A small wildlife garden for towns and cities – and it’s really easy to maintain
This small wildlife garden is very pretty and easy to look after. Plus it attracts a wide range of wildlife.
When the Rewilding Britain garden won Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022, it triggered a lot of debate in the gardening world.
Is a small wildlife garden realistic, especially in a town? Would it be easy to maintain? And how managed does a garden have to be?
Anne Vincent’s garden, completed before RHS Chelsea 2022 hit our headlines, shows that it is practical to have an almost wild garden in towns and cities. She says that it is very easy to look after: ‘I really don’t do much gardening.’
And she also never buys plants, because she allows plants to colonise the garden rather than deliberately planting them. It is a very different approach to gardening!
The garden is around 60ft (18m) by 17ft (5m) and is in a street of terraced Victorian houses. It’s one of 30 garden open for the 2022 Faversham Open Gardens. Faversham Open Gardens is held on the last Sunday in June every year (25th June 2023, 10am-5pm) for Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day.
Start with a pond
When Anne moved into the garden it was a blank canvas – just an oblong of lawn and a single old apple tree.
Anne’s son, Tom Joyce, was doing an environmental science degree and suggested that she turn the whole area into a small wildlife garden.
‘My son told me I needed a pond,’ she says. ‘I expected him to dig me a small one at the bottom of the garden.’
However, Tom advised her that a larger pond would look after itself better. It would also host more species. He dug a pond that occupies approximately the first third of the garden. It’s about 20ft by 8ft, with a depth of around 2ft at its deepest point.
All ponds need to have access in and out. In a larger pond, this means you should create a ‘beach’ at one end, with different levels for different plants and wildlife.
Tom fitted a rubber liner to the pond and added stones. Anne bought pond plants to stock it, concentrating on those which are native to the UK.
If you’re making a small pond out of a high sided container, then you’ll need bricks or stones inside, so that there is some shallow area. See this post to find out how to make a mini wildlife pond.
When I interviewed Helen Bostock of the RHS on gardening for biodiversity, she said that adding a pond is the best thing you can do for wildlife in a garden.
Fill the pond with rainwater if you can
If you fill your pond with rainwater, you’re less likely to get the algae and blooms that can cause problems in ponds, explains Anne.
The pond is filled by rainwater from the guttering. This reaches the pond via the downpipe, which has been extended beneath the deck to end up in the pond rather than in the sewage system.
They also created a ‘bog garden’ overflow, running a pipe from the pond to the bog garden on the other side of the decking walkway.
In times of low rainfall, the bog garden can also be topped up from a water butt. ‘I don’t want to use tap water if I can help it,’ says Anne. ‘The chemicals in it would change the acidity of the bog garden.
Water butts often dry up in a prolonged drought, so have the largest ones you can fit in. Anne never waters her plants, so the water butt is only used for topping up the bog garden.
Think about the soil
Soil is a hugely important part of our eco-system, hosting a wide variety of worms, micro-organisms and funghi that are essential in the food chain.
The issue of how hard surfaces, such as concrete, stone, bricks or artificial grass, damage your soil health is a complicated one. There are many factors to consider when choosing what materials to use for paths and terraces in a small wildlife garden.
These include how porous a surface is (can rainwater drain away into the soil through it), whether worms and other creatures can emerge to breathe and also what happens to the material when it breaks down. Concrete, for example, leaches lime into the soil when it breaks down. Brick, especially old brick, is a useful ingredient in soil when it breaks down. Artificial turf doesn’t break down – it just wears out and has to go to landfill.
However, Anne has simplified her approach by using a raised deck outside the house and a raised deck path. ‘It means people don’t tread directly on the soil at all,’ she says. ‘And it creates a habitat under the decking. We’ve added stones that we found in the garden.’
Generally, it’s now considered that digging is harmful to the soil and releases weed seeds. If you don’t want to go the full wildlife garden route, but would like to improve your soil with no dig techniques, see No Dig For Flower Borders here.
You don’t need to buy many cultivated plants
Anne bought plants for the pond, but she hasn’t bought plants for the ‘border’ element of the garden. She did plant some wildflower seeds around eighteen months ago, but otherwise the plants in this garden have simply blown in on the wind or they’ve grown from seeds dropped by birds.
‘I have taken out a few plants that were becoming dominant,’ she says. But she has minimised even doing that. ‘For example, there was a lot of creeping buttercup at one point. I thought it might get invasive, but there seems to be a natural cycle. Other wildflowers arrived. They seem to keep the creeping buttercup under control.
When I visited, I saw oxeye daisies, wild carrot and pennyroyal in flower, along with some lovely purple thistle-type plants.
Use native plants where possible
Wildlife have evolved to depend on the plants in their own locality. And plants grow best where they are perfectly suited to the conditions.
And sometimes plants introduced from elsewhere take over the wild spaces, out-competing native plants which means that the wildlife that depend on them also fail.
So there is a strong case for using native plants, even in a small wildlife garden. Although where land is generally managed, such as in towns and cities, there’s much less chance of invasive plants escaping to the countryside.
Once again, this is a complex issue. Seeds and plants have been arriving in the UK via birds, the wind and trade routes for thousands of years. Wildlife has adapted well to much of it, and research by the RHS showed that pollinators benefited equally from both native and non-native flowers.
Some countries, such as Australia and North America, however, have had huge problems with the sudden introduction of non-native plant species.
As far as the UK is concerned, ‘native’ is generally defined as anything that was here before the last Ice Age. Plants that have been here for centuries are called ‘naturalised.’
You won’t necessarily find out if a plant is native from the label. But you can look it up on the RHS website. And there’s an extensive list of wildflowers native to the UK on the the Wildlife Trusts website.
And wherever you live, you can put ‘is x native to….’ into a search engine and find out.
Hedges and climbers are better than fences and walls in a small wildlife garden
Hedges and climbers offer food and shelter to wildlife. Walls and fences don’t.
If you have a wall or a fence, you can make them more wildlife friendly by planting a hedge or climbers. Anne has done both. She planted native hedging, such as dog rose, hawthorn, blackthorn and wild cherry.
Think about having different habitat zones
Although Anne’s garden is quite small, there are various different habitat zones and she’s planning to add more. As well as the habitat under the decking, she has created a ‘hibernaculum’. This is a small covered area that can be accessed from the pond, where pond creatures can overwinter and shelter.
She’s added bark chips under the tree, and planted native ferns.
There’s also an area of sand, where she’s planning a sand garden. ‘That’s an idea my son got from RHS Hampton Court one year,’ she says. ‘We’re going to create a sand dune, and see what likes growing there.’
Other good tips for a small wildlife garden
Anne’s garden doesn’t have grass or a lawn. If you do have a lawn, you can make it more wildlife friendly by turning all or part of it into long grass or a meadow. This post explains how to turn a lawn into a mini meadow. And if you’ve already done that, but are struggling to get the effect you want, here is Joel Ashton’s advice on top meadow lawn mistakes.
And Sally Nex also has tips on the three best things you can do to be more eco-friendly.
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