Design principles











Function and multi-function
Diversification and other {themes}
Skylines, congestion and crowding

See also other gardening pages:

Gardening/construction: introduction, with photos
Bed and board
Structures: plant protection and support
Structures: cloches, greenhouse, store/shelter, shed

Composting, rainwater collecting 


I discuss only a few ideas here, ones which have particular relevance to my own work.

Function and multi-function

Dual-purpose text/image is an example of a common design principle which can be used in widely differing fields. Text and images are multi-function, but so also are the boards which I use in the design of composters and bed systems. For example, boards are made to serve new purposes, such as easily-removable supports for polythene or netting to make cloche-beds and netting-beds. Why give just one function, or a limited number of functions, to a thing if it can be made to serve other useful functions? Transframe, described below, is a new multi-function device in gardening.

Multi-functionality isn't an original concept - it's widely cited and widely practised - but it's the new applications of the concept which require the new insights and breakthroughs. Multi-functionality is one of the important concepts in permaculture - although I don't accept all its concepts by any means. The book 'Permaculture in a nutshell' by Patrick Whitefield is an excellent introduction to Permaculture. He states 'every plant, animal or structure should have many functions.' I would add 'if at all possible,' add the qualification that they may only serve one function well, the others not nearly so well, and add tools and equipment to the list.

It's not always possible for things, including living things, to serve many functions without any serious disadvantages. I'd suggest that when old carpets and car tyres are used in allotments, their new functions are so different from their original function that they're not adapted to carry out the new function without serious disadvantages. Carpets, for example, are heavy and difficult to move, react badly to being soaked with water and will eventually present problems of disposal (except for ones made of natural fibres, which can be composted, with care).

I would extend the biological concept of adaptation to include adaptation of structures, tools and equipment. A plank of wood isn't adapted to one use. It's very versatile in its possible uses. Most other things tend to be not nearly so versatile.

Sometimes, it's best if one thing doesn't have more than one function. In various places in this site, I give my opinion that although plastic isn't the best material for composters and the boards surrounding beds, it is the best material for water butts. This only applies to the water butts which can be bought commercially. In these water butts, one structure, the plastic, is called upon to carry out many functions - a leak-proof container for the water, giving shape to the container, resisting the forces which the water applies. To carry out all these functions needs a fairly thick plastic wall, and I think it's important to reduce the use of plastic to a minimum. Is there any way of reducing it? Obviously, there is.

The first of these functions, the leak-proof container for water, can be carried out perfectly well by a thin sheet of plastic, as is the case with the bags in which wine is sometimes sold. In this case, the shape and the ability to resist forces are provided by the cardboard box which encloses the plastic bag. A water butt which minimized the use of plastic - which minimized the use of a non-renewable resource - would consist of the inner plastic container, fairly thin wooden sides, to give shape, and two or three metal bands, to resist the forces which the water applies: a separation of structures and a separation of functions.

I use this structure-function model, extending structure to include pieces of equipment. In a one-many design one structure has many functions. For example, a single board has the functions of neatly separating the bed from the path, securing fleece, securing protective netting, acting as a temporary path, and so on. A single image can convey information but can also have a navigation function - clicking on it takes the user to the top of the page.In a one-one design one structure has one function - the function it can carry out efficiently. The plastic inner in a water butt (not commercially available as yet) has the function of acting as a leak-proof container for the water. It doesn't have the strength to carry out other functions, such as giving shape or resisting the lateral forces of the water - these are carried out by wooden structures and the metal bands.

Diversification and other {themes}

One design principle which is very important to me is one I call diversification. This involves the attempt to find the alternatives in a design situation. The accepted, the established way of doing things may not be the best. There may be an alternative, or alternatives, which haven't been adequately explored, or which it hasn't occurred to anyone to try out. By thinking in terms of diversification, thinking can become far more flexible and innovative.

It may be the established way of doing things for actions to follow a certain time scale, for example, first to lay down black fabric to kill weeds (action 1) and secondly, after about a year, when the weeds have been eliminated, to remove the fabric and to lay out the beds and paths, surrounding the beds with wooden planks (action 2). But if, instead, action 2 follows action 1 very quickly (put down the black fabric and as soon as possible put the boards in place, and perhaps wood-chippings or straw on the paths) then there are advantages: the fabric won't be moved or damaged by any winds, no matter how strong, there's no need to buy pegs to secure the fabric, there's no need to find and move heavy stones to secure the fabric ('secure' is probably the wrong word - these methods tend to be ineffective.) And, also, the plot looks much neater, is no longer an eyesore. This alternative method is described in the page on 'Gardening Techniques.'

Sometimes, I make the alternatives vivid and concrete by using 'OR.' In the example above, the alternative time scales are: Action 1 - interval of a year - Action 2 (the 'established' method) OR Action 1 - very short interval - Action 2 (the method I use.)

