plant according to the conditions. Woodland planting under shady deciduous trees and sun-lovers in the hotter brighter areas of the garden

Create Habitats: Hedges should comprise a mix of native shrub species, such as rowan, holly, hawthorn, and shrubs such as cotoneaster, berberis and pyracantha, to provide food and nesting opportunities for invertebrates and bird life. Hedges are also good at absorbing harmful nitrous oxide pollutants – those species with small rough leaves have been found to be the best at trapping particulates in urban areas.


If you don’t have the space for a hedge, adding a variety of different sized nest boxes and bat boxes can help provide suitable nesting sites.



10. Should we be making our own compost? If so, any easy tips on how to do that for beginners?

Ideally, yes, we should, although I have to admit that I don’t. The trouble is that compost heaps require space, which is somewhat lacking for us city dwellers. I have subscribed to my local council’s green waste collection service every 2 weeks, which gives me the peace of mind that my garden waste will be composted, recycled and reused.

However, if you have the space in your garden, I strongly recommend having your own compost heap:

  •  Designating a quiet corner of your garden to create a compost bin eg. Out of old pallets with one open side for access.

  • Feed your heap by mixing thin alternating layers of finely shredded green and brown materials. The green materials are nitrogen-rich (grass cuttings, weeds, uncooked veg peelings) and the brown materials are carbon rich (twigs, paper, cardboard).

  • Don’t include any meat, cooked good, dairy or pet waste as this encourages rats.

  • Keep the heap damp but not soaking (so water it in periods of drought) and you can keep the heap hot by covering it up with wood or old carpet to prevent it getting too wet. Decomposition can be sped up by turning the heap over with a fork.

  • Repeating this process and adding to the top of the heap can result in your own garden compost ready for use within approx. a year.



11. Should we be teaching our kids to grow our own veg from seed – any tips on what’s easy to start growing and eco ways of doing that (like using egg cartons for seed growing etc)

Yes! I think we are all becoming increasingly detached from nature and it is important for children to realise the power of nature and how our food is grown. Tomatoes and runner beans are very easy to germinate and great for anyone starting out.

Cardboard egg cartons or using old loo roll tubes are great for seedlings as the cardboard can be planted directly into the soil and decomposes. Another ingenious way is by sowing seeds into an old piece of guttering containing compost so that you can slide them off and plant them directly into the soil once they are robust enough for planting in the garden.

12. As our climate changes, will our gardens need to cope with extreme weather conditions – if so, should we be thinking of what we plant in our gardens? Can you give me three drought tolerant plants that will cope with long hot summers – be good to know where to plant and how to look after them.


As our climate changes we should be growing plants in our gardens that can withstand periods of summer drought and winter wet.

Drought tolerant plants (full sun) in summer whilst tolerate wet in winter.

  1. Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii AGM

  2. Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ (Russian sage)

  3. Hylotelephium (Sedums)

  4. Verbena bonariensis and V. rigida

  5. Astrantia major ‘Alba’ / or Astrantia ‘Roma’


13. Ditto with three plants that will be best for lengthy periods of cold or wet winter?


Winter Wet tolerant plants:

  1. Camassia leichtlinii subsp. suksdorfii Caerulea Group – are a wet meadow bulb and very resilient to wet and dry conditions. They look best planted in large areas and will emerge in spring and flower after most tulips.

  2. Hebes – are from New Zealand and very tough, resilient plants. There is lots of choice in size, foliage retention and flowering season.

  3. Persicaria varieties– are very robust and resilient

  4. Miscanthus sinensis varieties

  5. Geranium Rozanne = ‘Gerwat’ AGM



14. What about wildlife – what are your top 5 plants for attracting wildlife – and why is that important?


  1. Ivy (Hedera helix and Hedera ibernica) is under-rated but is a native evergreen plant, flowering September to November and provides:


  • An abundance of pollen and nectar for late-flying bees, wasps, butterflies and hoverflies (140 different species feed on Ivy in the Autumn and 89% of pollen collected by honey bees in Autumn is derived from Ivy).

  • Ripening winter berries are a very valuable food source for overwintering birds.

  • Evergreen dense foliage which is an important winter hibernation habitat for many insects.

  • Grows happily in difficult shady situations/ North-facing walls to provide evergreen cover.

  • There are lots of beautiful species and cultivars of ivy which are less vigorous in their growth habit which can be considered, e.g. Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’. Large, heart-shaped, mottled grey-green leaves, edged with cream. 

  • It’s useful to know that ivy’s clinging nature in itself does not kill trees as it has its own root system, however, some vigorous species can cause problems if they spread and swamp trees’ canopies and so hinder their ability to photosynthesize.


2.  Hawthorn – (Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata ‘Pauls Scarlet’)

a.       Hawthorn is probably the commonest hedgerow shrub, providing food for more than 150 different insect species.

b.       My favourite hawthorn is Crataegus laevigata ‘Pauls Scarlet’ which grows into a small tree, with clusters of pink flowers in May and red berries for the birds in the Autumn.

c.        It has long, sharp thorns and as a hedge forms a very secure barrier.

d.       It tolerates a wide variety of conditions, including polluted and exposed sites.

e.       When buying a hawthorn, make sure it comes from nursery-grown British stock as non-natives imported from Eastern Europe are prone to mildew.


3. Grasses

  • From an aesthetic point of view, grasses provide softness and movement within the garden and a wonderful foil to summer and autumn colours.

  • However, it is the structure of grasses which is beneficial to all manner of insects as it helps retain humidity and soil moisture, making it perfect for insect larvae and other soil invertebrates, particularly moth and butterfly caterpillars, craneflies and sawflies which in turn provide a protein source for birds in the winter months.

  • You could argue that grasses are both wildlife friendly and a relatively low maintenance option, as they only need cutting down in February each year.

  • There are also grasses to suit all manner of situations: from Luzula nivea, an evergreen grass which can tolerate full/partial shade and flowers in June and is an excellent option for dry shade, to Deschampsia cespitosa which can tolerate both sun and shade, to the likes of Stipa tennuissima and Stipa gigantea which relish full sun and free-draining conditions.



4. Mahonia

  • A hardy, evergreen shrub with holly-like prickly leaves, which produces racemes of highly fragrant, nectar-rich bright yellow flowers (November – March) which help support overwintering bumblebees and honeybees.

  • Dark purple/black berries follow in the summer provide food for the birds.

  • It can cope with all manner of situations: exposed, shady, full sun.

  • My favourite is Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ for its bold arching branches of leaves and elegant dainty blooms, reaching no more than 3m maximum height.

5. Nepeta (known as Catmint)

  • Most insects and pollinators prefer flowers in the purple/blue and white spectrum. Perhaps this is why Nepeta is so popular as a source of nectar.

  • These dependable perennials produce a profusion of usually lavender-blue flowers over a long season from late-spring to late-summer.

  • The tough plants are easy to grow and low maintenance, use them in borders with other perennials or as an informal edging as an alternative to lavender as they can cope with all soil types.

  • Catmints will grow in full sun, although will tolerate light shade.



Published in the METRO Tueday 3rd August, 2021

"My goal is to reconnect you with nature through your own garden by exciting your senses and emotions."

Felicity O'Rourke


To discuss the environmental health aspects and benefits of your own garden, please contact

Felicity O'Rourke

Tel: 07961 148012

or email:

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