This seems to be such a buzz word! We all hear how we should lead a more balanced life from self-help gurus of every persuasion – from those interested in our physical, spiritual and financial wellbeing. We hear about work-life balance and if you are a parent, then there is the family-life to balance too. It’s all about juggling the demands of our personal, professional and family life, whether by having flexible working hours to allow us to spend more time with family or pursue other interests, or for others it’s the ability to work from home sometimes.
To be honest, I am hardly the one to discuss life balance, as being a mum of five teenagers (well, in a few months I will be) and working lots, many outsiders would not consider my life to have much balance. Yet, I am fortunate to work in a field that I love and am passionate about, so actually for me, much of what I do is not work. I am also lucky enough that a lot of my work can be done at home, and even in my garden.
Balance is also about increasing the quality of our home life away from work, and a part of this is the home environment, and in particular, the outdoor environment around our home. Having a garden, or at least having access to a garden, can provide us with a sanctuary from our fast-paced crazy lives.
Yet as I drive around our city, observing how urban infill is replacing one house on a block with three to five new houses, I feel that balance is sadly lacking. Our climate is getting hotter and harsher, and yet we are covering our city in hard surfaces ……………. which just make it hotter again!? And every time we turn our air conditioner on, while it may pump cool air around your home inside, it pumps hot air outside.
We have houses with big footprints covering most of the available ground space, and areas for the garden is reduced to a minimum. We are being told that we don’t have time to garden, and people don’t want to garden, yet I think we are being sold a lie. OK, I am totally biased, and as a self-confessed obsessive-compulsive gardener, I think gardens are the solution! They can help to cool our homes and our cities, give us the opportunity to reduce and manage our stress, give us access to optimal nutrition when we grow at least part of our fruits, vegies and herbs. Not to mention the fact the environmental benefits gardens provide by helping to increase biodiversity and urban habitat.
So, let’s bring the urban balance back by having gardens again.
Balance within our outdoor spaces
There are many elements in our gardens which are seen to be competing, yet I believe they can be balanced to get harmony in our outdoor spaces. As we try to adapt to our changing climate, we need to get a balance between sun and shade, produce plants and ornamentals, foliage and flowers, exotic plants and natives, hard landscaping (paving and built structures) and soft landscaping (plants), and hardy waterwise plants and those needing supplementary watering. We need to do all of this in a way which is both sustainable and affordable. So here are my thoughts………….
Sun and shade. Ideally our gardens should be a mix of sunny areas and shady places, however ultimately this depends on how much space you have got and whether you can have both. If you only have a small courtyard and its facing north or west, you may want to make summer shade a priority, otherwise you will be paying a fortune trying to cool you house down in summer. As we try and adapt to a changing climate where it’s gets hotter and harsher, summer shade is a huge priority for me. However, we can be smart with our choices and have summer shade and winter sun by choosing an appropriate deciduous tree or climber over a pergola to get the best of both, giving us passive cooling in summer and passive heating in winter.
Produce plants and ornamentals. I know many people who will only grow it if they can eat it, however I love plants and choose to grow lots of different things in my garden. I have lots of fruit trees and a big vegie patch, but I also have large areas of ornamental plants which not only feed the bees, birds and butterflies, they feed my soul. While that may sound a bit fluffy and light weight, the reality is that beauty and aesthetics in a garden are important to me. While beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and many would argue that produce is beautiful, I need beauty in my garden. If space is again limited, you can choose productive plants which are highly ornamental from persimmons and quinces to coloured kales and rainbow chards. Don’t forget though that birds also think those fruit trees are attractive 😊 and netting may be necessary, which is not necessarily attractive.
Foliage and flowers. In recent years, landscaping styles have often focused on foliage rather than flowers, with varying shades of colour such as green, and different textures. These layered gardens can look very contemporary, yet they are usually created with only a few plant species, and if flowers are omitted what are the birds, bees, butterflies and other garden guardians going to eat. Rather than having a monotonous monoculture of just a few species, we need gardens which have lots of different plants, flowering at different times of the year to help sustain urban biodiversity.
Exotic and native plants. Just as there are some people who only want to grow edibles and nothing else, there are many people who are only interested in growing Australian native plants. This gets further complicated by whether people are growing local indigenous plants (native to the area where you live) and native plants from all over our vast continent. I have areas of local native species in my garden, but I also have exotics, and the focus in my garden is simply to grow climate compatible plants. Whether the plant grows locally or comes from a similar summer dry part of Australia, or whether it comes from other Mediterranean-like climates such as the Mediterranean itself, South Africa, California and the Middle East. The one big proviso though is they must not be weedy or be allowed to become garden escapees in my area. In urban settings where space is limited, verges could hold the answer to biodiversity if they were planted with local native plants, creating wildlife corridors to bring back the butterflies, native bees, and birds.
