Last August, our wildlife columnist Adrian Thomas gave us a sneak peek of the suburban garden he’s restoring. When he took it on in December 2014 it was an acre of impenetrable thicket. His aim is for the garden to become a great place for wildlife, but also somewhere to grow flowers and vegetables, with pleasing vistas and a surprise around every corner. Now, just over two years in, here’s his progress report...
When I took on this garden I knew it was going to be a five-year process to get the basics in place. You know what? - so far it's on track. I can't believe it myself. It’s taking some elbow grease to get there, and some end-of-day flopping on the sofa, barely able to move. But I'm beginning to believe that one day the proverbial phoenix might indeed rise from the ashes.
If the first year was dominated by digging the pond and preparing six new vegetable beds, so the second year has been more about consolidation. After all, once you've started parts of the garden, you can't just abandon them – they have to be maintained. This means that the rate of progress on other parts of the garden has inevitably slowed a little.
However, the grand plan is coming together, helped by the final burst of major tree work in January. It's important to know your limits in a garden, and shinning 40-feet up a tree with a chainsaw is one of them. This sort of work is best left in the hands of fully trained professionals.
When I took on the garden it had more than 400 trees and large shrubs to take in hand, creating an almost closed canopy. After all the judicious tree felling I'm now down to perhaps 250 trees, which means light is streaming into many a long-hidden corner of the garden.
I'd given some of the most neglected fruit trees a final year to prove themselves – a stay of execution if you like – but after another barren fruiting year, and with many showing signs of long-term canker and others with trunks closer to horizontal than vertical, they finally faced the chop. It seemed brutal, but I still have more than enough fruit trees left to keep me full of crumble and the blackbirds full of windfalls for months.
Initially I’d brought more than 400 favourite plants from my previous garden, as potted cuttings and divisions. Getting some of those out of their pots and into the ground was important, both to reduce the watering burden through the summer and to stop them sulking. That meant digging some holding beds in areas where I'm due to have bee and butterfly borders in the future. Once out of their pots, the plants seemed tiny but soon began to bulk up and thrive. Some will need further transplanting later into their final positions, but at least I'll be working with larger and happier plants.
One of the things I think is essential with any new garden project is to take photos before, during and after. It’s easy to forget exactly how things used to look. I try to take my shots from pretty much the same position so that I have a direct visual comparison, and it’s those taken from the bedroom window that have really given me confidence that I'm making progress.
The thing that made the biggest difference to that upstairs view this year was the laying of the first bit of proper turf. It was far from simple. The ground required considerable preparation, with me digging in of two tonnes of topsoil and another two of sharp sand. For such large bags, once spread on the ground the layer seemed pitiful but hopefully it’ll help reduce the clay quagmire there previously. Now the new turf is laid it gives the pond a deep green embrace. It’s amazing how something that simple can begin to make a garden design feel more coherent; the far side of the pond is now definitely on the list to do next autumn.
It's when I look out at this view, or when the sunset sky is reflected in the ripples on the pond, or the sparrows nip in and out of their new nestboxes, that I like to pause and pat myself on the back. Bit by bit it's all coming together and it’s definitely worth it. *
Adrian’s top tips
Restoring an overgrown garden is hard work but not impossible. Here are a few tips:
• Do it little and often. A little bit of work done regularly helps keep things moving - committing to just an hour three or four times a week soon brings big changes.
• Listen to your plants. Stick to those that love your conditions as you won't have time to mollycoddle those that just aren't suited.
• Take time with trees. Be careful when planting trees – choose those that won't become a problem in the future, and site them carefully. You don’t want to have to move them next year.
• Make a clear plan. Sketch out the garden on paper – it will evolve, but it gives you a target to aim for. Don't be afraid to be ambitious!
