The news can be depressing about the destruction of nature the world over and the UK has seen a massive decline in most species since the 50s with loss of habitat as the greatest single cause. Recently scientists have announced enormous drops in insect numbers which could have devastating consequences for soil fertility and the upper levels of the food chain.
However private gardens account for nearly 20% of our urban landscape and they are the one place that is in our control to nurture and encourage wildlife.
They can be our small but important way to contribute to what we love and there is nothing more satisfying than planting a shrub and seeing it feed a dozen or so different insects with its pollen and sap or see birds eat the berries of a tree we planted a year ago.
Think hard about hard landscaping. Many gardens change ownership every decade and often one garden is pulled out and another put in its place. You can try bark paths rather than paved ones, decking from sustainable pine trees rather than sandstone all the way from India or shingle rather than cement. You can opt for softer looking hedges and rather than buy oak materials (it is highly unlikely that oak is being re planted as quickly as it is being used and most of it is coming from what is left of oak forests in Eastern Europe) you can go for treated soft wood options.
Julia Young, the manager of WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network programme at WWF-UK recently said: “We purchased goods (oak) from 17 companies, and not one could provide evidence that they had carried out sufficient due diligence”.
Underneath this layer one can plant a layer which I call Tall Shrubs. These plants can contribute lots of height when needed but can also be pruned severely each year depending on the plan you have for the shapes in your garden.
Some are Sambucus ‘Sutherland’s Gold’ and Sambucus ‘Black Lace’, Philadelphus, Forsythia, some of the taller Cornus, Ceanothus, Fatsia, most of the Pittisporums and the different types of Laurel.
Smaller shrubs can then be chosen that will tend to give longer periods of colour and fit snuggly under the ‘umbrellas’ of the taller trees. Some interesting shrubs that come to mind are: Rosa rugosa, Teucrium fruticans, Japanese Quince, most of the Hebes, Hydrangeas, Cistis, Pittisporum ‘Tom Thumb’ and the Choysia range.
Ground cover can be used as the ‘glue’ that holds all the different layers together. Not only can you plant these in large ribbons and drifts to give your border a sense of flow and unity but they solve the practical job of suppressing the weeds whilst the trees are establishing themselves.
Some tried and tested ground covers that I like are the Geraniums, Sedums, Chaerophyllum ‘Roseum’, White Bay Willow Herb and Persicaria.
Ponds are powerhouses of nature, not just providing animals and birds water to drink and wash but are also the home to countless insects and amphibians.
A lot of people think ponds are a lot of work but, if you are not interested in keeping fish and thus need the water filtered or pumped for a water feature, there is not that much to do. When you do choose your pond plants research them properly so you choose non invasive ones and every so often scoop the pond weed off the surface of the water, this can be composted. Once every 5 -7 years you can empty a good amount of water and take out some of the silt that has collected at the bottom.
Don’t forget it takes at least 7 years for a pond to develop a full ecosystem of interrelated species.
You can buy barrels that are above ground on a stand that allows you to turn them which moves the compost around and aerates the material. This is the most effective way to compost plus there is no rodent problem. And what a joy to know the potato peelings and egg shells will become rich dark earth.
Trees, Shrubs and Perennials
When you chose your next plant, you can think of its food and shelter giving properties.
Medium trees for the garden- the top “supermarket” of trees are Rowan, Malus, Yew and Buddlea.
Shrubs can include Skimmia, Catoneaster and Pyracantha. Generous perennials with fragrant flowers and seed heads are Knautia, Scabios, Helenium, Rudbekia, Phlomis, Teasels, Chives, Roses and Lavender.
The RHS online also has a comprehensive list of plants that are good for pollinators. Also if you choose your plants well they will suit the soil and light conditions in your garden, reducing the need for heavy maintenance and chemical fertilisers or
pesticides. At Glorious Gardens we always try to design beds with strong performing ground cover that will shade out most weeds.
Bee boxes, hedgehog boxes, bird boxes and bat boxes – make your garden into a veritable city of homes for wildlife.
Other environmentally friendly tasks include not buying peat based composts. Garden Centres surprisingly still sell a lot of peat based products. Peat is Spagnum moss that has accumulated over 12,000 years and is a habitat to unique wildlife. Also the manufacture of peat release millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. There are good alternatives and the RHS is busy with research.
The more we can use rainwater from our roofs the less dams have to be built and maintained and the more money you will save if your water is metered. Also if you are topping up your pond it is best to use rainwater to avoid the chlorine and lime in the tap water.
You can leave a bit of your lawn uncut. You would be amazed at how many little bugs love the privacy and edible seed heads of long grass. Plus it looks good and a swath of long grass is an antidote to having to be in complete control of everything in our lives!
Use mulch to control the weeds on your beds. It will save on back breaking weeding as the weed seeds struggle to germinate. It also keeps the moisture in the soil so less need to water plus it improves the soil so after a few years even the most clay solid new bed starts to develop a reasonable structure.
Leave the leaves here and there
Hard to do, as you might not want your garden looking neglected, but leaving the leaves about in piles or corners of the garden or under hedges allows all sorts of hibernating insects to burrow away and hide. Leaving old piles of logs in the corner can also provide homes for the bigger creatures including hedgehogs.
We could see ourselves as only partially owning our garden, and that the thousands of fungi, millions of ants and wood lice, bees, birds, bats and voles also need a home. Like a benevolent King or Queen you can provide a rich and pleasant land where there is enough for everyone!