We had planned a Ta(l)king Action workshop on wildlife gardening for 21st March 2020 but, sadly, had to cancel it due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a substitute, here are some tips shared by several of the would-be participants. We hope you find them useful and look forward to hearing about your efforts to make space for nature in your garden, or even just a window box. A lot of wildlife is having a tough time due to the pressures of habitat destruction, climate change and other factors resulting in the sixth mass extinction. What we can do as individuals may not seem like much but (according to the Wildlife Trusts) the 16 million gardens across the UK form an area for wildlife larger than all our National Nature Reserves. Together we can give home to a lot of species and have great gardens to enjoy – wildlife gardening is good for your wellbeing and for the planet.
Growing in Acomb
Jane Thurlow is a very experienced gardener, co-owner of The Nursery and member of York Organic Gardeners Association. Here you can watch an introduction to the amazing suburban organic garden Jane manages with Tony Chalcraft in Acomb. As well as being a micro ecosystem of its own, this 1-acre wildlife haven supplies veg to local wholefoods shops and neighbours.
Jane’s main tips for growing veg while giving space to nature are:
A wildlife friendly and productive garden can still be a very attractive environment for you too. So make sure you cultivate your crops AND get your wildlife working for you. Creating space for and watching wildlife is immensely rewarding and good for the mind – you might not want to be inviting slugs for dinner but seeing one share a meal with a hedgehog is delightful.
Phil Taylor’s wildlife-friendly gardening tips
Phil has over a decade’s worth of experience of delivering wildlife education in the form of workshops, writing and photography. He is also one of our Ecotherapy tutors and has dabbled with wildlife gardening. The video below was created primarily for the Discover Nature participants but in it Phil also shares his successes and mistakes with making space for nature in his garden. There are lots more interesting videos and wildlife advice on his youtube channel as well as on the Discover Nature page, which includes the written version of the video as a PDF and pollinator flower charts such as the one on the right, which we will keep adding to.
Wilding a suburban semi
Ivana Jakubkova, St Nicks Outreach Officer: Having grown up in a rented house and not been instilled with the presumption I’d ever own one, I’m still rather surprised to have actually bought a house in Tang Hall in November 2017. The fact that the footprint of my then new garden was bigger than the house I’d rented also took a while to sink in (and then there’s a front garden too!). I felt no right to be a master of this land and still don’t believe than anyone can truly own it. I know that laws disagree and the idea of the commons is supposedly tragic but we’re just borrowing land, and all that’s on it, from future generations while sharing with many others in the present.
Wanting to be a good co-habitant I soon set about making the whole garden more welcoming to other creatures. Here are a few things I’ve done and learnt along the way:
I wanted to get rid of most of the lawn, which to me is just a green desert with little life, but have compromised with my partner. We’ve kept half of the grass for lying down on summer days and evenings to watch birds or bats overhead, and only cut it once a year or so. Long dry grass may be looking unsightly just now but it’s become a bed shop for local birds – starlings, sparrows, pigeons and other birds are flying in to pick up wads of it for lining their nests. I’ve seen a starling clumsily take off with a clump of grass bigger than its body. Tidying is not nature’s friend, plus I’m a bit lazy, so I’m happy to do less in order to cater for wildlife’s needs.
Part of the appeal of the house and garden was a good amount of selfheal growing in one corner of the lawn. I thought we would soon get it spreading throughout but, sadly, keeping the grass longer seems to have pushed it out. Turns out it can be tricky to keep plants where you want them (who knew? Doh!). Selfheal has spread to the rest of the garden though, showing how plants find their way to where’s best for them – like this amazing Welsh poppy growing in a paving crack, which served an impressive number of bumblebees, hoverflies and other pollinators over its long flowering season. It’s sprung up in other corners of the garden too, which is welcome.
The other half of the lawn was turned into a no dig vegetable patch, which has been a mixed success and will get de-wilded a bit this year to actually produce some veg during the COVID-19 lockdown. Luckily, the extra patio was just poorly laid in a bed of sand so not too hard to dismantle and transform into a wildlife garden. Sadly, I’ve lost the first year’s photos but hopefully you can imagine a bare patch of land. I got some leafmould (nutrient-poor compost, used so as not to make the soil too rich for wildflowers to thrive) to mix with the sand and underlying clay. I then got busy planting a hedge at the back and ordering wildflower plugs…and of course, I got too many! Ideally, I should’ve waited and observed what would appear but I’m a lousy permaculturist, as much as I subscribe to the permaculture principles. I was just too impatient. It shouldn’t have come as a total surprise that the following summer, when I counted the number of wildflowers in one square metre patch, there were 25 species, 11 of which I never planted. If I’d waited a year to see what was coming up I could’ve saved myself some anguish over making life/death decision – for instance Cotton thistle went but Lemon balm stayed (although it spreads so well I may yet regret it but pollinators love it). I could’ve also saved some money on the plugs, some of which didn’t do well, and I could’ve given the desirable species better growing conditions. Still, it certainly looks wild and beautiful in bloom!
When I worked as a transport campaigner we often used the saying “if you build it, they will come”. If you build roads, you will get more car traffic but if you build safe walking or cycle routes, you will get more people using those, which makes cities more liveable and saves lots of space (so you can have more green spaces). It’s similar with gardening for wildlife, except that you need to not just provide the infrastructure but aim to cater for other needs too, such as food, water and safe shelters. Dave Goulson’s brilliant Garden Jungle book illustrates this point rather soberingly – apparently, after an initial boom the honey yields in London have dropped significantly because there are now too many beehives without an adequate increase in their food supply. The honey bees are also competing with other pollinators (there are approximately 4,000 species in the UK) which actually do most of pollinating.
Back in our garden, it took birds a number of months before they discovered and dared to visit our bird feeder, most likely because there was nothing else but the lawn. They are much happier to visit now that they can perch on the small apple tree nearby while (very disorderly) queuing up, and they forage around the garden beds too. Providing for more than just one basic need for a variety of wildlife will get the best varied results. We got very excited when we discovered a hedgehog in the garden last autumn and recently even found hedgehog poo in the grass. Now we feel more confident about listing our garden on Hedgehog Street (much more exciting than real estate agents’ sites).
The latest edition to the garden is a brand new wildlife pond, dug out during the lockdown. I may write a separate blog post about building it but the hope is that it will serve a number of functions: aquatic home and canteen for minibeasts and a watering hole for birds or other creatures, as well as being a lovely feature. Below you’ll find a diagram of things one can add to a garden to provide for all sorts of bugs, which will attract other creatures, from birds to bats. Of course, not everyone has that luxury but even window sills and backyards can feature some of these and attract at least pollinators.
My wildlife gardening efforts haven’t always had the intended results but it’s been hugely rewarding using that pretty much blank green lawn canvas to create something a lot more exciting and diverse. I’m still getting to know my neighbours (both human and more, or less, legged ones) and we don’t always get on – I have been squashing aphids while their predator populations are slowly rising – but it’s been well worth the effort. One day the garden may even become a truly balanced ecosystem, which will require very little interference. I’ve been practising for those days by just sitting around and watching the comings and goings whenever I get a chance. I think we could all do with getting a bit wilder, sitting back and tuning into nature, both around us and within us…