A few other examples of diversification: paths and beds can be fixed OR 'rotatable' (we can rotate beds and paths.) A fruit cage can be separate from the structure which supports the raspberries, the established system, OR combined with it, saving on materials, labour and cost, the method I use. The sides of a composter, the boards which surround beds, may be fixed in position, the established system, OR self-supporting and easily moveable, again, the method I use. I argue, of course, that the alternative to the established system has far more advantages.

Other ideas used in this site include: survey, resolution, separation, alignment, weighting. These ideas are explained at various places in other pages of this site, but for convenience, all the ideas I use are explained here, in one place.

These ideas have many, many applications. A gardener who is choosing a fruit or vegetable or flower variety to plant is applying the ideas. An informed choice of variety is generally very, very important. Later, I mention the advantages and disadvantages of some fruits and vegetables. If you dislike abstract ideas, you'll find that there's a great deal of concrete information here about varieties - although it may be that you're already familiar with it.

A ((survey)) is a listing of the characteristics which are relevant and would include, amongst others:

{resolution} involves 'breaking things down.' This has already been done in the case of 'time of maturing' - early, late or intermediate, but it's possible to break things down further. Varieties of potato are described as 'first early,' such as Duke of York and Red Duke of York, 'second early,' such as Saxon, Wilja, Kestrel and maincrop. This is important for the gardener who has limited space. Lawrence D. Hills, in 'Organic Gardening' makes a good case for the planting of Second Early potatoes:

'This class is perhaps best for small gardens, because they can be dug as soon as the flowers are fully open to scrape as new potatoes, or left in to grow larger till the haulm dies down, lifted in August, and stored for the winter and spring.'

'First early' varieties can be resolved in turn. Rocket is perhaps the earliest variety in this group. Maincrop varieties can be resolved into 'early maincrop' and 'late maincrop.' Early maincrop includes: Desiree, King Edward, Maris Piper, Nicola. 'Early maincrop' can be resolved further. For example, valor is a little later than other varieties in this group. Late maincrop varieties include Cara, Golden Wonder, Pink Fir Apple.

{separation} involves the recognition that a variety almost always will not have advantages in all, or most, of these characteristics. In alignment it's falsely assumed that the advantages do all lie with one variety, Isolation focuses attention on one characteristic or facet, or a limited number of them, ignoring others in a survey. Now, I give again the list of characteristics above, with in some cases some advantages and disadvantages for a few selected varieties.

Weighting gives a preference to one characteristic, or a few characteristics, at the expense of others. So, a supermarket is likely to give a particular weighting to attractive appearance, to shelf life and to the ability to withstand the stresses of transportation, with taste given far less weighting (although things are changing.) A gardener/allotment gardener will give no weighting to shelf life and the ability to withstand the stresses of transportation. A gardener who is aiming to produce vegetables for show will give particular weighting to appearance, including, often, size, but taste is given little or no weighting. Other gardeners will give far less weighting to appearance and far more weighting to taste. If the most weighting is given to taste, then the fact that the variety tends to have low resistance to disease and pests and has a fairly low yield may not be particularly important.

The method of cooking has a great effect on taste, and obviously tastes differ. As with so many other areas of growing and cooking, constructive disagreement is possible. It's often stated that amongst the First Early varieties of potato, Duke of York has the 'best' flavour. This is almost meaningless, unless the method of cooking is stated. It's usually assumed that the method best suited to bringing out the taste of this variety is boiling. It's also stated that Red Duke of York has a similar taste, but superior disease resistance. I've found that the taste of Red Duke of York is nothing special if it's boiled, but definitely something special if it's boiled for about eight minutes, then thickly sliced and sauteed in oil.

Separation, alignment and some fruit and vegetable varieties


Alignment isn't full for the variety Arthur Turner but it has many advantages. According to Dr D. G. Hessayon, 'The pink blossom is outstanding - no Apple provides a finer display. Growth is upright and this variety is reliable in northern districts. Crops are heavy and the rather dry texture of the fruit makes it an excellent baking Apple.'


Alignment isn't full for the variety Shirley but it has many advantages. For me and many other gardeners, this variety's advantages are outstanding. It has good disease resistance, which of course has to be resolved: specifically, it has resistance to leaf mould, virus and greenback. It gives very heavy yields. The taste is good, if the tomatoes are eaten when they are fully ripe (but taste has to be resolved further.) It's sometimes described as 'early.' I've found it to be earlier than, for example, the cherry tomato Gardener's Delight or the beefsteak variety Big Boy, but still not early enough. I give increasing weight to earliness in tomatoes. The common idea that tomatoes can be harvested from early July onwards (or earlier still) isn't borne out by my experience, in South Yorkshire, even in a good season. Harbinger is an old variety which is claimed to be very early. This variety would be well worth trying. If, on the other hand, you give greater weighting to cooking and culinary qualities, then it may be Gardener's Delight (with its sweet, tangy taste) or Big Boy (very suitable for stuffing) which you'll choose.

