A Work in Progress

Me aged about four with my nan.

Me aged about four with my nan.

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.

My garden in May

My garden in May

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.

View of the left-hand side of the garden, with white lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

View of the left-hand side of the garden, with white lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

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 in full flower at the moment

The hawthorn is in full flower at the moment

The hawthorn is attracting a mass of insects and small birds, who spend best part of the day pecking through the flowers for caterpillars.

Bowles Mauve - perennial wallflower

Bowles Mauve – perennial wallflower

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.

The pond, complete with self-sown Greater Willow Herb

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.

Another picture of the pond. Can you tell I'm in love?

Another picture of the pond. Can you tell I’m in love?

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.

IMG_2442

My Heath Robinson bird table.

My Heath Robinson bird table in front of the rampant lilac bush and the Bowles Mauve.

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.

The hedge, looking back to the house.

The hedge, looking back to the house.

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.

The 'volunteer' cherry tree.

The ‘volunteer’ cherry tree.

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.

One of the few flowers on my poor rose bush

One of the few flowers on my poor rose bush

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.

Blackbird in the rain ...

Blackbird in the rain …

 

20 thoughts on “A Work in Progress

  1. Cindy curtis

    I loved reading your piece. I havea tiny 5×6 metres south facing back garden close to the sea, and I am filling it with been friendly plants and even have three trees. Because my garden is something of an oasis in a concrete jungle, I do not have a great variety of wild life – not helped by my two cats – but it gets better every year. It is such a joy to have a little wild space to watch over!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Your garden sounds lovely, Cindy….I bet the wildlife will find it, especially in winter when creatures tend to be more wide-ranging. It sounds like a great spot for marjoram and lavender….

      Reply
  2. Julia

    Another lovely piece. And your garden is beautiful, you can almost hear the hum of life in it. There’s a lot in my garden( SW small town, edge of Wilts/Dorset) that’s similar, but the bees like the wild? Marjoram when it’s in bloom and self seeded Aquilegia.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Yep, Marjoram is great, in fact I think it’s one of the best bee plants of all. I might try a few pots of it at the front of the house, where it’s south facing. Aquilegia…..gorgeous.

      Reply
  3. Jill

    Home thoughts much appreciated from abroad. I always miss the hawthorn’s May blossom as it comes outside of school holidays, but I can smell it in my imagination.Can you get the right kind of bluebells for the shaded area? Ours grew naturally under the trees in Surrey. The other damp areas succombed to ground elder which does have a charm of its own…but needs strict discipline!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Jill, now that you mention it a friend has just given me a pot of English bluebells to transplant. I’ve tried before with bulbs, but I think that planting them ‘in the green’ might do the trick. I know that they’re supposed to be ‘invasive’ but as far as I’m concerned they can invade away to their heart’s delight….

      Reply
    2. Ann

      I CANNOT see the ‘charm’ of ground elder. I attack it with fury, from time to time, but always some weaselly roots evade capture by wedging themselves among, say, iris rizomes. Horrid plant.

      Reply
      1. Bug Woman Post author

        Hi Ann, ah, one person’s charming plant is another person’s weed, for sure. It probably depends on what would grow there if it wasn’t for the Ground Elder :-).

  4. Katya

    Thank you for this post of your beautiful garden and glorious little pond.
    I have a small, north-facing garden plot here in New York City. Only about three hours of strong light shines in the morning, after which the sun disappears behind neighboring buildings, leaving things fairly dim. There’s a length of composted soil where various low light perennials grow, ferns, hostas, plus two tenacious vines, a trumpet and a wisteria, which, in spite of the dimness, do flower, though not prolifically. Other perennials are contained in terra cotta pots that I must drag back into my apartment when the cold arrives. Then the ferns will shrivel away safely into that soil patch, and the vines, shed of their summer disguise, will reveal their tangle of desiccated limbs within – veritable fairy tale witch bones to keep winter’s demons at bay. A crop of mint shrinks to nothingness and the lusty hostas do the same. A Japanese maple, having outgrown its container one winter, shattered it, exposing part of its root system to all manner of elements. I thought it was a goner, but no, it has maintained its dignity through each subsequent season. Like some of the ancient mulberries in London, it has a support system: the nearby trumpet vine has lent its witchy arms to keep a precarious tilt in check.
    All have recouped, now. It’s spring, after all! The maple has never looked more full. The ferns wander here and there, seemingly migrating from one spot to another, year after year, not a care in the world. The hostas are on the front lines; nothing stops them puffing up their beefy leaves.
    I don’t manicure very much; I like this garden’s wabi sabi state. Aside from some yearly pruning of the wisteria and trumpet vines to help them mind their manners, along with a judicious drenching of water and a dose of compost in early spring and fall, it seems to run on its own steam.
    There are two roaming cats next door, so wildlife consists mainly of a lovely, but wary, cardinal couple and the occasional determined bumble bee filling her little panniers with bright yellow pollen from the lobelias. I just planted a fragrant daphne which I hope will entice more bees. Wildlife in a small, backyard city garden is rare. Still, I feel very lucky to have this sanctuary.
    Can you tell me what a bug hotel is?

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Katya, what a lovely description of your garden! The benefit of a courtyard garden is its peace, and the ferns and hostas are perfect choices. How do the hostas get on with the snails and slugs, though? I have a similarly very shady area at the side of the house where I currently have some ferns. I was thinking about hostas, but have a suspicion that the molluscs would have them in seconds :-). A bug hotel is basically a collection of twigs for solitary bees to nest in – reports vary as to whether the bees actually use them. Normally, they nest in hollow stems or in holes in the wall. The link below takes you to a particularly fine example…..

      http://shopping.rspb.org.uk/insect-sculpture-hotel.html

      Reply
      1. Katya

        Thank you for the bug hotel info and link to a lovely one. Such a good idea.
        Yes, there have been unruly slugs attacking my hostas now and then…some years are fine, but in others they will show up with a vengeance, nibbling away at the little green shoots. In the long run though, the hostas seem unperturbed, returning each spring, seemingly unscathed. This year they are abundant and beautiful, so I’m thrilled that the wee salad lovers have moved on to greener pastures, whether on earth or in the sky…
        I am not a knowledgable horticulturist by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m wondering if you could put some very, very fine screened domes, or mesh fabric over each emerging hosta you may be planting, for protection at least for a while, until they can establish their later foliage? Are there even more tasty plants you could put next to the hostas which the slugs might prefer?
        I look forward to more about your garden, particularly the pond!

      2. Anne Guy

        Copper bands around the tops of pots and sharp grit should deter the slugs and snails but can’t guarantee success in all cases! Sometimes I think snails abseil down into pots of chewy plants!!

  5. Anne Guy

    As a garden designer I am often asked these days to create wildlife friendly gardens for clients, but leaving areas set aside for wildlife does not always meet the clients wishes as they look “untidy”! I always try to incorporate as many wildlife friendly plants and encourage bird feeding areas and bug hotels in my designs and also explain companion planting.
    Thank you for sharing your personal oasis with your readers it looks wonderful! Oh by the way Bowles Mauve can just give up the ghost after a few years so take some cuttings from non flowering shoots and you will always have some spare plants for replacement!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Anne, thanks for the tip on the Bowles Mauve – it’s covered in bees at the moment, so it would be very sad if it disappeared! People sometimes think that a wildlife garden has to be full of nettles and brambles, but of course that isn’t true. And the best thing people can do to help wildlife is to lay off the spraying and slug pellets, improve their soil and swap the bedding plants for something which actually has nectar and pollen, which is not too different from ‘normal’ gardening. I’m off for a look at your website/blog now, to pick up some tips!

      Reply
      1. Anne Guy

        Hi again! Thanks for taking a look at website and thanks for following my blog too! Just email if you need any help re design issues!!

  6. John Wooldridge

    Your garden looks absolutely wonderful m’dear, I could spend hour upon hour just sitting by your pond and watching the life around it. As always your scribing gives me the inspiration to make the most of my small plot here on a North Wales hill.
    As for your questions well as you know from earlier comments and my attempt at a blog, I only started the garden last Autumn and my gardening knowledge (especially wildlife gardening) is limited. Having said this already the changes are evident, the very small pond has already started to attract some wildlife, well ok I added the frogspawn and Greater Pond Snails myself but neither were taken from the wild. The local Sparrows enjoy drinking from it and one very bold hen Blackbird loves to bathe in it. The Water Hawthorn planted last year is now just pushing leaves onto the surface and last week I introduced Frogsbit to the surface. I noticed on a couple of these plants what appear to be snail eggs, we shall see. One creature that is in abundance is Water Daphnia which bolds well for more visitors to come.
    As for the rest of the garden the Bluebells are starting to dominate the shady areas, my own Bowles Mauve – perennial wallflower is blasting out its flowers and I’ve just planted two trees, a Sorbus – Rowen (Eastern Promise) and Hawthorn (Paul’s Scarlet) these, together with what I now know is a Purple leaved Elder are all derivatives of native trees yet much smaller as my compact space dictates and as they mature will hopefully form the backbone of my wildlife garden of compromise.
    Once again thank you so much for sharing your garden and for all your other posts, your blog is fast becoming a point of reference for me.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      John, your garden sounds wonderful. I’ve tried to grow Water Hawthorn twice, but on both occasions it’s just disappeared, which is very sad. I hear that the plant has a wonderful perfume, you must let me know when it flowers! And Frogbit is a great plant too. I have loads of snails in the pond, but would love it if some of those Ramshorn ones turned up. I do have at least one Palmate Newt, who I spot about twice a year. And you’re right, the Daphnia will encourage lots of other creatures to turn up, including damselflies and dragonflies.
      The rowan, hawthorn and elder are brilliant wildlife choices, and I don’t think the creatures are worried about whether they’re the full-scale versions or varietals. My hawthorn is a pink-flowering one, but it doesn’t stop the hawthorn shieldbugs or any of the other creatures.

      What direction does your plot face, and is it exposed? What is your soil like? It’s all these little things that seem to make such a difference to what thrives and what fails, and all gardens seem to me to be a process of trial and error….

      Reply
      1. mawrth

        Well the garden is South facing but because of the small size and the position of the shed the garden receives a fair amount of shade, the soil is a funny one to describe as it appears to be a mixture of different types through a succession of ‘make overs’ but the base seems to be a rich dark loam. When I first turned some soil last autumn there was hardly a worm in site though. But with the addition of some organic material the numbers of worms has increased. Still a very long way to go and so much to learn but hopefully I’ll get there

  7. Laurin Lindsey

    Dear BW, thank you for sharing the story of your fascination with insects and other creatures that inhabit gardens. I too enjoy the tiny little worlds that go on in the garden. Yesterday one of the junior squirrels sat upright patiently waiting for us to scatter seed on the ground. I have been asked why I throw seed on the ground and don’t i worry about the squirrels. I love them. And they have made friends with the our local flock of doves and sparrows. I did finally get to hanging feeders too because I want to feed the birds that are more timid. I can imagine your garden long and narrow as many row house gardens are, like the one at the back of our flat on Weltje road near Ravenscourt tube station. The year I lived there I could walk either down to the park by the Thames or up to Ravenscourt Park with it’s pond and two swans. So much wild life right in the middle of a huge city. I think your pond at the bottom of your garden is perfect. I am so happy you finally have a garden….my own garden restores my soul!

    Reply

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