5 Environmentally-Friendly Ideas to Take Home from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

1. Wildflower Power

Everywhere you turn at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, indigenous trees, shrubs and perennials are interpersed with native biennial and annual wildflowers. The gardens are awash with hornbeam, birch, willow, yew, guelder rose, cow parsley, foxglove, ragged robin and sedum. The pinks of red campion and ragged robin are particularly conspicuous across the showground, creating a frothy haze around the garden borders.

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‘R’ is for RHS, Red Campion and Ragged Robin

We’re all aware of the importance of growing flowers for pollinators and there are many different ways to create a mini-meadow even in the smallest garden. While pollinator mixes and seed mixes for pictorial meadows do provide pollen and nectar for pollinating insects, unfortunately they do little to support the huge numbers of other invertebrates that feed on indigenous flora. So if you can keep even a small area of the garden for native meadow flowers, you will be creating the best garden habitat for all manner of invertebrates that, in turn, support healthy local ecosystems.

One way to create a mini-meadow is to add wild flower plants as we are doing in our garden this year. I bought 140 plug plants from Naturescape a month ago – some have been planted in bare areas and some I’m growing on to add to wild patches at the edge of the lawn. Plants include a range of shade and sun lovers – ox-eye daisies, red and white campion, garlic mustard, mallow, yarrow, field scabious, knapweed and selfheal. I can’t wait to see the flowers develop later in the summer and to investigate what invertebrates these native plants attract to my garden.

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Wildflower turf contains a mix of many native annuals and perennials

Another way to create an area of meadow is to use wildflower turf. When I talked to Lindum, who are showcasing their turf at Chelsea this week, they explained that wildflower turf is now a hugely popular product – demonstrating the growing desire of UK gardeners to support biodiversity in their own backyard. The wildflower turf is grown on a biodegradable backing that breaks down completely as the plants establish, and it includes a wide range of plants – 27 native wildflower species in total. 

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Lindum also sell sedum matting

2. Peat-Free Potential

As always, I made a bee-line for Dalefoot Composts, who are launching their new peat-free tomato compost at Chelsea this year. I’m looking forward to trying it when I pot on my tomatoes next week. The wool-based compost is designed specifically for tomatoes, reducing your workload and environmental impact as plants do not need additional feed during the growing season (the compost has all the nutrients the developing flowers and fruit need) and watering requirements are reduced by 50%.

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Dalefoot Composts have a wide range including the new tomato compost. Image Credit: Dalefoot Composts

3. Circular Design

The Morgan Stanley Garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw, considers ways to manage resources in more sustainable ways, beginning with the creation of the show garden itself. From the domed yew balls to the spherical sculptures, the shapes in the garden depict the cyclical pathway of recycled products that keep materials in circulation for as long as possible. The Hi-Vis jackets and plant pots are made from recycled materials, the flooring is constructed out of bamboo, a rapidly renewable resource, and the rear relaxation pod is clad in an ultra-thin layer of stone that reduces demands on natural resources. These lightweight materials also lower the transportation carbon footprint and reduce the structural demands on the building.  

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In the past few years, the RHS has made huge steps in ensuring that gardens and their products and plants are reused across London and the UK. This year’s Morgan Stanley Garden is destined to be repurposed within the local community by Groundwork London. It would be great to see the commitment to reuse, recycling and minimising energy use embodied in the Morgan Stanley Garden rolled out across all Chelsea show gardens in future years.

4. Growing Heritage and Heirloom

Pennard Plants always creates a fabulous garden in the Great Pavilion and this year is no exception. Next month they have the honour of being RHS Master Growers at Chatsworth Flower Show – demonstrating the RHS commitment to growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. 95% Pennard Plants’ seeds are heritage or heirloom varieties and they offer 500 plant cultivars in their nursery and online. Providing such a wide range of different cultivars helps to conserve genetic variation for the future.

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Pennard Plants’ 2019 Chelsea Dig for Victory Garden complete with Anderson Shelter

At this year’s show Pennard Plants are launching the blight-resistant tomato ‘Cocktail Crush’ which produces sweet, small fruits with an acid tang. Blight has become more prevalent in the past 30 years and there are no chemical controls available. 

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‘Oh Happy Day’ – another blight-resistant cultivar available from Pennard Plants

The best option to avoid blight on outdoor tomatoes is to maintain good plant hygiene, maximise airflow around plants by trimming foliage and sideshoots, and growing blight-resistant cultivars like ‘Cocktail Crush’, ‘Oh Happy Day’, ‘Crimson Crush’ and ‘Nagina’ (another new introduction from the nursery).Pennard Plants is also one of the best UK nurseries for unusual edibles – this year I picked a new plant to try – Epazote or Wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosides). A native of Central and South America, this leafy herb was used by the Aztecs in tea, as a leafy vegetable (used sparingly) and to favour bean and rice dishes. Believed to be an aid to prevent flatulence, this would also seem to be the perfect companion plant for anyone growing Jerusalem artichokes this year.

5. Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon finance projects across the UK, planting woodland and restoring peatland with support from both companies and individuals who want to mitigate their carbon footprint. They are certified under the Woodland Carbon CO2de, meaning their carbon capture statistics are based on sound science, the woodland has the right species in the right place and sites are sustainably managed after planting. They also explained to me that they undertake survey work after planting to check that the woodland is having a beneficial effect on biodiversity.

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Riparian woodland creation in the Cheviots. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Carbon offsetting is a complex issue. If companies and individuals use it as a smokescreen or a way of assuaging their guilt whilst continuing to live and work in an unsustainable manner, then offsetting may well have negative net effects. If, however, offsetting is practised as part of a broader sustainable lifestyle, then it could be argued that it has a place in an environmentally responsible lifestyle. I might, for example, choose to offset the carbon produced by our small amount of driving, whilst saving for an electric car – we’re hoping it won’t be long now! And there’s no doubt that the seven million trees planted by Forest Carbon since 2006 and projects like the peatland restoration at Dryhope in the Scottish Borders and Doddington North Forest – a new 350 hectare forest in Northumberland – are beneficial to people and wildlife. 

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Native woodland creation near Dunbar. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon are running a new scheme called the Carbon Club for individuals and families to offset their carbon footprint with a monthly payment which helps fund afforestation and peatland restoration. Alongside undertaking other steps to minimise carbon footprints, this might be a suitable option for some.

 

What are your opinions on wildflower planting, peat-free compost, sustainable design at RHS flower shows and carbon offsetting? Please leave me a comment about what you believe to be the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly options for gardeners. Thank you.

As always, my observations and suggestions come from my own opinions on which companies and gardens are offering environmentally-friendly choices for the consumer. I have no connection to Lindum or Forest Carbon except through the discussions I’ve had with them; I’ve bought from Naturescape and was pleased with the quality of the plug plants.

I have, on several occasions, been given a few of packets of seed by Pennard Plants to trial, but I have spent far more buying seed and plants from them. This is also the case with Dalefoot Composts who have sent me bags in the past (including the tomato compost) to trial. However, I also purchase the majority of my peat-free compost supply from them and have done for several years now. I support these companies because they offer fabulous products and really care about the environment.

Related Articles:

Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Oh Happy Day! New Tomatoes, Pepper and Watermelon Launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Family Fun: The Great British Wildflower Hunt

Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

What Nestbox Where?

During the People’s Walk for Wildlife and the rewilding conference in Cambridge last year, I learnt in disbelief about the dramatic declines in insect, bird, mammal and wild plant populations since the 1970s – the decade in which I was born. This year I have resolved to put nature at the heart of our garden in an effort to support the natural world in my small piece of over 400,000 hectares of gardens across the UK – a collective habitat with the potential to make a real difference for wildlife.

We already feed the birds and have nestboxes; we grow plants for pollinating insects and garden organically without peat. So I am beginning to look for more ways to make our garden accessible and welcoming for wild creatures. We are currently adding a range of nestboxes for different species of birds to the small hole boxes we already have, and there are plans to install a barrel pond, create a small wild flower lawn, build hedgehog habitat beneath log piles and monitor the garden birds, amphibians, mammals, mini-beasts and wildflowers throughout the year.

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Building, installing and monitoring nestboxes is a great activity for all the family. My dad made this robin box and the kids helped him put it up

In early March there’s still time to put up nestboxes before the breeding season is in full swing, so this seems like a good place to start. I hope you’ll join me throughout the year, as we encourage as much wildlife into our modest-sized garden as possible.

What nestbox where?

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Blue tits laid in one of our small hole nestboxes last year

When putting up nestboxes, it is important to ensure they do not get overheated during warmer weather. Unless they are sited in good shade, it is best to site them on a wall or tree, facing between north and east, so that they are protected from the sun for much of the day. Unless otherwise stated, it is advisable to fit them at least 1.5 – 2m above the ground. It is also worth remembering to put them out of reach of neighbouring cats.

As a general rule, it is best to avoid the “decorative” nestboxes frequently seen in garden centres and some craft shops; they are often too small and may have the hole too close to the floor of the box (a distance of at least 120mm is recommended).

Small Hole Nestbox

This traditional nestbox is frequently used by Blue Tits and Great Tits, depending on the size of the hole (Great Tits need a hole with a minimum diameter of 28mm, while Blue Tits can fit through a 25mm hole). If you are lucky enough to have Coal Tits in your garden, they will also sometimes use artificial nest sites (again, a 25mm hole is big enough for them).

