Wildlife gardening does not mean uncontrolled wilderness...
This 'war-damaged cottage' in the 'Garden of Hope' at the 2004 Chelsea Flower Show exemplifies the theme of dereliction which has recently been prevalent among wildlife 'show gardens'.
Over the years I have seen many show gardens at Chelsea and elsewhere which were presented to the public as 'wildlife gardens'. A common theme seemed to be that of dereliction - giving the message that romantic, semi-abandoned gardens are perfect for wildlife. Well, that may be true, and tumbledown cottages with gardens gone wild may look romantic, especially when photographed in glossy magazines, but most of us don't live in dilapidated ruins, and nor do we want to!most of us don't live in dilapidated ruins, and nor do we want to! One of the worst examples, to my mind, was a garden built around the theme of a derelict railway siding for Kew's 2003 garden biodiversity display. I also know so-called wildlife gardens around some local nature conservation centres which are more properly pieces of recreated hedgerow or grassland habitat. Excellent for wildlife, (as indeed are overgrown railway sidings) and educational, but not really 'gardens' in a sense that most visitors could identify with. These 'wildlife gardens' surely give the wrong message to the general gardening public: 'wildlife gardening equals wilderness'. I fear that this message puts many gardeners off wildlife gardening. That is a great pity.
To me, much of wildlife gardening is about the way you approach the management of your garden, whatever style of garden you want to have. It's partly a state of mind.To me, much of wildlife gardening is about the way you approach the management of your garden, whatever style of garden you want to have. It's partly a state of mind. You may well have an existing long-established garden which you don't want to drastically alter. Perhaps it is a cottage garden, or perhaps a garden with a formal design of straight lines and square flowerbeds. Or it could be a modern garden design with gravel beds and a naturalistic planting style. Or your garden might be a small patio or balcony with plants in containers. Fine. All of these types of garden can be planted and maintained in ways which will encourage and support wildlife of one kind or another, and there is much room to experiment.
The evolving wildlife garden
The densely packed borders include both native and non-native plants.
My garden is a long-established back garden in suburban London. Like many established gardens it has lots of character, helped by an outlook onto mature trees in neighbouring gardens. I gradually evolved into being a wildlife gardener, and I let the garden evolve with me. But I wanted to keep its atmosphere, so changes to enhance its friendliness to wildlife have been gentle and gradual. Perhaps the one most important change has been to adopt a policy of not cutting down dead stems of perennials until the Spring, and permanently leaving dead leaves and stems which fall on the ground around plants to form a natural leaf litterPerhaps the one most important change has been to adopt a policy of not cutting down dead stems of perennials until the Spring, and permanently leaving dead leaves and stems which fall on the ground around plants to form a natural leaf litter, rather than clearing them away. In other words, no 'autumn clear up', except to remove piles of dead leaves from the lawn, and prune away stems here and there which are blocking paths or those which are obviously swamping neighbouring smaller plants.
On the face of it this goes against the grain of everything that is written in standard gardening books about tidiness and preventing the build up of pests and diseases. In reality it has meant that during the winter blue tits, great tits and wrens can be seen meticulously going over the dead stems looking for overwintering aphids and other small items of food. Goldfinches visit the seed heads of perennials in the daisy family to extract the seeds.
Some plants are chosen because they are good for attracting animals and others (like the orchids [Dactylorrhiza foliosa] seen here in the foreground) are simply there because they are beautiful.
Meanwhile in the leaf litter around plants (I dig the soil as little as possible), a wealth of invertebrates such as spiders, centipedes, beetles, grasshoppers and crickets has built up. Some of these in their turn eat slug and snail eggs. Slugs and snails no longer seem to be a problem, in fact I hardly ever see them! A natural balance has re-established itself.
The fact that I dig the soil as little as possible means that annual weeds (which are simply opportunistic plants which take advantage of newly turned soil) are no longer a problem either. I tend not to feed established plants, and they seem to thrive on this policy. By not feeding and rarely digging, I allow the garden flowers to grow into self-sustaining communities, and planted close together they grow into each other and support each other.By not feeding and rarely digging, I allow the garden flowers to grow into self-sustaining communities, and planted close together they grow into each other and support each other. These plant communities now support a thriving web of life. I prune some shrubs and climbers in winter to keep them in bounds, and occasionally split up and re-plant clumps of perennials which have become too large, or invaded by grass or bindweed, just as in any garden, because wildlife gardening does not mean leaving plants to get out of control. This approach has been very successful, although it took time, and the wildlife value gradually built up over several years.
Lessons from nature
Butterflies like this Peacock (Inachis io), are attracted to the mature planting in this city garden.
In 2003 I was away from work on a sabbatical, which gave me a chance to observe the life in the garden almost every day. Over the summer I recorded some 14 types of butterfly and a similar number of bird species.
I took part in the BTO Garden Birdwatch, completing a bird record sheet every week
There may well have been more birds, but I am by no means an expert in bird identification and I am sure I missed some of them.
To help me get a grip on bird identification, I took part in the BTO Garden Birdwatch, completing a bird record sheet every week. Looking at a whole year's worth of bird records from my garden (they are available online to BTO garden bird recorders)
The attractive early bumbleebee (Bombus pratorum) is among the half a dozen or more species to be seen in the garden.
I realised that garden bird populations rise and fall in line with seasonal changes in food supply. I also observed six, perhaps seven or eight species of Bumblebee, and a whole range of other fascinating solitary bee species. And this is a London garden.
I have learnt that an enormous amount of wildlife is out there, even in cities, clinging on wherever it can find a suitable nook or cranny. Suburban and city gardens are clearly a precious resource for this wildlife, and gardeners can surely do much to help maintain biodiversity, even if it simply means altering the way they manage their gardensgardeners can surely do much to help maintain biodiversity, even if it simply means altering the way they manage their gardens. I have found one of the most rewarding things about creating a wildlife-friendly garden was the realisation that we are pioneers, that there is still much to learn about wildlife gardening, and that the learning is in the doing.
|First published October 2004.|
Copyright Marc Carlton 2004. Permission is hereby granted for anyone to use this article for non-commercial purposes which are of benefit to the natural environment as long the original author is credited. School pupils, students, teachers and educators are invited to use the article freely. Use for commercial purposes is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the copyright holder.|
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