Dear Readers, I grew up in Stratford, in East London. Five of us crammed into a two-bedroom house with an outside toilet, no bathroom, and a pocket handkerchief-sized garden. And yet, it was that little garden which first triggered my interest in insects. I spent hours digging in the dirt with spoons that I’d smuggled from the cutlery drawer. I reared woolly bear caterpillars in a plastic box, tried to create woodlouse habitats under concrete slabs and marked the backs of passing ants with watercolours from my paintbox. I was a permanently messy child, with scuffed knees and dirty fingernails, in spite of the attempts by my mum and nan to keep me more or less lady-like. In a way, I was a pioneer of wildlife gardening before the term had even been invented, because the more invertebrates there were in the garden, the better I liked it. Once, I rescued some milky, sticky eggs that I found and put them into the damp course under the living room window. When we were suddenly inundated by enormous yellow slugs a few weeks later, I kept very quiet.
As I grew up, I didn’t have much access to a garden. I was in student digs, and then in a variety of rented accommodation. Some people seemed able to create a floral paradise wherever they were, but not me. I was always on the move, always too easily distracted. A bout of serious depression in my thirties didn’t help. For a while, I had a few pots on a first floor balcony and got most of my access to nature from the community garden down the road. And then, in my fifties, we moved into our house in East Finchley, and things started to change. For the first time, I could settle down, with a garden of my own. It felt safe, finally, to become a gardener.
When we moved in, our house had a very typical family garden – rectangular lawn, patio, shed. But I wanted so much to turn it into something that was friendlier for wildlife. We don’t have children, and so there was no need for somewhere to play football or badminton. We decided that, as this is the kind of thing that we would only do once, we would get someone to help us with the design of the garden, and with the heavy work of digging out a pond to replace all the grass. I figured that if the garden had ‘good bones’ it would be more difficult for me to mess it up. I am still a novice, trying things out, messing things up, forgetting to do things and doing them at the wrong time. But, thankfully, nature is very forgiving.
The plants on the left hand side of the photo above were already there when I moved in – white-flowering lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam. How lucky I am to have some mature trees! However, the garden is north-facing, and as the trees grow, the area underneath becomes increasingly shady. In particular, the lilac has turned into a monster, almost a small glade of trees in its own right. It has an evergreen, white clematis scrambling through it, which provides some sustenance for early Bumblebee queens, but I’m sure I could do more. Does anyone have any experience of renovating such an august shrub? I know that if I’m going to try to help it renew itself, it needs to be right after flowering, so I’d better get a move on.
The hawthorn is attracting a mass of insects and small birds, who spend best part of the day pecking through the flowers for caterpillars.
One of the plants that works hardest in the garden is the Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower. I put it in over three years ago. In all that time, there hasn’t been a day when there hasn’t been at least a few flowers on it. Bees of all kinds seem to love it, it needs no care, and my only fear is that at some point it will run out of steam. In the meantime, I appreciate its generosity every day when I look out of my kitchen window.
The pond is the single most interesting thing in the garden. Frogs lay their eggs in it, dragonflies and damselflies hover over it, water boatmen swim in it and everything drinks from it, from foxes to blackbirds to dunnocks to a wide range of neighbourhood cats. There is always something going on. It has reached a stage now where, provided we remove most of the leaves and excess water plants in the autumn, it is self-maintaining. If you have any space at all, even a balcony with room for a bucket, I would recommend putting in some water. You will be amazed what turns up.
I also have a lot of bird feeders – 2 for seed, 2 for suet, 2 for nyger, and a bird table that looks as if it was cobbled together by Heath Robinson. They’ve been very useful for attracting the birds into the garden, but I’m pleased to see that they spend a lot of time foraging for natural food in the trees and shrubs at this time of year.
I’ve also managed to squeeze in a mixed hedge – yew, beech, hazel, hawthorn and spindle.I’ve been cutting this back in the autumn to encourage it to get thicker, but I think it will be a while before it gets thick enough for anybody to nest in it. Again, it does much better in the part of the garden where it is not under the whitebeam. The poor spindle is nearly always eaten half to death by aphids, particularly (you guessed it) in the darker part of the garden.
As you might expect, I am unfazed by weeds. I have a wide variety, from the usual nettles and dandelions to comfrey, Mexican fleabane, pendulous sedge, herb bennet, yellow corydalis, green alkanet, forget-me-knot, and elecampane. I have a huge stand of Greater Willowherb which is so good for the bees that I can’t help letting it get bigger every year. I have bramble and bindweed trying to find their way in from the back of the garden, and I do confess to encouraging these to curb their ambitions with a pair of secateurs. What intrigues me is that many of these plants can be found locally, in the wood or the cemetery, and I wonder how unique the mixture of ‘weeds’ is to any particular locality. Certainly, if something grows wild nearby, it is more likely to turn up. I have a view that, if not too ‘over-managed’, our gardens can become extensions of nearby habitat, rather than completely different ones. It makes sense to support the wildlife that is already living in an area, rather than asking it to adapt to a completely new set of plants.
I also have an eight-foot tall volunteer cherry tree, courtesy of the one next door. My garden is becoming a forest.
Of course, not everything in the garden is rosy. Especially the poor Rosa rugosa which I planted underneath the whitebeam in a moment of madness. It reaches out with its poor attenuated stems for the sunlight and produces, oh, maybe three flowers a year. If I was a bit more confident about it surviving, I would move it, but now is obviously not the time.
I am so lucky to have a garden again, and believe me, I am grateful every day that I have a chance to enjoy it. . There is always something going on, some new creature appearing or an unidentified plant popping up. But every garden is a work in progress. If you are also lucky enough to have a garden, what things have you tried that have helped your local wildlife? Do you have any advice on north-facing gardens, or working with heavy clay soil? If you don’t have a garden, have you tried containers, or guerilla gardening? Or what have you observed in your local park? I would love to know what your number one plant for pollinators is, for example, or if you’ve had any success with bug-hotels or nestboxes. I truly believe that observant gardeners and dog-walkers and runners and allotment-holders have a deep pool of knowledge that should be tapped for the benefit of our wildlife, and that we have so much to learn from one another.