We’ve had both great and blue tits nesting in the small hole boxes in the garden

House Sparrow Terrace

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House sparrow populations have declined by 50-60% since the 1970s and it’s now a red-list species of high conservation concern

House Sparrows generally nest in small colonies and will readily accept boxes if there are several close together. For this reason, many wildlife product suppliers offer “House Sparrow Terraces”, which usually take the form of a long box with 3 separate compartments. However, the same effect can be achieved by placing three, or more, boxes in close proximity to one another. Being somewhat bigger than Great Tits, House Sparrows need an entrance hole of at least 32mm diameter. Boxes should be at least 2m above the ground and, preferably, somewhere that is not subject to too much human disturbance.

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I saw sparrows with nest material on top of this box last week

Medium Hole Nestbox

Starlings typically nest in holes in trees or under roofing tiles if they can get access. They happily accept nestboxes but need more space than smaller species, so use a slightly larger box with an entrance hole of 45mm. Boxes should be placed at least 2.5m off the ground.

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This nestbox is destined for the side of the house – our neighbours already have starlings nesting under their eaves

Open-Fronted Nestbox

These boxes are aimed primarily at Robins although will sometimes be used by Wrens. Being open-fronted, they are more susceptible to predation than conventional nestboxes and should be placed in a well concealed site such as under overhanging ivy or clematis. Height off the ground is unimportant although, again, it is best to try to keep them out of reach of the local cats.

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My dad constructed this open-fronted box and the kids helped him install it under our winter-flowering clematis

Swifts and House Martins 

Swifts have declined as a breeding species in Britain as many older buildings with access to the eaves have been demolished and new houses do not usually offer any access. Specially designed Swift boxes can be put up under the eaves of your house but it might be necessary to play Swift calls throughout the summer months to attract them to the site. Artificial nests for House Martins are also available and can be fixed under the eaves.

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House martin boxes mimic their natural mud nests, like this one

Other Species

Many species will not nest in boxes. Some that will, but are less likely to be encountered in most gardens are listed below:

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Some birds – like this long-tailed tit – prefer to make their own nests

Nuthatch
Pied Wagtail
Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Redstart
Jackdaw
Stock Dove
Tawny Owl

If you live somewhere that has any of these species and would like to try to get them to nest in your garden, I would recommend “The BTO Nestbox Guide” by Chris du Feu, an excellent publication, with details of a wide range of nestboxes. Good quality nestboxes can be bought from the RSPB, CJ Wildlife, Ark Wildlife and other reputable wildlife equipment providers.

What Next?

If you have a nestbox in your garden, why not take part in the British Trust for Ornithology’s “Nestbox Challenge”. They provide guidance on how to monitor nesting birds safely, without causing them to desert their eggs or chicks.

With thanks to bird guru, Alan Garner, aka my generous, talented and fabulous dad! If you’d like to follow our garden rewilding this year, just click below to subscribe. 

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Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Last month I wrote Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside exploring the inextricable links between gardens and the wider landscape  – with all the benefits and responsibilities this entails. As we become increasingly aware of the direct effect of our collective actions on the environment, complex issues such as the use of plastic, energy and peat in gardening are under scrutiny. We are beginning to accept that sustainable energy use and a circular economy are vital if we are to develop a world where our children can grow up to enjoy the pleasures, horticultural or otherwise, that we currently do.

One perennial issue in the garden is the use of peat. The arguments against peat use are much rehearsed and despite repeated undertakings by the government to phase out the use of peat in horticulture, there has been depressingly little progress in the past 20 years. The 2010 target to reduce peat use in composts by 90% was comprehensively missed and the same was true of the 2015 aim for all public procurement to be peat free by 2015. Unfortunately, the most recent target to stop the use of peat by 2020 by amateur gardeners looks set to go the same way.

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Degraded blanket bog

One argument which is often made against peat-free compost is the environmental impact of transporting materials like coir long distances (although much of our peat now comes from Ireland, Canada and the Baltic). Another problem has been quality – I’ve seen this in my own garden with green waste based peat-free compost which often contains a large quantity of woody material, isn’t suitable for either ericaceous plants or seed sowing, and contains fungus gnat eggs which then hatch and fill my house with clouds of irritating sciarid flies.

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Damage caused by peat extraction

To overcome these issues, a few years ago I sourced peat-free seed compost from Dalefoot Composts and was impressed by the results in comparison to other growing mediums. I’ve used their ericaeous, multipurpose, high strength and bulb composts, all with excellent results – some I’ve been sent to trial, but the majority I’ve bought myself over the years. One of the advantages is its relatively local nature (produced on the family-run farm in the Lake District) and the sustainability of the raw materials used – sheep’s wool and bracken – products which would otherwise have little or no value.

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Bracken cutting for compost

In addition, the sheep’s wool (used for the majority of the composts) retains moisture thus reducing the need to water and both materials have naturally high levels of nutrients so no additional feeding is necessary. I grew my tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers in the high strength compost this year and didn’t add any feed throughout the growing season. Yields increased and I noticed no difference in the size and health of plants or fruit.

