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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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