Hard and soft landscaping. Ideally the hard landscaping (such as paving and built structures) and soft landscaping (the plants) should work together, however often I see that the hard landscaping dominates, with huge unnecessary areas of hot reflective surfaces such as paving, exposed walls and fences. However where possible, keep the hard landscaping to a minimum, rationalising unnecessary areas of paving and exposed hard surfaces. When paving is necessary look at permeable pavers to allow the rain that falls to soak back into the ground, and reduce runoff to stormwater. Using trees to shade paving and plants to soften the hard walls and fence lines will also help to cool down our outdoor spaces and make them more liveable.
Balancing water use. Getting a balance between hardy waterwise plants and those needing supplementary watering can be as simple as creating watering zones in your garden. You may like to try and plan your garden so that the bulk of the garden gets little or no water once established (say 50%) and the rest is balanced between low water needs (25%) and high-water needs (25%). Verges planted with local native plants shouldn’t need any supplementary watering once the plants are established so they could then form part of a no water zone, along with other native plants and climate compatible plants from similar summer dry climates. Plants like vegies do need regular watering in summer, and if it’s baking hot, they may need daily watering and could be part of a high-water zone. Wicking beds can help to reduce their water needs to just weekly however and then they would fit within a low water zone. Plants which could fit within a low water zone could include fruit trees, roses and other ornamentals and would get weekly watering. These watering zones are just guidelines and obviously are all season dependant. Last year we had a very dry late winter and spring and plants within those zones would have needed extra watering support.
Balance within our homes
Plants and flowers don’t just have to be outside, they can come inside to improve our indoor living spaces too. Just as I love to look out from inside my home and see my garden, I also love to bring my garden inside with fresh flowers picked from my garden, displays of fresh produce harvested from my garden, and an abundance of indoor plants which can transform spaces within our homes and bring the green balance inside.
Indoor plants were all the rage back in the 70s and went out of favour when they suffered from pest and disease problems and started to look daggy, yet they have come back into vogue. Hopefully this time round, by choosing the right plants and getting expert advice on their care and maintenance, indoor plants will remain a staple within our homes into the future, as apart from their obvious aesthetic enhancement of our living spaces, they have numerous health and wellbeing, and productivity benefits.
Firstly, scientific studies show that indoor plants have significant benefits on air quality within our homes. The level of air pollution inside our homes can be up to ten times higher than outside due to indoor generated air pollutants known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which continually outgas from solvents, and ‘plastics’ or ‘synthetics’ such as paints, fabrics, furniture finishes, floor coverings, cleaning products, and these VOCs are known to be harmful to human health.
The Nursery and Garden Industry of Australia has worked with scientists at RMIT University and the University of Melbourne to look at 101 scientific articles that explored the benefits of plants in indoor environments. These scientific studies have shown that indoor plants can greatly reduce the level of these toxins in both air conditioned and non-air-conditioned offices, and this can be translated to the home environment as well. In fact, studies show that indoor plants can remove 75-90% of airborne pollutants depending on the plant and type of pollutant. These benefits are in addition to the previously known positive effects that come from reducing dust, aiding humidity levels, and temperature and noise control.
Plants also have a positive effect on our wellbeing with a marked improvement in our mood and concentration, creating feelings of relaxation, inspiration and positivity. Indoor plants also appear to have indirect benefits, such as increased productivity and positive social behaviour in workplaces. If you have a home office filled with lots of indoor plants, that means that you will be more productive at home too. The researchers found that there is very little wellbeing benefit in just one plant, but once you start to create a “look” in your space, wellbeing begins to increase significantly, and complexity is also beneficial. Variety of size and plant species is important and the greater the mix, the greater the benefits.
The Nursery Industry has a campaign called ‘Plant Life Balance’ with a great website and blog full of fascinating information and inspiration about the benefits of indoor plants. They also have an easy to use app to that allows you to rate your own space with the plants you already have, and then it suggests how you could improve it, suggesting just how many plants would result in maximum health and wellbeing benefits. It even allows you to photograph your own room, drag and drop specific plants in, and even add shelves, hangers and plant stands to help stage your plants. For more information visit http://www.plantlifebalance.com.au or download the plant life balance app and always check your plant choices with your local nursery and garden centre.
Indoor plants can add personality to our homes and create a vibrant place to live, in just the same way as gardens can outside our homes.
‘Balance by Sophie’s Patch’ is my 2019 feature garden at the Royal Adelaide Show and it’s where I hope to demonstrate what a balance in a garden and inside our homes could look like if plants are involved.