GARDENING / Bat-boxes? Not in my backyard: The greens want domestic plots turned into nature reserves. Helen Chappell is being driven absolutely wild

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The Independent Culture
THEY SENT me yet another of those educational leaflets the other day - the sort which explains in Look And Learn prose exactly how I personally may save the planet from ecological disaster. By dint of nailing up bat-boxes in my trees and erecting piles of rotting timber, my modest back garden can become a haven for endangered wildlife.

Lurid illustrations show platoons of badgers bearing down upon the patio while teams of hedgehogs cavort behind them in playful poses. Giant Technicolor bats swoop overhead (I hope these pictures are not drawn to scale), accompanied by flocks of woodpeckers and nightingales. Squadrons of mega-bees jostle with butterflies and 12 species of ant for the attentions of nectar-bearing shrubs. To complete the scenario, in the middle of a muddy puddle in the foreground squats a vast toad with languid, knowing eyes and a mouthful of half-chewed slugs.

This environmentally sound arcadia is, I assume, designed to prick the consciences of all small gardeners. Those of us who thought we were doing our bit just by switching from peat to coconut fibre and giving up toxic chemicals are clearly expected to pull our (unbleached) socks up. It is no longer enough to be organic or semi-organic and to feed the birds in winter. The message is clear: it is our moral duty to turn our back gardens into miniature wild flower and wildlife reserves. As members of the destructive human species, it is the least we can do to make up for chopping down the Brazilian rainforest and causing acid rain.

Before the hate mail begins to rain acidly down on my head, however, I should emphasise my long-standing support for the green movement in its global campaigns to put pressure upon politicians and multinational business corporations. Big problems need big solutions and the higher up the international agenda the environment climbs, the more hope there is for all of us.

But I think gardeners might be forgiven for raising a couple of questions about the requisitioning of their domestic plots for this politically correct end. Does it mean the death of the traditional lawn and the herbaceous border, for example? Would it really make a difference to the beleaguered environment if we all made our gardens into mini-meadows and replica bog habitats instead?

According to Richard Lawson, spokesman for the Green Party, the answer is yes. 'The domestic garden is one of the last sanctuaries we have for wildlife,' he insists. 'It would be better to save the natural countryside, but if we all turned our gardens into wildlife preserves, it would make a significant contribution.'

His point is echoed by garden designer Julie Toll, who created the 'wild flower and woodland bird garden' for this year's Chelsea Flower Show. This featured a shallow wildlife pond, a flowering lawn with wild flower borders and a hand-crafted rustic hut. 'If everybody did something like this, I'm sure it would prevent certain wild species from dying out,' she says. 'There must be millions of acres of private garden in this country, so by doing this kind of thing we would be replacing some of the wild habitats lost through development.'

It is no use protesting that you only have a tiny back yard in the middle of a big city or lost in suburbia. Digging for eco-victory seems to be expected of everyone. Tracy Gordon, City Greenspace Officer for the London Wildlife Trust, believes that 'people in towns really can do something as individuals to save and protect wildlife'. In her own plot measuring 8 by 13 feet, for example, she has squeezed in a small meadow, a pond made from an old sink, and a collection of plants grown to attract the birds and the bees. 'It all depends upon the species of plants that you put in your garden,' she says. 'That is the key. Native plants are more likely to attract native wildlife than exotic species. And if you want hedgehogs you shouldn't kill your slugs or sweep up your leaves. It's best not to have a very tidy, very formal garden.'

Some of her views may be more debatable than others, but can she be right to suggest that a wild garden is actually less work to maintain than the traditional type? Rose Ward, research manager with the Consumers' Association and Gardening from Which?, has her doubts. 'People may be getting the impression that wildlife gardening is easier and more worthwhile than it actually is,' she points out. 'Actually, it can be jolly hard work to keep going. Unless you have a poor soil you will always need to keep on top of the more rampant and invasive plants.' Not to mention cage all your fruit and brassicas from the hungry birds, mice and squirrels you have striven to attract. Even Julie Toll admits that, if not properly managed, a wild garden will 'end up a messy jungle'.

As for the more endangered wildlife, Rose Ward doubts that it will actually benefit from the amateur eco-garden. 'These species are under threat just because their habitats are so specialised and rare,' she says. 'These habitats can't be recreated in a small domestic garden. Even animals like butterflies, bats and barn owls can't visit your garden unless they already live in the area. In the middle of town - where most of us live - the options are limited.'

Nurseryman, gardener and former biologist John Williams takes an even stronger line. 'The green movement is very fashionable at the moment,' he says. 'Many people don't have the confidence to challenge it. On a broad scale it is doing immensely useful work. Unfortunately, it has developed an ideology which is often romantic, sentimental and only partly scientific.'

As he sees it, it all boils down to what - or who - a garden is actually for. 'A garden is an absolute imposition upon nature,' he says. 'It is designed for people. I see it as a kind of painting with plants which needs a strong structure. At best it is a minor art form. To maintain that, nature has to be set at bay.' In his garden high up in the Pennines, he is lucky enough to have the space to set aside 10 acres of woodland for local wildlife. But woe betide any rabbits who stray into his formal garden. He shoots them for the pot.

John Williams is equally unmoved by green arguments about using only native plant species. 'What is native and what is exotic?' he asks. 'It depends how far you go back. Do you start from the last Ice Age? The sycamore has only been here for 200 years, but thank God for it. It's the only tree which grows well up on these hills.'

Where does all this lead the bewildered gardener? To the personal and political gesture of the wildlife garden for those who choose to spread the environmental word in that way. To a typically British fudge, I suspect, for many more of us. 'A good compromise is what I recommend for a busy lifestyle,' advises the practical Julie Toll, 'with some cultivated, some wild plants, and perhaps shrubs and bark mulch to attract the creepy-crawlies.' It sounds fair enough to me. I'll grow a (non-native]) buddleia for nectar and a holly bush for berries if the greens will let me sweep up my leaves and keep slugs to a minimum. I can't guarantee all my plants aren't exotic, but I can keep a compost heap (even if that lurid wildlife leaflet ends up as one of the ingredients). I think I'll pass on the bat-box, however. I hope I get more butterflies, frogs and hedgehogs but, if a giant Technicolor bat should swoop overhead, I am definitely calling the police.-