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The Dalefoot compost range

Recently I read about the peat bog restoration work undertaken by founders of Dalefoot Composts, Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland over the past 20 years and was keen to find out more. Jane is an ecologist and Simon a seventh-generation Cumbrian sheep farmer, so between them they have a 360-degree perspective on the damaging operation of peat extraction that has caused the loss of thousands of hectares of peat bog across the UK. Lowland peat bog in England currently covers only one tenth of its original 38,000 hectares due to agricultural drainage, forestry, landfill and peat extraction and many remaining bogs still have permissions to extract peat in the future which are extremely costly to buy out in order to protect the sites.

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Simon and Jane at work on the peat bog 

In 2002 the Government’s advisory body, English Nature, wrote in Peat Bog Conservation:

Today, one of the greatest threats to our peat bogs is from our continued use of peat in the garden. The gardening hobby that brings many of us a great deal of pleasure is doing so at the expense of our wildlife.

Wildlife is certainly one key issue – we’ve known for decades about the importance of peat bogs as a rich and diverse habitat for specially adapted plants and animals like sphagnum moss, butterwort, sundew, bog myrtle, the large heath butterfly, black darter dragonfly and wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover.

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Golden plover in breeding plumage (Image credit: Alan Garner)

More recently we’ve become increasingly aware of the fundamental role peatland environments play in storing carbon (around 3.2 billion tonnes are stored in peatland in the UK), reducing flooding and fires, and providing drinking water (70% of our water comes from peatland river catchments in the UK).¹ The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) also outlines the way ‘peat-dominated landscapes can help to underpin a sustainable rural community as well as providing key benefits to society (eg. water supplies, carbon storage and sequestration) as a whole.’ But they point out that these services can only be provided if ‘peat bog habitat is correctly identified, characterised and thereby managed in an appropriate way’.²

The definition of a bog is a wetland that receives its water exclusively from direct rainfall as opposed to fens where groundwater causes the water-logging. Raised bogs occur in the lowlands where the surface rises over time as a result of peat formation creating a dome shaped bog. In wetter upland conditions peat covers wide areas and is therefore described as blanket bog.

When discussing the restoration work with Jane, I was fascinated by her description of the diversity of peat bog habitat and the huge range of flora (particularly sphagnum moss) which colonize different areas. There are many different types of sphagnum moss – the genus Sphagnum contains around 380 different species – some grow in the water and some on the edge of the bog, but all species hold large quantities of water within their cells (16-26 times their own dry weight). The moss acts as a blanket over the bog which keeps the methane in and, ultimately, becomes peat-forming vegetation.

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Sundew in the sphagnum moss

The UK has disappointingly broad terms for these diverse habitats unlike many peat-rich western nations like Sweden, whose terminology records precisely the individual fen and bog systems. The IUCN states that consequent on this paucity of descriptive language:

most of the UK blanket bog landscape is described only in terms of rather broad vegetation types, which ultimately results in poor understanding of key site features and condition.

There has been much debate recently about the generalisation of terminology for natural landscapes and its effect on our perception of the environment in which we live. In his book on language and the environment, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane discusses the specificity of reference we are losing as whole tranches of vernacular vocabulary for landscape disappear. He suggests:

It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit.³

Learning more about peat bogs has revealed a rich vocabulary which I relish – a world of watershed bogs, saddle bogs, spur bogs, saddleside bogs, basin fens, flushes, kettle holes, schwimgmoor raised bogs and blanket mires. One of the strengths of the restoration work which Jane, Simon and their team undertake is their knowledge and understanding of these varied micro-habitats and the different restoration treatments each requires.

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Pristine blanket bog

Peat bog restoration is a complex and time-consuming process primarily because mires (current peat-forming bogs) are ‘one of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet due to their limited capacity for self repair.’4  Barker and Bland – Jane and Simon’s company – have developed methods using both specially designed machines whose footprint is less than 2 lbs per square inch (less than half the weight of a human’s) and working by hand, depending on the sensitivity of the site.

The first step is to restore the hydrology of the peat bog which will have been damaged by the drainage systems put in place so that peat extraction could take place. Inspired by techniques used in rice paddy fields, the team creates crescents along the drainline, blocking the drains and ditches with peat dams to raise the water table. The hags (the eroded cut edges of the peat) are then reprofiled to prevent further erosion and sphagnum moss is introduced to recolonise the area.

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Timber sediment traps slow the flow of water downstream and enable re-vegetation

The growth tips of sphagnum moss are sustainably harvested from specially selected donor sites – usually local pristine sites as similar to the ecosystem of the restoration site as possible – and within 36 hours these must be spread across the bog in a re-vegetation layer. Sphagnum moss gets its moisture and nutrients from the air: the shallow root system simply acts as an anchor and dies off forming peat when the plant is established, so unlike other plants, moss can be propagated by spreading the growing tips across the new site. In addition to harvesting moss from donor sites, Barker and Bland have built a sphagnum farm in Cumbria to grow different species of moss for their restoration work.