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by Adrian Thomas
Among the bare boughs, empty beds and winter gloom, there’s one thing guaranteed to make the winter garden feel alive – garden birds. On good days, it can be as busy as Spaghetti Junction out there at your feeders, with all sorts of characters zooming to and fro. No wonder so many of us go to the time, effort and expense of pulling on our overcoats and wellies and heading out in all weathers to top up their supplies; that, and the human tendency towards kindness, of course.
There’s no doubting that the supplementary food we provide helps sustain many birds that would otherwise succumb under winter’s harsh rule. It’s not so much that our handouts stop them starving; what it does is keep the birds fit and strong and hence able to cope with the cold, ward off disease and evade predators. But there are some definite ‘do’s and don’t’s’ to ensure that we’re providing our birds with the best support possible, and not doing harm when we mean to do good.
Keep it clean
The one aspect that often gets overlooked is the level of hygiene we maintain in feeding areas. In our own kitchens or in our pets’ bowls, we wouldn’t leave food to go mouldy, and we wouldn’t forget to give everything a thorough clean on a regular basis, but this is what can happen around bird feeders.
Such laxness brings three undesirable results. First, any excess food left lying around can be a magnet for unintended guests such as rodents. I can cope with a few cute wood mice nibbling my peanuts, but I don’t want rats, and nor do my neighbours. The best way to ensure minimal spillage is to only buy quality feeders, as cheap versions can leak seed through badly designed feeding ports.
The second problem with unhygienic feeders is simply that birds will shun them. Our feathered friends don’t like festering food any more than you do, and I’ve even seen feeders in which the seed is so old and damp that it has actually sprouted.
More than anything, though, the tragedy of poor hygiene is that it can be a breeding ground for disease. Birds are just as prone to illness as we are. In particular, in the last few years we’ve seen a terrible epidemic of something called trichomonosis which has been catastrophic for greenfinches: their numbers have nosedived because of it. ‘Tricho’ (as it is often called) is a pathogen that blocks the poor birds’ throats. They sit, listless, on birdtables and birdbaths, trying but failing to swallow seeds or drink water, and in doing so spreading the disease.
The solutions are simple and just require a bit of effort and discipline.
· Every couple of weeks put on your ‘bird table marigolds’ (not the pair you use in the kitchen!) and wash your empty feeders and bird tables down with a dilute disinfectant (1 part disinfectant to 20 parts water), swilling them off down the drain.
· Manage how much food you put out so there’s never excess lying about.
· Use hanging feeders rather than feeding on flat surfaces; the latter are prone to becoming soiled.
· Use high quality foods that will get scoffed. Too many cheaper foods are full of chaff and substandard seeds that will be tossed aside by your discerning guests
It’s not just food that birds need in winter; they still need to wash it down with a drink, and the washing also extends to their plumage. It may seem odd to us to see birds bathing in ice-cold water when logic says they should be trying to stay warm, but they need to keep their feathers in tip top condition as much in winter as at any other time of year.
It means that keeping birdbaths free of ice is as important now as at other times of year. Just don’t turn to antifreeze or salt to achieve it. Instead, after a cold night take out a kettle of warm water, being careful not to crack your birdbath with the change of temperature.
There is one more thing to do in winter for your wildlife, and it is all about building for the future. A berry-bearing shrub or native hedge planted now won’t come into its own for five years or so, but leave that job until next year and it won’t be ready for six! As with so many things in the garden, those tasks which seem so big and daunting before you begin become surprisingly achievable once you get going! Your wildlife will thank you for it.
Damp autumn days herald the arrival of fungi in the garden
Apart from a few gardeners who grow edible mushrooms in a box, fungi don’t get much of a look-in in gardening circles. There aren’t any ‘toadstool gardens’ to go and visit; I can’t recall them featuring in a Chelsea garden, and people don’t tend to nurture them as they might birds or butterflies.
And yet fungi are an integral part of everyone’s garden, and something we all notice and comment on whenever their troupes of little caps appear. They seem to spring up as if by magic, often overnight, responding to autumn’s damp stimulusand bursting out from rotting logs, pilesof straw and even lawns.
