Our Approach to Eco-gardening / Wildlife Gardening

David Beeson, Winter 2022 / 2023

Annette and I believe that wild organisms have a right to exist. As such, they need places to live – a home range, some might say. We have just over an acre of land, so have space to share. In addition, we have big positives – we dwell on the edge of ancient oak woodland and are non-urban. Negatively, we have some very non-ecological neighbours who sometimes wish to consider our land their own, e.g. shooting protected birds of prey / rabbits / hares in our garden or allowing their animals to eat out newly planted wild hedges.

Occasionally we have hares breeding in the garden. They can be quite tame, sleep in the borders and allow us to approach.

We feel that some gardens miss out on a dimension – the movement of birds, insects and other creatures than can be removed in very traditional gardens. We actively encourage our wildlife companions and enjoy their company.

We have lived here for almost 35 years and initially started to establish a conventional garden. It took little time to discover that carefully selected plants arrived in the wrong colour or species and a good number promptly died, despite being theoretically suited to our soil and climate. Why try to grow these plants when the local wild plants were both attractive and survived perfectly well untended? So, we partially switched – grow those exotics which survived and add in suitable wild species.

In winter the meadows are cut and look like a conventional lawn.

Many folks ask: ‘Why are wild species better for wildlife?’ Okay, it’s a long answer, but here goes. When you leave your home, do you lock the outside doors and windows? My guess is: yes. Why? Because you have amassed useful products that you do not want to share with burglars! You lock your door, but do you have the same key design as all your neighbours? No, because then if someone had the correct key everyone would lose out.

Plants are just the same: they have stored energy and resources and do not wish to share it with every insect, deer and aphid in the area.

How do they avoid sharing their resources? They fill their leaves with toxic chemicals. However, making these toxins is expensive – so, they usually make only one type. But each type of plant makes a different protective chemical. Foxgloves, deadly nightshade and ferns have different toxin protectors just as you have a different key to your neighbours.

Yet, herbivorous wildlife must eat something, so they have developed anti-toxins so they can eat with relative impunity. These are very expensive, and they usually make only one type. The caterpillar might be able to detoxify foxglove toxin, but the deadly nightshade will kill it. Herbivorous small animals can often only consume one plant type.

Now, exotic plants will contain toxins to which UK wildlife is not adapted – so, they offer no food from their leaves, roots or stems. They will still offer nectar and pollen, but not a whole range of potential food.

(Animals, such as deer, eat a little or this and a little of that, so never eat enough of an individual toxin to kill it. Aphids bypass toxins by drilling past the surface plant layers with their proboscis. Annual plants and grasses seldom produce toxins, but grasses have sand-like silica in their leaves to discourage too much grazing.)

To optimise your wildlife companions, plant more native plants, and preferably single-flowered types as they offer easier access to the flower’s resources.

View from the forest. The wildlife pond is to the right. Walnut trees dominate the middle of the garden. Native shrubby species have been planted down both boundaries.

One thing to watch: your local wild plants do not dwell in optimised soil as you may have in your flower borders. Given ideal conditions, wild plants can become huge and dominate. Best to leave those (usually perennials, such as oxeye daisy and knapweed) that can do this in your meadows.

So, our flower borders are filled with single-flowered exotics that offer nectar and pollen, plus attractive colour and form, and wild UK plants. Well-behaved native plants are present in the flower borders plus a few bigger toxic ones to the rear (E.g. Deadly nightshade).

UK native rockroses and non-native euonymus in a flower border.

We have shrubs as well as herbaceous plants in these borders. Here we have mostly used shrubs with a natural colour to their fruits. The reason is that orange or yellow-fruited varieties of, for example, pyracantha or crab apple, never fully ripen and are seldom eaten. These plants fail to convert fruit starch to sugars, so are not palatable or give gut aches. On a positive aspect, when the non-eaten fruits do finally fall the fungi and bacteria in the soil will be perfectly content to consume them.

There has been plenty of publicity about Plant Life’s ‘No Cut May’ initiative. We go a further step with our main lawn: No Cut April, May and a bit of June. While we do cut winding paths through it to allow access and give it a sculptural feel.

The diversity of this lawn has provided a floral treat for our eyes and generated food for insects. Good numbers of orchids plus thousands of bulbous buttercups, daisies, clovers and saxifrages are giving pleasure to us. Indeed, three orchid species: pyramidal, greater butterfly and twayblades have moved in. Your diversity will reflect the soil and input of seeds, but Chiltern Seeds do offer wild UK orchid seeds at a very reasonable price, and we can supply some free if you ask (chalky soil needed).

The no-cut lawn has just been cut but still awaiting to be finally trimmed.
Lawn diversity.
No-cut glory.

As one progresses down towards the forest our garden becomes progressively less tightly managed. The Spring Meadow comes next, and it is uncut from November until late June. As a result, spring bulbs can develop, flower and seed. The sequence is: snowdrops, crocuses, wild daffodils and Tulipa sylvestris plus a declining number of hyacinths. Swathes of meadow saxifrage and bulbous buttercups are the star attractions in May and early June.  

All the green herbage from the Main Lawn and Spring Meadow will eventually end up in the compost heaps and, about nine months later it will be spread onto the flower borders.