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Re-vegetated bare peat

Two of the most recent peatland restoration projects undertaken by Barker and Bland include Bolton Fell in Cumbria and large blanket bog areas in the Cairngorms. In 2014 the government bought out William Sinclair Holding PLC’s peat extraction rights at Bolton Fell, a 375 hectare site and one of the largest degraded raised peat bogs still capable of natural regeneration in England. Once restoration work started in 2016 the Fell was restored to a sphagnum moss habitat with the year, although it will be many decades before peat depth becomes substantial again beneath the sphagnum moss.

In July this year, Barker and Bland began restoration work on a 134 hectare upland blanket bog site in the Cairngorms as part of the Scottish government’s project to restore 40% of Scotland’s peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030. Over the past five months, six members of the team have been working on re-profiling thousands of metres of hags across the peat bog. This work will continue until Christmas through the first sprinklings of snow.  A further two teams are currently working in the Cairngorms tackling 25,000 metres of peat hags and 1.75 hectares of bare peat. 

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Timber sediment traps across the peat bog

Over the next few years we have difficult decisions to make about how we use our land – either we learn to manage it in sustainable ways or we use up the resources in the short-term and pay for it in the future. Peat bog restoration is only the beginning of a regeneration process that will take many decades to complete, but restoring and managing our peat bogs is a vital step if we want to benefit from the practical services these environments offer and preserve the rich ecosystems which they support.

¹ UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, IUCN
² Peat Bog Ecosystems: Key Definitions, IUCN
³ Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, p. 24
4 Natural England, A review of techniques for monitoring the success of peatland restoration, quoted from (Maltby, 1997)

Image credits: Barker and Bland unless otherwise stated

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Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

in Just-   

spring    when the world is mud-

luscious…                                                                                                                                     

when the world is puddle-wonderful

So wrote the idiosyncratic American poet e.e. cummings in Chansons Innocentes: I, expressing a child’s wide-eyed wonderment and joy upon encountering puddles in early spring. We are all born with this sense of awe but as we grow towards adulthood a lack of exposure to the wonder and intriguing ‘otherness’ of the natural world can blunt this fascination and ultimately extinguish it. 

Nature in the Garden 

Last year, when I asked readers why we love to garden, many of the responses linked gardening with an innate connection to nature and the landscape, often first experienced as a child. Joanne explained that when she was young:

I felt this connection, an enjoyment, a love and nurturing feeling and my passion for plants, flowers and soil was born…

and another gardener, whose love for growing began in 1938 when she first entered ‘the wondrous kingdom of the allotment’, wrote:

[to] sit and watch our own small wildlife going about their daily lives is as good as it gets.

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Kids need access to the natural world in gardens and the countryside. Image credit: Plantlife/Kim Newman

Whether it’s the ability of my tithonia to produce its flaming blooms at the height of my daughter’s head within a year from sowing the claw-shaped seeds or the subterranean mycorrhizal networks connecting the plants in our borders, it’s this fascination with the power and precision of nature that draws many of us into a lifelong relationship with our gardens.

Nature in the Wider Landscape

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So much has changed since I was a kid – the 1970s are my baseline – but the decline in habitat and species began far earlier…

I’ve been captivated by plants, their habitats and the ecosystems which they support, for as long as I can remember, fostered by a childhood spent in red wellies (if the family album is to be believed) helping my dad dig in our vegetable patch, foraging in the Welsh countryside with my grandparents and birdwatching as a member of the Young Ornithologists Club. Since the 1970s and 80s – the decades of my childhood – there has been a dramatic reduction of natural habitat in the UK and an equally rapid decline in populations of a whole range of species, including farmland birds, hedgehogs and insects. In addition, shifting baseline syndrome adjusts our collective memory as each generation believes that their baseline is the original ‘normal’.

Even with the statistics from the 2016 State of Nature Report readily available, with the evidence that in terms of biodiversity we are ‘among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’¹, we continue to sanction the destruction of natural habitat referring to passive ‘losses’ of species like the apple bumblebee, the frosted yellow moth, the Kentish plover and the wryneck, instead of extinctions brought about by human action. As Sir David Attenborough states in the introduction to the State of Nature Report:

Our wonderful nature is in serious trouble and it needs our help
as never before.

For this reason, I joined the People’s Walk for Wildlife last weekend: a peaceful family event attended by around 10,000 people. We walked from Hyde Park to Downing Street to express our shared love of nature and highlight the catastrophic consequences of continuing to destroy our ecosystems and wildlife. Chris Packham and six young conservationists handed A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife to the government. This draft manifesto is a collection of short essays and practical steps written by 18 experts, which if implemented today would make a huge difference for wildlife tomorrow.

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Ten thousand campaigners walked together through London. The BBC and ITV failed to cover the event. Image credit: Luke Dray/Woodland Trust

A Part of Nature, Not Apart From It

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Poster created by RHS Gold Medal winning landscape architect Adam White

Within our private gardens, enclosed by boundary hedges, fences and walls, it’s easy to believe we exist apart from the surrounding countryside, but in reality each garden is a part of the whole landscape – the way we treat the plants, insects, birds, animals, water and soil in our gardens affects what happens beyond our boundaries, on a local and national level and, conversely, changes in the countryside directly affect our gardens.

