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Landscaping Solutions MD Ben West details the ‘rewilding’ of his own garden, from which he, his family and the local wildlife have already reaped rewards.
Rewilding your garden greatly benefits local wildlife.
Last month, we explored the concept of rewilding as an antidote to biodiversity loss and mitigation against the most damaging effects of climate change. I promised to share a snapshot of my garden’s ‘rewilding’ journey, which has so far consisted mainly of adopting a more relaxed attitude to maintenance practices and allowing ‘weed’ species to establish alongside ornamentals.
This approach has greatly benefitted local wildlife and helped my family develop a deeper connection to nature. Through learning the traits and practical applications of the various wild plants that have taken up residence, they have a visceral understanding of nature’s interconnectedness and their place therein. Modern life lived through these eyes is a blessing and a curse. There is truly never a dull moment.
Early in the year, hairy bittercress, dandelion and sow thistle add cleansing and nutritional value to our salads. We rejoice in the emergence of wild garlic and include it in all our cooking. Bright rays of flowering coltsfoot attract the first insects of spring such as the intriguing bee fly. Flowering ground ivy, herb robert and white dead nettle provide uplifting herbal teas.
Moth caterpillars start to show with angle shades feeding on self-seeded buddleia and broad- bordered yellow underwing hiding amongst patches of Cleavers. This plant epitomises the rising of the sap and we drink its juices to cleanse our lymphatic system and shift our metabolisms out of their winter torpor.
Orange tip butterflies are attracted to garlic mustard and we share their caterpillars’ liking for its leaves. They also lay eggs on cuckoo flower which lends a wasabi kick to our salads. Nettles have become a staple food now. Full of nutrients, they combine with fresh vegetables to form the basis for our favourite soup and also feed the larva of the Vanessid butterflies; Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Peacock and Painted Lady. Their split stems are weaved together to form cord from which trinkets are dangled from children’s necks and wrists.
Bird nesting begins in earnest and our ivy clad fence is well appreciated. Swift boxes set in the brickwork of our gable end fail to attract their target species but are taken up by house sparrows which enjoy the seeds of self-sown oxalis in the borders. Their constant chattering, at odds with the melancholy flute of the blackbird and the quicksilver outpourings of the blackcap in the willow, form the soundtrack to summer.
We embrace unloved elder by making refreshing summer drinks with its flowers and later medicinal syrups with its berries - blackbird and blackcap love it too. The plants that attract the most life are those that have found their own way here, none more so than the much maligned ragwort which is the centre of all insect activity throughout its long flowering period. Burnet companion, mother of pearl and cinnabar moths (and their caterpillars), gatekeeper and meadow brown butterflies and a host of parasitic wasps, hoverflies and bee species are in constant orbit.
I let fade away anything that fails to fend for itself and allow survivors to thrive; purple toadflax is one such survivor and attracts streams of bees through summer including the charismatic wool carder bee. By night, it is festooned with mother of pearl moths and garish toadflax brocade moth caterpillars. The almost identical larvae of the mullein moth can be found feeding on the foliage of its self - seeded namesake alongside pupating ladybird larvae. Shield bugs are up to no good in the shadows; stag beetles stick to the bricks of the house and demoiselles, damselflies and dragonflies clatter through the deepening foliage.
All life is here amongst these summer weeds. Wild medicinal herbs turn up and are infused to make teas: yarrow for sore throats, plantain for coughs, fennel for digestion and mugwort for lucid dreaming. Others are harvested and preserved in alcohol as tinctures to last through the winter: dock root, St John’s wort flowers and prickly lettuce leaves will treat everything from excitability to lethargy. Prickly lettuce also provides food for small ranunculus moth larvae. The reviled creeping thistle is a great nectar source for late summer insects and now attracts brown hairstreak butterflies to the garden. Grass snakes slither into the compost heap to lay eggs and hunt for rodents.