I’m not claiming that they’re lovable, but there’s certainly something fascinating albeit mysterious about them. The world of toadstools is the realm of hobgoblins and fairies, of poisons and potions. Their names match this image, for they include puffballs and earthstars, elfcupsand stinkhorns, while at their most sinister there are witches’ butter, dead man’s fingers, the destroying angel and the deathcap.
By Adrian Thomas
By Adrian Thomas
Ponds are brilliant, there's no getting away from it. But for many of us a pond just isn't feasible – they’re a stretch too far, either for your bank balance or for your back. It may be that you rent your house so can't go digging holes, or you live on the tenth floor, or you have very young children and it would be too much of a hazard. So how can you go about getting water into the garden, with all the benefits for you and for wildlife, without having bring out the excavator? Here are some ideas to try.
1. Create a rain garden
Still a bit of a novelty, rain gardens are a trendy new form of wetland gardening. The concept is simple: when rain falls on our houses, instead of whisking it away into drains, the idea is to hold some of the water back to gently percolate away - rather than flood the folks downstream.
To hang onto that water it's possible to create a shallow depression or 'scrape' into which rain water is directed, where it can then sit on the surface for a while. All you need to do is create a low earth bank around the far edge and redirect the downpipe from your roof into it.
No liner is required. What you end up with is something that occasionally has a few inches of standing water, but most of the time is just damp, very much like a bog garden but without most of the digging or expense!
2. Use a Belfast sink
If putting a pond in the ground isn't possible, why not put one above ground! Old Belfast sinks are perfect and can be tracked down for £50 from a salvage yard. Glue the plug in place with silicone and put in a layer of washed gravel. Half barrels can be great too, although it's best to put a liner in them to ensure they can’t leak. Whatever you use, make sure you put your mini-pond in position before you fill it; you won't be able to budge it once it’s full.
Make sure creatures can get in and out safely. Placing a strategic stick or stepping stones, both inside and outside the pond, should do the trick. Fill with rainwater (tap water is too full of chemicals) and then plant it up with small pond plants such as marsh marigold and a stripy Equisetum hyemale and maybe a dwarf water-lily. Use the special mesh plant pots for aquatic plants and a very low nutrient, gritty soil, or you'll be plagued with algae.
3. Make a birdbath in a dustbin lid
Here's something I made in my own garden that cost me less than a tenner! My regular customers to my 'wash and go' salon are blackbirds, house sparrows and robins, but I've had visits from everything, from blackcaps to blue tits. Making it took all of 10 minutes.
1. Find a flat surface and arrange four bricks in a square. Put an upturned dustbin lid on top of them, jiggling the bricks to ensure that the lid is supported. I used a galvanised metal lid, but plastic will be fine.
2. Put a layer of washed pebbles into the lid. They give better perches for birds than the slippery surface of the lid.
3. Add water – tap water is fine.
You’ll need to give the lid a periodic clean out with a mild disinfectant and swish-through of the pebbles, plus you'll need to top it up in hot weather and after the swooshing of wood pigeons. If you are visited by lots of cats, consider raising the birdbath up on more bricks to give the birds a better view.
• This activity is adapted from the newly revamped RSPB Giving Nature a Home project, which sets out dozens of activities for you to try that will help save nature in your garden.
By Adrian Thomas
AS WE GO ABOUT our gardens, we can’t help but become aware of little creatures that are, let’s face it, never going to win a beauty contest. These are the minibeasts that can be found in every garden in spadefuls of soil or under pots and logs.
We may know some of them by name (centipedes, woodlice and daddy-long-legs, for example), others just fall under the general heading of ‘creepy crawlies’. Neither of these words – ‘creepy’ or ‘crawly’ – inspires affection.