On a practical  level, our gardens need access to healthy populations of beneficial insects – bees, butterflies, moths, and even wasps to pollinate flowers, creating seeds for subsequent years and fruits to harvest; we need ladybirds, toads and birds to act as pest control in place of the chemicals that simply exacerbate the ecosystem problems.  At a deeper level, we need nature in our lives to enable us relax, to feel part of a seasonal, more natural rhythm of life, to inspire, give solace and to improve our general mental health. Fortunately, the symbiotic nature of the relationship between our gardens and the wider landscape means that any practical steps we take to improve the natural health of our gardens can have far reaching consequences…

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This waxwing was such an inspirational sight and a wonderful reminder that my garden is part of the local landscape. Image credit: Alan Garner

Practical Steps

With over 400,000 hectares² of garden habitat across the UK, gardeners are in a position to make a real difference. Here are a few ideas arising from A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

1. Rewild Our Gardens

We’re unlikely to be in a position to reintroduce beavers or longhorn cattle as Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, have on the Knepp Estate (as Isabella recounts in her ground-breaking book Wilding), but we can all make a space for the wild in our gardens. We know that introducing ponds, long grass, log piles, trees and hedges, and leaving stems and seedheads over winter in our gardens creates food and habitats for a wide range of animals. Even in a small garden, containers with plants for pollinators (single flowers, rather than doubles) and a bird feeder can bring in wildlife from the local area.

This August, at the Great British Birdfair, I met the Butterfly Brothers. Their award-winning wildlife garden designs focus on attracting butterflies to the garden, but they also spoke passionately about the dragonflies, moths and birds which visit the gardens. Jim and Joel have a YouTube channel with practical ideas for encouraging wildlife into the garden and also more information on British butterflies like the ringlet and the chequered skipper. And even if you live somewhere where ringlets are unlikely to visit your garden (we’ve had whites including green-veined, gatekeeper, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell, but never a ringlet), adding a bird box for tits or house sparrows or a hole at the bottom of the fence to give hedgehogs a passageway, makes every garden a little wilder.

For more information, George Monbiot’s proposals regarding rewilding on a wider scale are available on page 33 of  A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

2. Garden Organically

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at Sussex University, bee expert and author of a number of books, including A Sting in the Tail, has written the proposals addressing pesticide use. Whilst these proposals are primarily aimed at agricultural use, there is still the issue of pesticide use in gardens and by commercial growers.

The RHS advice to its members and to ‘millions of other gardeners’ is ‘to avoid using pesticides’. Organic methods help create a sustainable environment for beneficial wildlife like blue tits and ladybirds, which act as natural pest control. Using physical barriers and biological controls is often extremely effective, and if I have holes in some of my hosta leaves when the slugs breach the copper tape barriers, at least I know my plants are part of a natural cycle and nothing I’ve put on the garden will have harmed the toads, hedgehogs and birds that live alongside us.

The manifesto pesticide proposals can be found on page 22 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife

3. Embrace your Growing Space

Garden writer, Kate Bradbury has written the proposals for urban spaces in A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. She begins by discussing the RHS report which found that 24% of front gardens had been lost to paving, concrete or gravel by 2016, as compared to only 8% in 2005. The report suggests that by 2016 more than 4.5 million of Britain’s front gardens were completely paved, and 7.2 million mostly paved. As these spaces disappear, as back gardens are given over to offices, fake grass, decking and low-maintenance paving, and as more gardens become fenced, Kate points out that wild creatures such as amphibians and hedgehogs are excluded from our gardens. Without access through gardens and with the added dangers of roads, it is difficult for many animals to travel through their territories. By making our gardens accessible, we can help to create wildlife corridors and improve the chances of these animals.

If car parking or paving is necessary in front or back gardens it can be kept to a minimum and integrated with planting spaces. The RHS has some excellent advice on how to green your grey front garden to create a practical and wildlife-friendly space. Kate’s other proposals can be found on page 41 of A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.

4. Support Wildlife Charities

Charities like Butterfly Conservation, Bat Conservation Trust, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trusts, The RSPB, The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Woodland Trust and many more organisations, work tirelessly to conserve our wildlife and the habitats upon which they rely. Supporting their work helps to protect plants and animals which then become an important part of garden life.

I joined Plantlife earlier this year when I read that the RHS (of which I’m also a member) has around 500,000 members whilst Plantlife, a charity working to save threatened flowers, plants and fungi, has only 11,000. I love my garden and believe that growing ornamental and edible plants is one of the great joys of life, but my garden is part of a wider landscape – a landscape I treasure and want to help conserve.