Moth numbers are peaking and a trap set up at night is a revelation. We are dazzled by the diversity of colours, patterns textures and forms. As summer flowers fade into autumn, dark bush crickets continue to fill the night air with whispering chirrups. At this time, ivy comes into its own. Its late emerging flowers are a major fuel source for insects. Stand beside a spunk scented spray on a sunny day in early autumn to see insect theatre play itself out before you. We really must regain our reverence for this plant.
Large white butterfly eggs.
One image of the unfurling year sticks in my mind. In the spring, I scattered nasturtium seeds in the corner of a raised planter and the rapidly developing foliage became a welcome addition to salads and pesto. Large white butterflies came to lay eggs on the undersides of the leaves. A great life lesson in lockdown for the kids as we observed the eggs through to the larval stage.
Emerging caterpillars on the underside of a nasturtium leaf.
The kids liked the fact we shared the caterpillars love of the peppery vegetation. As they dispersed to pupate, we searched for, and found, a cocoon and marvelled as the emerging imago pumped up its wings and flew away to continue the cycle.
Large white adult Imago.
I wonder if, by embracing rewilding, we are like the caterpillar that, having stripped its food- plant bare and seemingly painted itself into a corner, now undergoes a strange and remarkable metamorphosis to emerge as a useful enhancement to the ecosystem and a jewel for the eye.
One thing is for sure; if the garden had been weeded, much of this richness of life would have been lost and never had the chance to enrich our lives so profoundly.
You can continue to follow Ben’s journey on Instagram: @wearewherethewildthingsare
Landscaping Solutions MD Ben West reminds us of the beneficial impact we can have on a garden’s biodiversity with thoughtful intervention.
An example of a biodiverse garden by Landscaping Solutions.
Hypericum perforatum, or ‘St John’s Wort’, is a common wildflower used traditionally as a wound herb and more recently as a treatment for depression or a general tonic for lifting the spirits. The plant is named after John the Baptist who is said to have been born six months before Jesus of Nazareth on 24 June and is venerated in the Christian faith as the one who prepared the way for Christ the Redeemer to carry out his work.
The common wildflower Hypericum perforatum, or ‘St John’s Wort’.
How fitting, then, that on St John’s Day I had the most uplifting and redeeming experience of an otherwise tumultuous year when I tuned in to an online lecture by Fergus Garrett on the subject of biodiversity at Great Dixter House in Sussex. I came away healed, hopeful and with a sense that his vision could prepare the ground for our work as ‘regenerative gardeners’.
Between 2017 and 2019, Fergus commissioned a biodiversity audit of the Dixter estate in order to confirm his hunch that the gardens represented a special place for wildlife and inform his team of how best to manage the land going forward. The audit uncovered a range of interesting findings, the most important, in my opinion, being the discovery that the abundance and variety of life in and around the house and gardens outweighed that of the estate’s hedgerows, meadows, woods and farmland.
The gardens harbour a number of nationally rare and scarce bees, wasps, hoverflies, moths and spiders. One of the ecologists proclaimed the gardens to be one of the most biologically rich sites he had studied in 30 years of surveying. So, what are they doing right at Dixter?
In my last article for the Landscaping Solutions blog, I wrote of the University of Sheffield’s ‘BUGS’ project which studied factors influencing biodiversity in gardens. The BUGS team discovered a number of recurring garden features which increased the quantity and variety of species. All these features are present at Dixter. There is an emphasis on refraining from chemical use and over-zealous mowing. Composting is championed, along with the creation of brash piles and provision of standing dead wood.
Ponds, water courses and a little untidiness not only add an aesthetic charm but also provide a practical habitat for wildlife.
The garden is famous for its successional planting providing early spring flowering fruit trees, a long-lasting summer mix of natives and exotics and diverse late season pollen and nectar sources. Hard structures have lots of nooks and crannies in which insects, birds and mammals can find shelter and raise young. Ponds and water courses are present and, crucially, there is recognition that ‘untidiness’ adds aesthetic charm as well as practical habitat.
