January 18, 2019
Garden design is a great deal more than thinking about a few plants. There are lots of different aspects to take into account, such as the use and layout of the space, the feel and movement between areas, the access to lighting and of course, sound. If you are lucky enough to live in the middle of nowhere, then you will usually have the luxury of natural quiet. If you are in the middle of a town or city, noisy neighbours, passing traffic, even kids playing, can spoil that outside tranquillity, so what can you do?
Understanding how sound behaves is important. If, like me, you loved standing in your A level physics labs looking at waves passing through holes and past obstacles and went on to study engineering, then you’ll understand the properties of sound waves and waves in general. How they are reflected, diffracted, amplified and attenuated through constructive and destructive interference; how hard materials reflect, thinner materials vibrate – sometimes with resonance frequencies – and how amorphous soft surfaces absorb. But I appreciate that most people aren’t like me – which is why I’m sharing my knowledge about the principals behind sound and designing a beautiful garden to help to make your garden a tranquil space.
Engineering a quieter garden
When thinking about the outside edges of your garden, we are aiming to reflect sounds back outwards, that is we want to make the traffic noise and the sound of your neighbours bounce back. Your friends here are generally objects with hard outside surfaces, which usually reflect sound. But beware: some hard objects do the opposite; think of your thin wooden fence panels, these will vibrate and transmit sound – almost like a speaker cone. That’s why it’s important to think of thicker and denser materials which can reduce the vibrations, or consider two separate fences or barriers which will block outside sounds better than one, provided you separate the two surfaces to prevent the structures transmitting the sound. In house construction, they use something called resilient bars; the same principal can be applied to a two-faced fence, using just one set of posts.
When thinking about the inside space and edges of the garden, we want to weaken unwanted noise. Soft surfaces on the inside will absorb sound; a lawn and planting beds will absorb much more sound than hard paving and decking. This is particularly true on the vertical plane; hedges or living walls will reduce and absorb, compared to a brick wall or fence, which will reflect sound waves back inside. Just think how a house without curtains and carpets echoes; a garden without planting does the same.
A hard wall or fence will allow sound to roll or diffract over it, so you could place a trellis planted with creepers to soften that hard edge at the top of the wall. The same principal can be used to reduce the amount of wind rolling over the top of a fence or wall to make your space feel more sheltered.
Encourage the sounds of nature
While being smart about your design choices can get you a long way, sometimes the cost to achieve that tranquillity can be too high; that’s when masking can come into play.
Encouraging wildlife to enter your garden can help with this; carefully selecting plants that attract bees, insects and birds begins to bring nature’s sounds into the garden, which can hide background noises – the chatter of birds is much more calming to the mind than the buzz of traffic.
Water, trickling, glugging and running into a pool can be extremely calming and very effective at masking background noise. Although if your water feature is loud, you should consider that this may annoy the neighbours with the sounds running through the night.
As a last straw, to help mask the noises of the urban jungle, you could consider installing outdoor speakers to play the clamours of nature – crickets on a hot day, the squawks of the forest, the chatter of birds. And then you can always flip over to some tunes when it’s garden party time!
If you have a noisy garden don’t worry, there is plenty that can be done to muffle the sounds and make your green space a tranquil area to relax in. And if you feel overwhelmed trying to do it yourself, we’re here to help!