Nevertheless, as one who’s always up for a challenge, I’m on a mission to help people appreciate them. Many of them are good news for the gardener and only a relative few mean trouble. Part of understanding a garden is recognising the roles played by all the creatures in it, so I want to share the unsung heroes that help the plant world go round. They form key links in the complex web of life and without them, much-loved visitors such as birds and hedgehogs wouldn’t survive. The bottom line is that our gardens need the ugly brigade!
Before we start, we should ask why these little creatures sometimes make our skin crawl. Take spiders for instance. They’re hardly a threat to us. Of the 650 or so species in the UK, only about 12 have large enough fangs to actually pierce human skin, and only two or three of those can cause a painful reaction. The number of people in this country who have to attend a doctor’s surgery due to a spider bite is tiny, and yet an estimated 30% of us have a full-blown phobia of them.
This phobia is what scientists call an ‘evolutionarily persistent ancestral hazard’. Our forebears in Africa lived in an environment where you did have to watch out for deadly spiders or risk being killed by one, and the fear persists in us today even though we are no longer living in that danger zone.
The same fear can extend to anything small, scuttling, long legged or hairy. As well as arachnophobia, I bet some readers have vermiphobia: a fear of maggots! That, too, is a distant hard-wired memory warning us that where there is decay there is danger. But when we get to know some of these creatures better, we can kick these phobias into touch.
So here we go, deep breath, stay calm: let’s meet some critters that I think we can all learn to love a little bit more...
Ladybirds If you find this little armour-plated black insect among your flowers, you’re looking at a juvenile ladybird. The larvae can be found on all sorts of plants and in most species their mission in life is to find and eat aphids! The species you’re most likely to see is the harlequin ladybird, an accidental import from Asia that has the unfortunate habit of eating other ladybird larvae as well as aphids. It has two yellow ‘L’ shapes down its back and four yellow spines. Our native seven-spot ladybird species has four yellow dots half way along its body
Lacewings There are 14 species of lacewing in the UK and both the adults and larvae will feast on aphids and other insect pests. The larvae suck the aphids’ juices and may even use the drained bodies to hide under. Female lacewings lay each egg on a sticky thread that hardens in the air, leaving the egg on a slender stalk. Generally some adults hibernate, although many perish. The most familiar lacewings are those with beautiful green wings, with large, metallic-coloured eyes, earning them their alternate name of ‘goldeneyes’.
Flies We tend to think of flies as irritating things that buzz around our food and carry germs. However, out in the garden there are all manner of beneficial flies: some pollinating flowers, others playing a vital role in the diet of birds and bats. Many hoverflies have grubs which join ladybird and lacewing larvae in eating aphids. I feel we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the flies that dispense so quickly of carrion and dung. It’s a dirty job, and I’d rather they were doing it than me! One of the commonest dung visitors is the yellow dung fly.
Springtails Under every log and in every sample of soil you’ll find hundreds of tiny springtails. There are millions of them in your garden, each no bigger than a comma on this page. Blink, and you’ll miss them because, although they can’t fly, they have an amazing ability to jump. Under a springtail’s body is a modified pair of legs like a loaded spring, called the furcula. When they feel they’re in danger (such as when you uncover them) ‘ping’ goes the spring and they apparently disappear into thin air. They’re harmless to humans, but with up to 100,000 in every square metre, they are a vital link in the garden foodchain.
Centipedes Turn over any log and I bet a flat, orange centipede scarpers away. The chances are that it actually only has 15 pairs of legs as the common centipede (which is indeed very common) doesn’t have the hundred legs its name implies. Centipedes kill by poisoning their prey, but they are totally harmless to humans and would prefer never to meet us if at all possible. Instead, their venom is used against all sorts of spiders and other small creatures, helping to keep the garden ecosystem in balance.
Woodlice It’s amazing to think woodlice are actually cousins of crabs and shrimps. They’re effectively water creatures that have found a way to survive on land, albeit in dark, damp places. If they’re exposed to light, they’re not only vulnerable to attack by predators such as birds, but they can desiccate in minutes – which is why they scuttle for cover as fast as their 14 little legs can carry them. Their job is to help munch up all manner of spent organic material, making it easier for micro-organisms to break it down further. Most compost heaps are full of coarse material that needs lots of work, and these guys are your best buddies there.
