Call of the wild: Now is the time to bring nature into your garden

From wildflower lawns and bird feeders to natural pools and insect-friendly hedges
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The Independent Online

With summer fast approaching, garden maintenance steps up and lawn mowers come out of hibernation. But this year, why not try leaving it in the shed, and let your garden become home to wildlife coming out of hibernation instead? Now is the time to sow seeds for a natural meadow, as a pretty and environmentally friendly alternative to the neatly trimmed square of turf, and to plant colourful, sweet-smelling flowers to attract queen bees and make your garden a veritable wildlife haven.

From a wildflower lawn to boxes for birds, bees and hedgehogs, through ponds, bog gardens and shelter-providing trees and hedgerows, there are plenty of simple changes you can make to turn your garden into a happy home for wildlife.

But for many people, their garden is a bit of tamed wilderness, a patch of controlled beauty. Things like bog gardens (a shallow, swampy pond), a cultivated nettle patch (popular with butterflies), or a log pile (a great home for mini-beasts) don’t exactly make wildlife-friendly gardens sound design-friendly.

Garden designer and Radio 4 regular on Gardeners’ Question Time, Chris Beardshaw, is keen to promote wild gardens: he’s an ambassador for the UN’s Year of Biodiversity, helping to highlight the loss of plant and animal species across the globe. But |he insists that a wild garden can still be stylish: “Wildlife – in the broadest possible sense – has no predisposition to either informal or formally designed gardens. There is a notion that the biodiverse garden is out of control, untamed. That should be knocked on the head. You can be much more chic. It’s about being creative, once you understand what organisms need.” Out of 33 show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, five take wildlife or biodiversity for their theme (including one by Paul Hervey-Brookes, |a scholarship student of Beardshaw’s).

So how can you make your garden an attractive spot for diverse wildlife while still making it as elegant as a show garden? The good news is that lots of flowers that

are pleasing to the gardener are pleasing|for insects too. Go for bright colours – and |scented blossoms – that make your garden a sensory treat for you and your local insects.

“Having something in flower, preferably with a fragrance, will give a good nectar delivery to all manner of creatures,” explains Beardshaw. “A big plate-like flower suits bees – things like a marsh marigold in a bog garden is flowering its heart out at this time of year.” Beardshaw also recommends visiting a local nursery every week to buy one flowering plant to put in your garden, as “having something flowering throughout the year is a huge benefit to insects”. Insects form the core of the food chain; once you’ve attracted them, other animals and birds will soon follow. As a professional designer, he also has a few structural tricks. Don’t fancy a pile of dead wood in the corner? Well, animals will be happy to live in something more sculptural.

“When people want a wall in their garden, where we used to use stone or wood we now use logs. But they’re stacked in a formal way, so it looks very chic: you see the end grain of the wood, the light and shade of the bark, |but it also provides a wonderful habitat for insects and small mammals too.” While

Beardshaw recommends cultivating a |wild lawn, he’s also got tips to make it into |a design feature.

Try layering your lawn into various heights and shapes. “In different lengths, you encourage different animals and can grow different flowers. The shape is entirely up to you – be creative with your mower and your shears.” So in a short lawn section, which you use for ball games or your deck chair, go for daisies; in a medium-length patch, try planting bulbs such as daffodils; and in the longest grass, plants like geraniums can flourish.

Dr Steve Head, a semi-retired zoologist, turned his garden in Abingdon, Oxfordshire into a natural haven. “It was a complete heap when I took it over. There was nothing except a few apple trees and a dreadful swimming pool.” After tidying things up and planting big borders of plants and shrubs, as well as turning the swimming pool into a large |pond, Head now has a garden that is something of a local treasure. “Now, I open it up|to the village; people come and watch the dragonflies,” he says.

Our gardens represent the most bio-diverse habitat in Britain, says Head, who explains that by making your garden hospitable to creatures great and small, you’re actually inviting in up to 8,500 |species. Running the online Wildlife |Gardening Forum, he has a few tips of his own for budding biodiverse gardeners.

“It doesn’t matter if a plant is native or exotic, but it has got to produce nectar. Double varieties, which often look showy, have no nectar and are absolutely useless,” he says. But the single most important thing is to add water. “Water brings in life. A pond will bring in frogs and newts within days. And things will come to drink: bees and insects, hedgehogs and herons.”

While Head may have a swimming pool-sized pond, they don’t need to be big or deep (consider a shallower bog garden if you have very small children). Make sure it has sloping banks to allow animals an easy way out, and include plenty of plants. Fill your pond with rain water, as tap water has phosphates and nitrates that may make the pond weedy. And if you want wildlife, don’t add fish: they enjoy eating tadpoles.

If you fancy getting one step closer to the wildlife, you can even invest in a natural swimming pool that lets you take a dip with newts and frogs. It’s an especially good option if you already, like Head, are lucky enough to have an empty pool in your |garden. But even paying a company, such as |gartenART or Clear Water Revival, to build one from scratch doesn’t cost more than a traditional chemical swimming pool.

A natural pool uses a filter of “friendly|bacteria” to maintain a clean, safe and |self-sustaining ecosystem – which makes it|a happy habitat for plants and animals too.

Asked about the advantages of a biodiverse garden, Head explains that it |actually takes less effort: “A wildlife garden tends not to be very prissy. I’m not saying| be sloppy – but do be lazy. Don’t do things like dead-heading flowers at the end of the season; let the birds feed on them. A bit of mess in the winter is good for hibernating animals.”

But he adds that this convenience factor |is “trivial” compared to the joy that wildlife brings. Even if you give your garden a formal structure and some fancy design features, the biggest benefit of a biodiverse space is that it really is a buzzing with life. “Everybody likes to see birds, everybody like to |see butterflies,” says Head. “It gives you the pleasure of seeing life and movement in your garden.”

For more information on making a biodiverse garden, see Biodiversityislife.net. To join the Wildlife Gardeners Forum, email wlgf@stephenmhead.net

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