Stem the sound

Stem the sound

Balcony planting by Kelle Cruz, CC BY-NC 2,0

There are lots of ways we can employ the power of nature to reduce noise pollution around the home.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, and more people are returning to work, many are noticing increased sound pollution in their area. The pandemic has been many things to many people but the resulting quietness has often been overlooked. As we have become more aware of the sounds of nature around us, perhaps we have failed to appreciate that it’s the loss of the background hum of human activity that has allowed nature’s song to shine.

As noise returns to the pre-pandemic state we can remember that the sounds of nature are a balm to our human senses, and thankfully we can look to nature to provide solutions to unwanted rumblings. If you are noticing elevated noise levels in your area due to the increasing traffic and human life returning to the streets, then here are a few nature-inspired ideas you can use in your own outdoor space to help minimise the impact in your home.

Bouncing sounds

First, we need to understand that sound acts in different ways depending on what surface it hits. Some sound will always be transferred through a surface, but the amount depends on the texture and rigidity of the surface. Hard surfaces will bounce much of a sound wave right back out into the surrounding area or right into your downstairs window, whereas squidgy surfaces will absorb a good degree of sound and will have a muffling effect. Rough surfaces or those with gaps scatter or bend the sound, which makes them particularly good at lessening volume.

Plants and other materials can help you minimise the sound around you using all of these wonderful quirks of nature.

By reducing the area of hard surfaces around your home – like concrete, paving or bricks – you can reduce the amount of noise reflected onto your windows, doors and the amount transferred through your walls. Grass, barks, stems and leaves are all superb at absorbing noise. Rougher surfaces like gravel or textured brick also perform well as they have higher surface areas. Plants with leaf surfaces pointing in many different directions (such as Hebes, pictured) can help scatter or diffract sound.

If you live in a flat and are lucky enough to have a balcony, you could consider putting down textured decking or rugs on the floor to reduce reflection. Decorative curtains or plants grown over trellises can help cover walls and ceilings. Every little bit helps.

Pitch perfect planting

With gardens reducing in size and many people living in flats, space is a premium and it is important to choose the right plant combinations. But where do we start?

We need to work through the various layers of the garden with sound protection and, of course, wildlife at the forefront of our minds.

If in a garden, dense multi layered planting is ideal and offers the best sound protection, and, happily, is great for wildlife too. Consider planting a double row of hedgerow as close to the sound source as possible. Thick hedges are renowned for providing exceptional protection from sound and air pollution and are fantastic habitat for wildlife.

Trees with thick growth and low growing branches will absorb, reflect and scatter sound and trusty climbers grown on trellises will offer a barrier to the hard surfaces of walls. Using large scrubs and smaller trees with different leaf sizes will also ensure that different frequencies of sound are repelled. Leaf shape plays a part too. Look for egg shaped (ovate) leaves. Think Beech or Wild Cherry.

Down at ground level soft surfaces of soil, grass, leaf litter and planting will not only absorb, reflect and diffract sound waves travelling through the air, but also help with those in the top soil layer.

Green Noise

If you have a balcony or even just a windowsill you may need to think differently. You may not be able to create a multilayered plant barrier and will have to work with key individual plants instead. Using material, rugs and trellis and hazel screening in addition to planting can all help reduce sound in and outside your home when space is limited.

Studies have shown that we can use ‘green noise’ to divert our awareness from traffic noise, too, reducing our stress when exposed to disruptive noise levels. Water flowing into a pool of water has been proved to be “pleasantly distracting”. A small self-contained water feature in the corner of your balcony could help soothe the mind: close your eyes and you are relaxing beside a stream! A few chosen plants like the cabbage palm with its slapping leaves or Turkish sage with its rattling seed heads can deepen the distraction. Popping up a bird feeder welcomes the chitter chatter of our feathered friends and of course using planters with nectar rich flowers and textured foliage will attract our buzzing buddies.

We as humans respond to the relaxing nature of variable sound at different frequencies. If you visit one of our wonderful nature reserves you will be bathed in this symphony. Water, rustling grasses, leaves, seed heads and bird song all play their part and we just melt into their embrace.

If we take to time to learn from nature we can mimic this environment in and around our homes and we, our wildlife and the community around us will all be the happier and healthier for it.

For more information on how to make your garden good for you check out the RHS’s Your Wellbeing Garden book.