By Adrian Thomas
HAVE YOU EVER VISITED the mountains of Europe? As Maria Von Trapp knew so well, the hills are alive with fresh air, grand scenery and swathes of wildflowers abounding with wildlife. One of the things that delights me most is the fact that people living in those mountain villages rarely seem to mow their lawns. Instead, the wooden mountain chalets rise out of a bed of swaying grasses dotted with orchids and scabious, globeflowers (trollius) and gentians. There, too, butterflies, grasshoppers and other meadow creatures thrive.
You might put this (apparently) laissez faire attitude down to most of the gardens being on a steep slope and hence a nightmare to negotiate with a mower.
Actually, the grass is often saved for hay for the local shepherd and his flock. But I’m sure there’s something cultural, too – the mountain communities don’t view a gently waving meadow as ugly or untidy; they appreciate its pastoral beauty.
Compare that with back home in Blighty, where we’ve quite a different culture. It’s a mark of domestic pride if your lawn is smooth as a billiard table, whereas it’s a sign of neglect if the grass is at all shaggy. Try Googling ‘beautiful lawn’ and the pages of images that come up show the flattest, greenest crew-cuts, rolled into regimented stripes.
Such precision lawns do look stunning, but, I believe that instinct of seeking perfection can be turned in quite a different direction.
If you see the measure of lawn success as how many beautiful wildflowers poke their heads up through the green, or how many butterflies linger within it, a well-manicured lawn would score zero. Release a lawn from its straightjacket and you unlock a large part of your garden’s potential for wildlife, plus extra time and new pleasures for you.
A close-cropped lawn can offer some benefits for nature: starlings and blackbirds, for example, are likely to probe the surface (as long as the lawn hasn’t been treated with a cocktail of pesticides). But most wildlife will only make a home here if the plants within a lawn have the freedom to ‘express’ themselves.
One of the most visible and desirable groups of grassland wildlife are butterflies. Of the 23 species that are most common in the UK, eight have caterpillars that feed on meadow grasses and a further two use specific wildflowers growing in long grass. Short lawn grass just doesn’t give them the cover and food they need.
Longer grass is like a mini jungle, a maze of a million and more stems and leaves. Deep within that jungle, it remains damper and stiller and safer for a whole micro-community. The wealth of invertebrates, plus the added bounty of seeds, then provides food for larger creatures, from frogs and field voles to hedgehogs, bats and even owls.
But it’s perhaps when flowering plants are given the opportunity to actually bloom that you fulfil the value of a longer lawn. Even if it’s just daisies, speedwells or buttercups, suddenly there’s a wealth of nectar and pollen opening up fast-food enterprises for many pollinators to enjoy.
The good news is that a longer lawn can still look worthy of the Chelsea Flower Show. All it takes is to mow a neat border around a swathe of longer grass and it immediately says that it’s intentional, you know what you’re doing and you do care about appearances! It’s almost like creating an instant green flowerbed, filled to bursting with life.
Some gardeners do this in straight lines, creating geometric and symmetrical blocks of longer grass. Equally effective, but for a softer effect, longer grass can be left in sweeping, organic shapes.
Or for a sense of adventure, why not mow a labyrinth of paths through the long grass where kids (even of the grown-up kind!) can chase each other? The added bonus is that wildlife will also navigate the paths while safely hidden by the walls of long grass.
You may still need areas of short grass for entertaining or for kids to play football, but you don’t have to use your whole lawn as meadow. However, the larger the area of long grass, the greater the wildlife benefit.
And think of the time and energy saved given the reduced amount of mowing needed! In our time-starved world, I don’t see this as lazy gardening: these are lawns for the 21st century. It’s high time we instigated a long-grass revolution in our nation’s gardens!