If any characteristic of fruit and vegetables has to be given the greatest weighting of all, then it's most likely to be taste. The variety Moneymaker fails miserably. Its taste is bland. However, yields are high.

Using these ideas in other areas of gardening

The ideas can be used not just in other areas of gardening but in very many areas outside gardening as well. In gardening, the applications are very varied. For example, they can be used to assess the techniques and methods often recommended. They can even be used to assess organizations.

To begin with an issue raised in the page 'Bed and board:' the problem of slug control. A survey would include these factors: cost, effectiveness, effect on beneficial organisms, effect on the environment in general. Organic growers, I claim, tend to practise isolation, to concentrate attention on the effect on beneficial organisms, and the environment in general - although in the case of this last factor, I'd claim that the response shows disproportion. Of all the forms of pollution, on any scale of pollution, slug-pellets are negligible. Metaldehyde breaks down quite quickly in the soil, and any traces left are not to be compared with the pollutants which reach the soil in massive amounts, such as acid rain.

Skylines, congestion and crowding

(The images and some of the text are taken from the page Gardening photographs 5.)

 A skyline is a composite, a collection of objects. In a garden, we can't hope to emulate the impact of the skyline - or the skylines - of Manhattan or the skylines of Oxford, but a garden can have a distinctive skyline.

Below, a skyline, on my lower allotment, which includes, on the left, the neighbouring school, then a support star for the support of a climbing rose, partly hidden in this view by a Victoria plum tree, then a temporary structure, a spire to support climbing French bean plants, then a hop pole, supporting a Target hop plant, partly hidden by an apple tree, variety Winston, then the A-frame greenhouse with a trellis now attached on its left side. The tall greenhouse is the most prominent part of the skyline and dominates the view to the south. The other, smaller components provide visual interest in the view to the east.

The cluster of allotment objects is quite congested. Congestion in buildings is often avoidable and to be avoided but the traditions of allotment gardening are different - there's generally a need to cram as much as feasible into the restricted space. Nature, of course, tends not to avoid congestion in the least, if growing conditions are suitable. Plants live in close proximity, to the extent of entanglement. This allotment is at its most crowded here. Other objects, in other parts of the allotment, generally have greater 'green space' (compare the established term in graphic design 'white space,' the space surrounding text.) I see every reason for contrast between congested space and ample space, between the more confined and the more free, and the flow which can take place between these areas.

Nikolaus Pevsner on avoidance of congestion ('Cambridgeshire,' 'Clare College'):

We must now for a moment return to Trinity Lane. The architectural grouping here is superb, with King's College Chapel, the New Schools and the E front of Clare set back behind the Gateposts of 1675. These were carved by Pearce. There is much variety here in a narrow place, without any congestion.'

The long diagonal in the image above is the walkway I constructed to avoid the problem of walking in a muddy morass to get down into the allotment when rainfall has been heavy for a long time. The walkway can be viewed as part of the skyline, perhaps - it underlines part of the skyline.

There's no doubt that the skyline would be simpler without  two trees, the plum tree to the left which partly obscures the support star, here shown unobscured

and the apple tree to its right which partly obscures the supporting pole for a hop plant. But this is only one viewpoint. From some other viewpoints, these trees contribute effectively to the visual effect. From a viewpoint not purely visual, the trees contribute effectively to the allotment, which is, after all, far from being entirely a visual matter - there's also the matter of food production. These two trees make very effective use of the land. They are both situated in small planting pockets - where small amounts of soil were found in an area which had been used by someone a long time ago as a rubbish dump, with, originally, a very thin layer of soil covering discarded plastic, rusting metal and broken glass. That's why I created the large raised bed where the other structures making up the skyline (but not the greenhouse) are situated.

Nikolaus Pevsner on the skyline of Oxford ('The Buildings of England,' 'Oxfordshire,' Introduction):

' ... Cambridge has no skyline, Oxford has the most telling skyline of England, though dreaming spires is nonsense in every respect. Surely, in spite of St Mary, All Saints and the cathedral, and now Nuffield, Oxford is remembered less for them than for Tom Tower, the Camera and Magdalen tower. It is the variety of shapes which makes the skyline.'

The shapes which make up a garden skyline can have a variety of shapes too, including small spires - if not dreaming spires - the pyramids of canes supporting climbing beans, and including greenhouses (like sheds, utilitarian objects but with less utilitarian associations than sheds), and some objects I include in this skyline, a support star and a hop pole. The variety can include narrow as well as broad structures.