‘When you think about your garden, do you think about the nature living in it at all?’.
This was the question I asked a group of my friends’ hubbies recently, when discussing astrograss (read previous blog for my thoughts on that particular matter). They looked at me as if I was a bit mad, before gently ribbing me for my eco ways (threats to post a piece of astro through my letterbox, that sort of thing). I, in turn, treated them to my best blackbird and earthworm anecdotes…
But, joking aside, what is that we, a nation of garden-lovers, consider our back gardens to be for exactly?
We are a nation of gardeners, with membership of the RHS numbering in the hundreds of thousands. However, garden-loving doesn’t always mean nature-loving, with seating, lighting and hard landscaping (fencing, decking etc) often top in the priority stakes.
Garden centres encourage us to see our gardens as outdoor rooms, to be perfected with the help of a startling array of chemical treatments and weather-proof furniture. Keeping gardens tidy and pest-free is the order of the day!
However, the realisation as to just how much trouble British wildlife is in is starting to dawn on our collective conscience. The population of birds, bees and other insects has fallen dramatically over the last fifty years, with around 97% of natural bee and butterfly habitat lost since world war two.
'Researchers predict that if this decline is allowed to continue, insects will be extinct in 100 years. Pesticide use, intensive agriculture and urbanisation are all blamed.’ Alex Mitchell, Evening Standard
High profile garden designers like Sarah Raven are now promoting the benefits of gardening for nature, and The Duchess of Cambridge helped to design The RHS Back to Nature Garden for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.
‘The woodland wilderness garden aims to get people back to nature, and highlight the benefits of the natural world on our mental and physical wellbeing.’ @KensingtonRoyal, Instagram
They recognise that gardening for nature can help in the battle against climate change as well as to improve our own mental health.
So, back to my first question, what are our gardens for?
No matter what the size of your outdoor space, I agree with Sarah Raven that it can function as a place for beauty and beasts,‘‘I don't want this to sound too inflated, because after all, it is only a garden, but I am beginning to think of my garden as a contribution to the world. It has - or can have - effects and influences beyond itself.’
In this first of my ‘gardening for nature’ blog series, I challenge us all to rethink how we see our gardens, and look at the small changes we can make to create a more wildlife-friendly space. (Part Two will look at planting; what are the best flowers, trees, shrubs etc).
Don’t be too tidy minded
Humans have an inclination to over-manage things, our gardens included. Gosh, we just love to make work for ourselves! We talk about someone’s ‘immaculate lawn’’ (read chemically enhanced) with a note of wistful envy and rush out to sweep up and noisily blow away fallen leaves.
This will come as a relief to many, and anathema to some, but we need to do less sweeping, blowing, digging, pruning...and generally ‘doing’ to enable nature to flourish.
Striped lawns are so passé
Can’t keep your grass looking perfect? Whack a bit of paving or astro down so that it doesn’t look a ‘mess’. Or crack out the fertiliser. Or re-seed until you are blue in the face (been there).
Here’s the rub; nature likes things a bit messy. And it’s not really a mess. Those leaves, that soil, the moss, the worms - are all part of a really clever, intricate ecosystem that works to feed itself. Spend a few minutes watching your garden and you’ll see birds pecking away at the soil, feeding on worms and other organisms (if you witness this, let your heart be gladdened, as it means your soil is healthy!).
If you douse your lawn with chemicals, you’re creating a dead zone. You may consider it a price worth paying for a neat looking lawn, but keep in mind that you will lose birds and other invertebrates that would happily hoover up the pests you don’t want on the rest of the garden; like slugs and greenfly (which then leads to you spraying more chemicals - madness!).
‘Grass Lawns provide the most work and worry of traditional British garden features - whilst offering the least in return.’ James Wong, garden designer, The Guardian
Low-Mow or No-Mow
Reduce the frequency with which you mow your lawn and when you do, use the highest blade setting, to allow a more diverse range of plant and grass species to grow and germinate, and to give time for insect life to feed and regenerate.
In part two, I may try to persuade you to join the ‘no-mow’ movement (just easing you in gently!). You’re probably imagining some sort of derelict wilderness, but you can create a beautiful (& neat) effect by mowing a path around/through, or cordoning off, areas that have been left to grow wild. We did this in our front garden last year, with a small path mown through the middle (so that it looked intentional, although I still had to suffer jokes about my overgrown foliage!).