References

¹ Introduction to The State of Nature Report, 2016

² For more on garden statistics, Gardens as a Resource for Wildlife by Ken Thompson and Steve is an interesting read.

 

 

I believe that the only way to create a truly balanced garden is to put nature at the heart of it, and then it lives.

BBC Gardeners World Live – All About Inspiration

Visitors to BBC Gardeners World Live have a busy, exciting show ahead of them this year. With 10 show gardens, 6 smaller gardens, more than 20 beautiful borders and over 100 stands selling plants and gardening equipment, the show will provide inspirational ideas for everyone to take home.

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Inspiration is everywhere at this year’s show

Made in Birmingham

As soon as you step into the show garden area the Pullman Carriage and working steam engine draws you into the beautiful Made in Birmingham garden. Not only is the train a spectacular centrepiece, but the surrounding gardens are bursting with colourful vegetables and flowers grown by volunteers from the MIND group in Knowle, supported by Flowers from the Farm.

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Outside the Pullman Carriage I found an impressive vantage point over the whole show

I’m always in awe of giant brassicas and each one of the gargantuan specimens in the allotment section would feed a family for a month! The carriage was made in Birmingham (hence the name of the design) and the garden represents the city’s contribution to agriculture and horticulture throughout the Black Country. After visiting the garden and travelling through the train, it was no surprise to me at the Awards Ceremony when it won Platinum and Best in Show.

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Giant brassicas as seen from the train window

Young Landscapers’ Award

Taking inspiration from an initial design by Diarmuid Gavin, four top young landscapers have paired up to create The Round Garden (The Plants and Paving Company) and The Square Garden (Bespoke Outdoor Spaces) in this brand new competition supported by the Association of Professional Landscapers.

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The Round Garden

Dairmuid discussed the award, emphasising the need to encourage young people into horticultural and landscaping careers, and he also highlighted the lack of female landscapers in the competition – expressing a hope that this will change in future years as the industry becomes seen as more accessible for women. This year, Jacob Botting and Laurence Senior are deserving winners for their elegant square garden with its elegant birches, gentle planting and immaculate slate walls.

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The Square Garden

Beautiful Borders

It is encouraging that many of the borders focus on wildlife-friendly planting, particular on providing food for our pollinating insects. Bee Inspired designed by Aldethea Raymond and Tiernach McDermott for Candide, the country’s newest gardening community, which aim to connect plant-lovers across the country through their gardening app. Their border displays bee-friendly perennials and the best photo of the show uploaded to Candide’s app wins the full border display.

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I love the salvias, heucheras and fairy bug hotel in the Bee Inspired border

 

The Useful and Beautiful border designed by Alexa Ryan-Mills includes more unusual cultivars like Sambucus ‘Chocolate Marzipan’, Linaria ‘Tarte au Citron’ and Achillea ‘Prospero’ to entice pollinators and Alexa told me she has chosen flower types and shapes to accommodate different insects. There are even gooseberries in the border to encourage pollinators – in this case, wasps!

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Alexa’s border shows how planting can be both beautiful and useful

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This beautiful native fox and cubs or orange hawkbit is radiant in the border: their petals reflect ultraviolet light, making them more conspicuous to pollinators

APL Avenue

My favourite garden on the avenue, which was awarded a Gold, is Living Gardens ‘Inspiration in the Raw’ Garden designed by Peter Cowell. This is a deeply tactile garden that draws you in to touch, smell and experience the raw recycled materials and plant up close.

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I felt at home in the ‘Inspiration in the Raw’ garden

DSC_0060 (2).JPGAs I walked through the space I was impressed by the way Peter has divided the garden into rooms for entertaining, cooking, relaxing, with secret areas for children, without losing the unity of the design: each space is subtly different but linked through the use of wood, brick and delicate meadow planting.

I felt grounded in this garden, so I’ll be taking the raw sense of this design back home and experimenting with recycled materials and meadow planting in my own garden in the future. 

What I would give for a heuchera wall like this in my garden – maybe next year!

 

 

 

 

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

The speckled flowers of Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and its creamy white counterpart ‘Jingle Bells’ have begun to festoon the bare apple espaliers with some intrepid stems nearly trailing along the ground. I planted the clematis by the post closest to the dining room window so that we could see it from the table and judging by the profusion of tight buds, we should be enjoying their swaying bells throughout the next few months. I’ve just been chatting to Nick Coffer on BBC Three Counties Radio this afternoon (our chat starts at 2:38:20 on the iplayer link) about the precious beauty of winter flowers and why every garden should have at least one dogwood to shine out in the darkest days (but I would say that!)

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Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

To my mind, one of the key aspects of a successful winter garden, especially on a smaller plot, is being able to see plants from indoors. Although I love nothing more than wrapping the family up like a troupe of miniature snowmen to venture out in frost or snow to explore magnificent winter gardens like those at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Hyde Hall, the average back garden doesn’t have the space for groves of silver birch or sweeping vistas of dogwoods and willows, and much winter viewing will be conducted from the warmth of the home. So it’s important to consider the overall winter structure of the garden first, to ensure that when viewed from the house there will be strong lines to create interest. Then other factors can be explored, such as adding scent and colour to the garden within the evergreen structure.

