How to rewild your garden and invite native nature back in

Gifting back conditions in which wildlife can thrive makes a difference to gardens of all sizes, even in the suburbs
How to rewild your garden and invite native nature back in

Urban foxes are just one of the new arrivals that will favour a garden with easy passage in and out through hedging rather than closed fencing. Pictures: iStock

Most of us are familiar with Google Maps and the satellite (photo) views it’s capable of. I took a little virtual flight over Ballinlough in Cork, and was struck again by the amount of emerald in view. 

Adding up all those private little squares, slivers and rectangles of garden — there’s a lot of green space in that one parish. When you think of all our gardens in that wider area, all providing small fence-bounded environments for animals and birds — it’s really quite exciting.

Wilding your garden — gifting back conditions in which creatures can thrive, even in the intensely suburbanised streets near a major city — can make a difference. It’s not simply a matter of parking up the mower and giving up — it’s a managed project anyone can include in their sylvan eighth of an acre.

Here are just four areas to keep in mind this April to return some of the rich nutritious, hiding and feeding potential back to your lesser-known neighbours — finches, frogs foxes, earwigs, spiders, hedgehogs, robins and more.

RELAXED LAWNS

Just as farmers are being encouraged to keep the headlands of their fields more shaggy, you can create two kinds of going in your garden. Deeper, wetter, more hybrid grassy areas are not only easier to keep but are far more environmentally friendly than a balded-out ryegrass lawn with every invasive plant nipped out. 

Whether you want to turn your whole lawn over to a wildflower meadow or just designate one area for the bugs and beasties — it’s all worthwhile. Pollinating insects can enjoy daisies and dandelions again, birds like blackbirds and thrushes will stab happily in the sward for beetles and worms. Nettles will provide a butterfly nursery, and the grass itself will provide a jungle for all sorts of multi-legged souls. A longer, untamed lawn is also drought-resistant — perfect when the hose bans are in force.

A rewilded garden can be a managed garden; it’s not an either/or. Here some wild planting gentles the hard lines of a magnificent contemporary home. 
A rewilded garden can be a managed garden; it’s not an either/or. Here some wild planting gentles the hard lines of a magnificent contemporary home. 

You can plug new plants into the grass or spread some wildflower seed to give things a headstart. 

On a larger lawn, consider cutting paths through deeper grass. Kids absolutely adore this and will soon be speeding through their fantasy adventures on the fall-friendly avenues. 

Wildflower turf can be used as borders, intensifying the biodiversity of your garden from late spring right through to autumn. Prices start at €25 per square metre. You can still mow your lawn — just keep the blades higher, mulch (to self fertilise) after May, and allow the flowering plants like nectar-rich clover to return regularly to your pasture.

Remember there are now no weeds to poison — we simply won’t be spraying out anything. Native seed mixes will help to spread Irisplants over exotic invaders. Tr Easy Grow Native Irish Wildflower Seed Mixture (cornflower annuals)’ 20g is enough for 6-7sq m and they will germinate and return annually, €10.99, theirishgardener.com

BUG HOTELS AND LOG PILES

When you’re pruning this year, or even dealing with some rotten wood from the log pile — instead of taking it to landfill, start piling it in a corner. This palace of lush biodegrading rubbish will feed legions of insects. 

It’s a sort of maximalist approach to mulching, which breaking down and warming the soil is also Earth (and back)-friendly — suppressing weeds in your more formal beds. Larger branch mountains and caverns can provide shelter to small mammals such as voles and hedgehogs — (worth keeping in mind if you come to move it). Ensure the hibernation period is over after the last frost and that you go gently when working in these areas. If you’re in touch with your neighbours, talk about leaving corridors in the hedging open to allow two gardens to become one territory for wandering animals.

An insect hotel is something we’ve discussed before, and it’s a perfect afternoon project for the whole family. All you need are a few bricks, some off-cut wood and various dry matter to detail the ‘rooms’ and invite winged and burrowing animals to investigate, feed, shelter and breed.

Dick Warner, writing for this paper some years ago, reminded me that creating a hotel from the ground up provides a home for both insects who thrive in damper conditions on the Ground Floor, and those (like bees and wasps) who prefer something more airy and well ventilated in the Penthouse. Here’s Fiann Ó Nualláin’s brilliant guide to a “seasonal B&B” https://www.irishexaminer. com/property/homeandoutdoors/arid-20461305.html. If you really don’t want to build something, The Garden Shop offers mini bug hotels to fix to a fence at €14, or €13 each for three, thegardenshop.ie.

FEED THE BIRDS

Feeding and watering birds can be a year-round activity, and by presenting your native flock with a variety of seed types at the feeders you will attract a wide array of species. With the breeding season in full flight, the quality of what you present is even more important, as it may be carried back to the nest site — a disaster if young birds are poisoned or choked on your gifts. 

Birdwatch Ireland advises against fat and suet product during the spring-summer — keep these energy-rich treats for the colder months. Instead, it suggests: “Mealworms are expensive, but high in protein and are loved by robins, dunnocks and other species that prefer to eat insects above all else. You can add them in with the seeds in your feeder if you want or scatter them on a bird table or on the ground. This is a good food to provide in the spring and summer in particular”, birdwatch.ie.

Water is vital for both drinking and preening — an ideal chance to fashion a lovely splash spot where you can watch your birds. Keep the area shallow, or ramped in an area of your pond.

The direct feeding you do is important of course, but the indirect feeding you can help, encouraging nectar, pollen, berries and seed-heads, can be included in your choice of shrubs, trees and flowers — including container planting.

By improving what’s creeping about on the food chain, with a greater abundance and diversity of insect life in the garden, the birds will instantly benefit. This means easing up on breaking out the chemistry every time something with more than two legs arrives on a leaf or stem. Birds are one of your best natural defences against an explosion of pests.

Flowering plants are obviously hugely important in this area of wilding things up — so give more attention to annuals and perennials to last the full stretch of the spring/summer season. Hedging rather than blank fencing — again, shelter, queuing and feeding positions for small birds year-round.

SPRING DETOX

Choosing the right disease and pest resistant plants that will reduce the need for chemical or manual intervention and promoting useful predators amid the plants are long known practices enjoyed by all organic gardeners. 

The Royal Horticultural Society points out that it really is a matter of attitude and that “a low level of (cosmetic) pest or disease damage is usually acceptable and there is, therefore, no need to use pesticides” (rhs.org.uk). There’s a lot to be said for putting up with a few daisies and dandelions around the lawn. Introducing any chemistry, even those detailed for amateur gardening, is something to take seriously.

Examine first what is acceptable to you with your ornamental and food growing before reaching for a product emblazoned with precautions. Having found the correct product to prevent serious damage or the complete loss of the plants, use the solution within the finest limits possible.

Spot treat rather than broadcast spray. Spend the rest of the summer learning more about natural methods including correct planting and clearing practices, and promoting your own little army of bugs and biology — nematodes, sticky traps and simple manual removal (like a good hosing down) to control pests. 

Fruithill Farm and many good horticultural outlets in Ireland offer predators for aphids, whitefly, red spider mite and caterpillars; fruithillfarm.com. Iron oxide slug pellets and copper bands are effective and won’t harm birds, hedgehogs, bees or other soil organisms.

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