Our local organic flower farmer and natural floral arranger, Annie of There May Be Bugs, has created a Thyme Walk (pictured below) as part of her lawn. The different varieties of thyme and camomile look beautiful, are hardy to footfall and require no maintenance at all. Oh and the bees love them!
One person’s weed is another person’s (and insect’s) flower
Allow a bit of space in your garden (and heart) for weeds. If the sight of them growing in your lawn offends thine eyes, then allow them to grow in a few select places, like between paving stones, on driveways and at the bottom of fences. Many weeds like dandelion are richer in pollen and nectar, and bloom earlier, than other spring flowers. They attract bees and other insects emerging from winter hibernation, when they are most hungry for food.
If you have a big enough garden, keep a patch of brambles. There are unsung heroes of the insect world now largely confined to brownfield sites, where they support critically endangered species like the Purple Emperor Butterfly. I allow the odd bramble in places where they won't catch on us as we walk past.
Moss is another underappreciated ‘superplant’ of which you may be trying to rid your garden. Before you do, consider that moss is drought resistant, provides a rich habitat for insects and fungi and is an incredible carbon sink, as James Wong, Garden Designer discovered, ‘Speaking to the designer of the LG Eco-City Garden...I was surprised to learn that studies suggest just 12 square metres of moss lawn can apparently absorb as much carbon as 275 mature trees.’ James Wong, The Guardian.
Its use is becoming fashionable with garden designers, influenced in part by Japanese moss gardens which are renowned for their beauty.
Leave the Leaves
Did you know that fallen leaves are free fertiliser for your soil? That’s why trees and plants drop their leaves in the first place, to enrich the soil beneath them so that they can grow bigger and stronger next year. The leaves provide food for organisms in the soil, like earthworms and ants, who do a wonderful job of depositing nutrients into the soil through the digestive process.
Come Autumn time, there is no longer a need to painstakingly collect every leaf! Unless they are creating a skid hazard on your hard landscaping, leave them where they are and save yourself the cost of bags of manure.
Don’t be a prune(r)
Don’t be overzealous with your pruning. I know, I know...it doesn’t feel like you’ve carried out a proper gardening session without a good prune, but be selective with your secateurs! Seeds heads are an important source of food for birds in the winter and the stems and branches are useful perches, keeping birds safe from prey.
Fallen branches, stems, twigs and (plentiful in our garden) pine cones are a nutrient-rich food source for the microorganisms in your soil.
‘A single handful of soil contains considerably more life than the human population of planet earth.’ Matthew Wilson, Financial Times
Rather than throwing this debris and other cuttings in your garden waste bin, create a pile or pile(s) around your garden. Tuck it behind large hedges and trees if you would rather not see it. Think of any garden waste as food and potential shelter for a host of small creatures; like stag beetles and hedgehogs. Birds will feed on the insects and use some of the material for nest building (like Mrs Blackbird is doing in our garden at the moment).
On balconies and roof terraces, you can bundle cuttings together - particularly hollow stems - and they will create a refuge for spiders and solitary bees.
Creating wildlife homes is a lovely activity to do with children. You can be as neat and ‘intentional’ as you like with it!
No more chemical brothers (& sisters)
One squirt of a bottle to remove greenfly, or shake of a box to kill ants, and you risk affecting a far wider range of plants and animals. Both industrial and domestic treatments are gradually being banned. As of this year slug pellets with metaldehyde are no longer available to buy in the UK. Don’t wait to be told - use your common sense and switch to natural alternatives.
Remember that what we consider as pests, particularly insects like ants, are an important protein rich food source for birds and other animals, as Starre Vartan discovered,
‘While yes, there are lots of insects, that means a healthy variety of food for the incredible number of songbirds that I now share my home with.’ Starre Vartan, Why I’ll Never Have A Lawn Again
Remember - variety is the spice of garden life!
Stop thinking of your garden as a never-ending to-do list, and start appreciating it for the outdoor wild space that it should be. I don’t expect you to turn your garden into a nature reserve overnight, but if you can keep some of these points in mind when gardening this year, you’ll be giving nature a helping hand. Nature is remarkably resilient, and before you know it you’ll be enjoying a garden filled with colour and life!
Thank you for reading.
References & Interesting Reads
Wilding by Isabella Tree
The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel