Pandemics, climate change and the ecological crisis dominate the headlines. Most would agree that the time has come to do something about it. But where do we start? While patiently waiting for robust policymaking, there are plenty of opportunities to reduce our “footprint” whilst still living a comfortable existence.
A “proper” garden
If you are fortunate enough to own a garden, no matter how big or small, this is a chance to support wildlife, connect habitats, sequester carbon and so forth. Conventionally, a “proper” garden is made of intensively maintained, lush-green turf, weeded beds, neat boundaries and ornamental plants selected for their appearance rather than their contribution to biodiversity.
It is notoriously energy and resource-intensive; it may require a lot of water for irrigation, the use of peat-based compost, fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, regular soil disturbance, etc. What historically instigated this trend would require some research, although I am convinced that at least some of these practices are now “industry-driven”.
Even more worryingly, I have noticed a growing tendency to totally suppress biological activity (let alone diversity) through shrubs and tree removal, decking, astroturfing, slabbing and tarmacking, all to avoid “maintenance”. Now, it seems that a few weeks under lockdown has triggered a renewed interest in the plant and animal world.
A wildlife garden
As (thankfully) we are all different, gardening objectives can vary greatly; however, the approach I pursue is underpinned by the principles of minimum energy requirement (if not at the stage of realisation, definitely during management) and maximum biodiversity output. This may require an open mind in relation to what good looks like and a predisposition to challenge the “status quo”. Outlined below are a few key principles to start thinking in this direction:
1. Understand your soil (chemistry, hydrology) and chose plants that are suitable for it; try and avoid transforming what’s there and work with it instead.
2. Retain established plants, or at least give due consideration to the implications of removing mature vegetation (particularly when you inherit someone else’s work); picture the changes it would lead to: you may have a plausible reason to remove a tree, but carefully consider the void it leaves behind (loss of habitat, shading, cooling, privacy, screen from bad weather, etc.). Years of growth, once lost, take at least the same number of years to reinstate.
3. Think about what you want to achieve in the longer term; there’s always scope to review and change a plan, but to the extent that it’s possible, avoid doing-undoing as this will impact on how long it takes to reach maturity.
4. Select native, hardy plants that are known to provide food and shelter for local wildlife. If your garden tends to dry out quickly, whether because of hydrology or sun and wind exposure (or both), include drought-tolerant species in the mix, to reduce the need for watering during dry spells.
5. If space allows it, create a wildflower meadow; as an example, front lawns are rarely used for recreation and can be destined to this purpose instead. Besides the obvious benefits to biodiversity, it’ll require a lot less lawn mowing!
6. Overall, relax the grass cutting regime, even of amenity grass, allowing common wildflowers such as daisies, clover, dandelions and buttercups to bloom; a mono-species, neatly trimmed turf is of little biological interest and takes a lot of energy to maintain. Weeds, by definition, are plants “in the wrong place”; but the call is yours as to what has a place in your garden and what does not! A sward that is not cut too short can be more resilient during hot spells.
7. Bird, bat and bug boxes can have a place in most gardens and, if positioned in the right spot, will soon populate.
8. Plant trees. But when you do, consider what species are most suitable to the space, soil and climate available.
9. Plant hedges instead of building fences – or if a fence is required for privacy and security, ensure that it is permeable to wildlife and still plant a hedge against it.
10. Avoid weed killers. A bit of weeding is required to maintain the place attractive, but it can be done by hand, which can be a therapeutic exercise. Herbicides, despite what the industry claims, are likely to have detrimental effect on living organisms, ranging from soil bacteria to humans. Also, remember that in your garden you can determine what is a weed and what is not.
11. Harvest water. Connect water butts to gutters and store water for irrigation during dry spells, without putting pressure on an already strained water supply. Whilst the UK is notoriously green and wet, there are parts of the country that can go a long time without a drop and either way, remember that tap water takes infrastructure and energy to process.
12. If space allows it, make your own compost; kitchen waste such as vegetable and fruit skin, as well as grass cuttings, biodegrade quickly and turn into good quality fertiliser within the space of a year or less.
This list isn’t exhaustive but hopefully will provide some food for thought. A garden that is alive is a fulfilling experience; it can inspire, teach, and lead to considerable satisfaction. As someone wisely put it, “we see nothing truly until we understand it”.