Diary Of An Eco-Builder

If you dream of hearing birdsong, there are lots of easy ways to make your garden wildlife-friendly
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The Independent Online

The only thing spoiling the picture is that I've made it up. Nonetheless, like all my fantasies of life in Tree House, this vision is beginning to rise above my dream horizon and brighten our quiet corner of Clapham.

The end of the build is almost in sight. Last week, we gave our notice to the landlord of our Brixton flat, so come hell or high water (in our case, probably both) we will be moving in at the end of November. It will not be finished, but if we have a water supply, toilet and staircase, a basic standard of living should be possible. We might even survive without a staircase, though this would be a challenge for our cats. Ford has trained Trevor to stand on his hind legs and beg for food, but it would take more than roast chicken to get him up a ladder (Trevor that is, not Ford).

With all efforts focused on completing the building, I am wary of losing sight of the vision for the gardens that are integral to the design. So last week, I visited the London Wildlife Trust's Centre for Wildlife Gardening (www.wildlondon.org.uk) to get local advice about attracting birds, insects and other wildlife to our front garden (frogs to the pond at the back, please).

Moya O'Hara showed me around, pointing out the many easy ways of making urban spaces wildlife-friendly. First, plant a native hedgerow (predominantly hawthorn, with lots of interesting extras), as this is a rich source of nectar, fruit and seeds. Thorny shrubs also provide cover for birds when feeding, so it's worth positioning man-made birdfeeders within their woody framework, though not out of sight. Non-native berberis, firethorn and cotoneaster are also good for berries and protection.

Second, dead wood provides an excellent habitat for many creatures. We are thinking of making a garden fence out of logs, though we will also want some half-buried logs, as these are attractive to stag beetles.

Third, grow herbaceous plants appropriate to your soil and shade conditions that will provide nectar, seeds and berries across the year. Avoid cutting them back in the autumn, as the dead seed heads are still a source of food and a habitat. The woodland planting at the base of our tree will include native English bluebells in the spring, followed by foxgloves, cranesbills, bugle and red campion.

Fourth, plant native ivy, an exceptional wildlife plant that provides nectar and berries and is a great habitat for birds and insects. It will complement the sharp white cladding of Tree House.

Fifth, plant a mini-meadow of long grass and wild flowers where grasshoppers and crickets can live and butterflies can lay their eggs. This is not easy in a shady space, but possible if there is a corner that catches the sun.

I left Moya and the birdsong of Peckham to return to the harsh reality of our building site. It may be years before the view from the balcony is fully fledged, but it will be worth the wait. Although our cats will not have access to the front garden, they will have their own place in this furry (as well as feathery) vision; lined up beside me on the balcony, grinding their teeth.

Will Anderson's complete 'Diary Of An Eco-Builder' will be published by Green Books in spring 2006. www.treehouseclapham.org.uk

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