Sunday, 29 August 2021

How to: Leave a bit of your garden wild, for wildlife

You don't need to.

Yes, I'm going to be controversial here: the average suburban gardener DOES NOT NEED to leave areas of their garden "wild" in order to encourage wildlife, which includes hedgehogs, birds, butterflies and bees.

You do NOT have to put up with something like this - left - just because you want to help wildlife.


Trust me, I'm a professional! 

The average modern garden contains plenty of food, shelter and safety for wildlife, and it always has done.

The sole exception to this are those hateful new builds, which are pretty much sterile: and I'll come back to those later.

But for those of us not living in brand new shoe boxes, our gardens already have an existing ecosystem, an ongoing, ever-changing interplay and balance between plants, weather, sun, shade,  insects, mammals - and of course, ourselves.

And if we suddenly start to leave areas of it unmanaged, as recommended by just about every gardening magazine/article which you read these days: well, it can ruin those existing ecosystems. 

It sounds like a lovely idea, doesn't it - "re-wilding" is the trendy term. I find it is usually presented in a cunning double-layered way: superficially, it's all about the wildlife, but there is a strong sub-text of "and it's less work for you", which is, of course, a complete fib... besides which, our small birds LOVE us to work in the garden. Even simple hand weeding loosens the soil, brings bug and grubs up to the surface, and brings in the birds. I can't tell you how often I am followed around one of "my" gardens by the resident robin, or blackbird, who eagerly pounces on each area, as I move on.

In real life, your own garden has taken years to achieve a balance, and I don't mean white flowers V blue flowers, or flowers V shrubs: I mean a balance of predator and prey, starting at mammal size, running down through birds, into caterpillars, further down into bugs and beetles, and beyond, right into the soil, and the lives of microbes,  fungi, and other "invisible" occupants of our gardens.

So don't rush to ruin what might have taken decades to establish!

Not to mention the risk of "re-wilding" leading to invasions of things such as bindweed, ground elder, brambles, cow parsley -  all things which tend to smother other plants, leaving us with an area of basically monoculture, instead of the variety which is necessary for a balanced ecosystem.

If  you are concerned about wildlife - and we all should be - then just look around - there are miles and miles and MILES of alleyways, footpaths, woodland, disused canals, disused railways, derelict building sites, field boundaries, neglected allotments, dual carriageway embankments:  all teeming with nettles, brambles, and the other unlovely "wild" plants. Not to mention piles of rotting wood and vegetation, perfect for beetles and other small critters.

You do not need to let part of your own precious garden go to the wild - or "to rack and ruin" as I would say - just to help wildlife.

Instead, what should you do?

There are a few simple, cheap things which are easier on the eyes, and better for the wildlife, than letting a corner of your own garden go wild. And here is a short list of five of them, to get you thinking.

1) Feed the birds

Let's start small. Just feed the birds, through the winter. You don't really need to feed them in summer, because that's when there is plenty of "natural" food for them, and that's when you want them to be giving their chicks fresh meat, not stale peanuts and processed suet, which contains lord-knows-what. 

(When I say "fresh meat" I mean caterpillars, worms etc, not your best Sirloin...)

As an aside, and to explain that remark, just bear in mind that pretty much everything you buy which is "edible", ie anything which can rot, is usually treated chemically to ensure it doesn't start rotting while in the shop. 

So all those bags of bird seed may well have been sprayed with preservative: and it's a good bet that the plants from which they were harvested were also well sprayed, to ensure a bountiful, rot-free, insect-free, long-transit time, crop.

This means that the commercial food which we buy for the birds, although well-intentioned, is often not quite as "good" for them, as we think it is.

In winter, the birds won't mind, because they'd rather scoff our preservative-tainted foods, than starve to death. 

But in summer, let them go back to a more natural diet, of slugs, beetles, caterpillars, and other things which would otherwise eat our crops and flowers - this is what you might call a "win-win" situation. 

Better for their digestion, better for our veggie plots.

For more detail on  how and when to feed the birds, try this article... or just type "birds" into the search box, top left of the screen.

2) Hedgehog runways. This is a sort of medium-sized topic, because it involves more than just yourself.  It's a terribly trendy topic, just now, and I wrote about it here, recently.  Oh, and adding that link has reminded me that it's Hedgehog Highway, not Runway... although I love the idea of Hedgehogs on the catwalk... with cats, showing them how to do it properly...

Anyway, digressions aside, this involves nothing more complicated than making a few ground-level holes in your fences, so that Hedgehogs, and other small critters who cannot jump, can pass between one and the next. But it also means involving your neighbours, to get as many of them as possible to also make holes for the Hedgehogs, so that they can move freely between all of the gardens. 

3) Plant trees. This one is fairly easy, and you don't need a big garden, or big trees, to make a real difference.  Trees bring sound and movement to a garden, as the branches and leaves swish.  They offer safe vantage points for feeding birds, and they offer a place for them to sit and rest. And if you are very lucky, a place to nest!

If  you don't have much room, go for ornamental trees such as Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum, there are many beautiful cultivars, they will grow happily in a large pot,  and most of them don't need special ericaceous compost), or choose a small tree with berries, such as Rowan, or Cockspurthorn - which is a type of Hawthorn -  or Crab-apple: or Birch, which produces more seeds than you would think, from looking at it.

4) Variety:  Gently enhance the variety in your garden. If you have some trees or tall shrubs for shade, some bushy shorter shrubs for shelter, some herbaceous perennials for autumn cover, some plants in pots (which harbour a surprising range of creepy crawlies, both in and underneath them), some flowers for bees, some veg for the caterpillars (*laughs*), a shed with a gap and some odd bits of junk round the back of it,  then you have done your bit for wildlife.

5) Mulch your beds and borders: whether you mulch with home-made compost, or with bought-in bark, it doesn't matter: mulching creates a wonderful accessible layer of bug and beetle habitat, perfect for small birds and mammals. It turns a bed or border into a running buffet for them!

So there you go - there is no need to force your garden into being re-wilded, but there are few easy things you can do to help the wildlife. 

In many ways, the most important thing you can do is to get out there and enjoy your garden: use it, plant it, weed it, grow things in it: and by doing so, you will be helping the wildlife, whether you know it or not!

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