Sedums flower into October and provide nectar for late-flying butterflies.

Beyond our last flower border is the Summer Meadow. This is uncut from November until the next September when it is slowly reduced to a low sward about 2cm high. This cutting is controversial. Some people believe the meadow should be left un-cut over winter and cut in spring. Yes, it would be preferable to leave the seeds and herbage for the wildlife, except cutting it in spring is difficult due to the equipment available coping with winter-sodden, long vegetation. Plus, the spring bulbs and early cowslips would be killed off by that cut. It is a compromise.

While we call this area the Summer Meadow it is full of colour from March onwards. Here are a few of our cowslips.

If the spring weather has encouraged an early flush of grasses, a spring cut will be employed, always attempting to avoid doing too much destruction.

Winding paths lead through the Summer Meadow.

Yellow meadow ants have high colonies in the Summer Meadow but are mown down elsewhere. These ants are fascinating organisms as, unless you open the nest, they are never seen. The ants find food and dwell exclusively underground.

By high summer our other meadows will have been mown, so crickets, summer butterflies and grasshoppers are mostly restricted to breeding in the Summer Meadow. Sometimes we have glow worms here too. Pheasants and domestic hens predate insects and beetles and are discouraged.

Slow worms and field voles spread into this meadow as the herbage grows. Moles are present all months.

In spring our annual, yellow rattle seeds germinate, with their roots connecting especially with grasses. The rattle diverts resources to its own growth and diminishes grass growth. Once the parasite seeds, in August, its effect on the grasses ceases and the grass recovers its vigour.

Our cutting and removing energy and nutrients from the Summer Meadow’s herbage effectively reduces the height of flowering grasses and allow the more colourful plant’s flowers to show – so generating an attractive and diverse garden meadow. (Not every year! Too much rain will encourage excessive grass growth and then it  crashes down … disaster!)

While butterfly numbers and diversity have decreased recently, we have had butterfly bonanzas some years – with purple emperors and marsh fritillaries were seen, together with hundreds of some species.

Orchids are the ‘royalty’ of plant types in many eyes, and we have done well. Species have been: lizard, bee, spotted, southern marsh, twayblade, pyramidal, green-winged and soldier x monkey; plus, greater and lesser butterfly orchids. Pyramidal numbers are the greatest and probably just get into the high hundreds.

The wet fringe to the pond allows us to grow different habitat plants – Marsh Marigolds.
The pond in spring.

The pond was dug almost on day one of our stay here. It has no natural catchment and must be topped up in summer. That’s a snag as tap water is much richer in nutrients (minerals) than rain or river water. Sunlight, warmth and minerals equal too much plant growth, and hence eutrophication. With the subsequent decay depleting water oxygen levels. I do de-weed the pond some summers.

We have wild green hydra in the pond and an amazing diversity of microbes, including vorticella and amoebae. A drop of water can give an afternoon’s entertainment to me or keen youngsters.

Despite adding toad spawn, none has given us returning adults. The pond is too shallow. Frogs do find it very suitable, as do smooth newts, mayflies and dragonflies. Wild and honey bees come for water on hot days, and they are stalked by chunky hornets (which are more friendly to humans than many cartoons suggest.).

We ensured that the pond liner extended a metre beyond the pond itself, so have a marshy zone surrounding it. This adds plant diversity as the soil conditions differ from our clay-chalk meadow soil.

Bat diversity is difficult to determine, even with a bat detector, yet I can be confident of at least three species, and they often bomb the pond and hunt beneath our walnuts at twilight.

With wild hedges on two sides, plus some majestic trees, the garden is like a woodland glade with moving shadows, fluttering aspen leaves and small flocks of tits and finches scavenging for insects. Some of the trees are very mature. Our two walnuts and the wild cherries are over one hundred years old, and even our four birch species have reached their middle ages. Rambling roses, wild clematis and honeysuckles scramble up the woody plants, as do our hazel dormice and grey squirrels. The honeysuckle is the food plant of white admiral larvae.

I’m not good with birds and probably miss many species. One high point was having a woodcock roding around me, while a white stork visited us some twenty-five years ago. The most colourful experience was with a flock of breeding-coloured male crossbills. Redwing and wood pigeon flocks are common in winter. A tawny owl has often bred in the garden.

Our dormice have nested in the shrubs you can see here

I’m no longer a completely tidy gardener. The place looks good and mostly neat, but the fringes of the meadows are allowed to grow and most fallen and cut wood is left to its own devices. Beneath these chunks bumblebees and voles nest, plants grow tall and set seed, and mice clamber. The wood slowly decays, giving autumnal displays of mosses, micro-fungi and creeping slime moulds.  And why not let them have their own space? Believe me, a flowery no-cut lawn is 100% better than one closely cut, with added mower stripes. And how much damage does most small wildlife do? Sure, we do curse slugs sometimes, otherwise, we just do not look for aphids or insect larvae. Relax, and enjoy the wild side of your garden.

If you live locally you can have a garden tour. No charge. dandabeeson@gmail.com. Questions can be answered, too.

You will be able to spot Forest Edge, SP11 6LJ on Google Earth.

Wild evening primroses wander from border to border.

Homepage is: http://www.nwhwildlife.org. With 150+ ad-free articles.

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