The garden at Dixter is a dynamic and intensely managed landscape in a constant state of change. Man-made change. There is a pervading sense that, for wildlife to thrive, human intervention should be kept to a minimum. The hand of man is generally thought to be a destructive one. However, Dixter highlights humanity’s beneficial influence on the health of the planet and how thoughtful horticulture has a key role in improving biodiversity.
It’s easy to dismiss mankind as a plague on the face of the planet, but examples like Dixter remind us of the positive nature of our position in the web of life and how important gardens and gardeners are to how the picture might pan out. Which impressions will we choose to leave on the canvas of the twenty-first century? The current background is a Turneresque tempest. Will we overlay this with a depiction of the gates of hell or the Garden of Eden? The choice is ours.
Landscaping Solutions MD Ben West explains why only using native plants is not necessarily the best option.
Diverse late Summer herbaceous perennials in a garden built and maintained by Landscaping Solutions in Twickenham, South West London.
In one of our recent blog articles, I extolled the virtues of garden ‘weeds’ in light of their potential to re-connect us with nature; I proposed a move away from our entrenched revulsion toward a position of reverence. As much as I love native wildflowers and have learned much about myself and the wider world from a close relationship with them (not to mention benefitted immeasurably from their medicinal and culinary properties), I don’t want to give the impression I’m an advocate of allowing our plots to go completely to seed. Rather, I’m looking to promote a more laissez faire attitude that permits weeds be cherished rather than demonised in order to improve the biodiversity of our gardens, and our nation, as a consequence.
The key component here is the notion of surrender, of letting go of deeply held opinions when faced with evidence that suggests they might be damaging or just simply unfounded. This is a lesson we can all take on board whatever our feelings on what constitutes a successful garden.
For instance, proponents of wildlife gardening have traditionally espoused using only ‘native’ plants. However, research by Dr. Ken Thompson and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield suggests otherwise. Ken is a plant ecologist who was part of the ‘Biodiversity in Urban Gardens’ or ‘BUGS’ project which investigated the significance of urban gardens in Sheffield for natural diversity back in 2000. Their findings blew apart the doctrine that held ‘native’ superior to ‘alien’ plants in terms of their ability to support wildlife. Ken and the team found that, so long as they delivered the goods in terms of providing food, shelter and a place to raise young, most wildlife didn’t much care for the origins of any particular plant. In fact, more importance rested on schemes that were diverse and varied in flower type and shape, rich in nectar and planted in swathes of the same species. Gardens providing successional planting and extended individual flowering periods also displayed increased biodiversity. In addition, pollinating insects showed a preference for plants closer to the ancestral species rather than highly modified versions such as double flowered varieties.
Ponds and water features are just one way of increasing biodiversity in a garden.
The BUGS project also discovered a list of other features those wishing to increase biodiversity should include in their gardens, namely trees, ponds, compost heaps, walls, hedges and, importantly, combinations of the above to provide variation and diversity. The project also stipulated avoiding the following elements: closely mown grass, extensive areas of hard surfacing, the use of chemicals and, last but not least, excessive tidiness.
It has always been my anecdotal experience that nature loves a bit of ordered chaos and this was supported by the BUGS project findings. Think of the grass snake in the compost heap, the whitethroat nest in the bramble patch or the pile of cinnabar moth caterpillars on that scrap of ragwort you forgot to weed out. This is the very essence of wildlife gardening and affirms why a little bit of ‘conscious neglect’ goes a long way. It is important not to understate the significance of loosening up our attitudes. If we are to redress the imbalance that 50+ years of over-zealous gardening has instilled, then we must stop treating gardens like we do the rest of our uptight, downtrodden and increasingly straight-jacketed lives, whichever side of the fence we are on.
An example of ordered chaos in a garden built and maintained by Landscaping Solutions.
Those wishing to gain a sharper understanding of what wildlife gardening is really all about should read the illuminating ‘No Nettles Required’ by Ken Thompson.
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