Structure

The key element of any garden is its underlying structure, created by the hard landscaping (patio, paths, etc…) and its use of evergreen plants, especially trees and shrubs. When other plants lose their foliage as winter approaches, these evergreen stalwarts take centre stage and the bare bones of the garden are revealed.

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Front garden rosemary hedge from January to March

Traditionally low hedges and topiary are used to create this structure, often in box (Buxus sempervirens), yew (Taxus baccata) or holly (Ilex). In my front garden, we’ve adapted this principle by using edible evergreens – trisecting the space with a rosemary hedge (Rosmarinus officinalis) and defining the boundary with a low Chilean guava hedge (Ugni molinae). Alongside three box balls, the hedges give the garden a strong structure in winter and their low height allows my summer flowers to quickly overtop them, softening the garden and creating a less formal atmosphere.

 

Winter bare bones followed by summer profusion

We’ve also used this idea in the side garden, where the relatively slow growing balls of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ create a stunning contrast to the golden gravel. These chocolate-purple shrubs with their sprinkling of light green new leaves are a good alternative to box balls if your garden suffers from box blight (a fungal disease) or box tree caterpillars (extra-voracious versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

 

The evergreens going in and maturing

DSC_0071 (2)Summer brings a looser feel to the garden

If you don’t have space to add shrubs in the ground, any of these plants can be grown in containers and simply moved into position in beds and borders to act as winter focal points when the perennials die down. Using containers also has the advantage, in a small garden, of allowing winter stars to shine in their season and to be moved into a less obvious positions as the spring and summer plants get into their stride. For this reason, I have two witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) in containers behind the shed, ready to place on the patio in full view of the windows as their flowers emerge in late winter and to return to the shelter of the shed later in the year.

 

‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ in flower

Flowers

As I write, sitting on the window seat in the December sunshine, I can see next door’s mahonia (very likely Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’) with its yellow racemes of flowers reaching into the blue. I used to dislike mahonia with its tough, spiny foliage and cold lemon flowers, but recently I’ve come to admire the colour it adds to the garden on darker days and its tolerance for partial shade and a wide variety of soil types, including our heavy alkaline clay. My volte-face was complete when I learnt that the fruits are edible – their common name is ‘Oregon Grape’ and they are often used for preserves in the US due to their tart, earthy flavour and large number of seeds.

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How could I have failed to relish the sheer winter joy that is mahonia?

Hellebores are also an important element in many winter gardens with their delicate down-turned flowers encouraging a close-up study best undertaken lying recumbent in the leaf litter. I’m excited to be growing hellebores for the first time this year, especially as I bought the plants from our community garden open day, so their exact colour is currently a mystery. It’s a plant I’ve wanted to grow for many years and I’m looking forward to getting to know this understated woodland beauty better.

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Winter sun washes the hellebores in Regent’s Park

Part 2

Next time I’ll be considering scent and stems/bark as ways to extend the season of interest in the garden. In the meantime, enjoy the unexpected sight of any winter flowers (although in my garden a couple of summer annuals seem not to have realised that it’s December) and celebrate evergreen structure wherever you find it. Happy December!

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ is living up to her name and resolutely refusing to admit that it’s December!

 

 

 

Still Life

I went on an early cycle round the Greenway yesterday, with the field margins and hedgerows full of movement and vigour, wildflowers, birds and fruit, whilst the field itself seemed stilled and characterless, until a skylark gave it life. This is the prose-poem I wrote when I returned… 

Silver lifting, undersides of leaves blown back in the dancing hedgerows, flashes of sloe gin, damson jelly and hazelnut brittle. This foragers’ fringe, ablaze with ripening abundance and the verge beneath, a study in vetch and clover, irregularly spiked with pink sainfoin beacons. Finches thrill above me, flocking, dipping, two-dimensional as they turn, absorbed by the air then wheeling, blackening the sky with their profiled presence.

Within all this elasticity, this marginal vigour, an absence: the ploughed void. September movement stilled, the colours muted, diversity subdued, until my eye adjusts to a sharper focus. Then a skylark twitches and, for a moment, dun uniformity is replaced with form and colour. Tawny feathers shake against the fissured landscape and the lark assumes its customary stillness, its pebbled mantle absorbed again by the ploughed earth.

Show The Love With A Green Heart

February is ‘Show the Love’ month. People across the country are wearing and sharing green hearts to show our love for the natural world in the face of climate change. ‘Show The Love’ is run by the Climate Change coalition, a Non-Governmental Organisation dedicated to action on climate change made up of 100+ member groups with over 15 million members all over the UK. On the Climate Change Coalition website there’s an interactive map showing activities around the UK and places where green hearts are available. There are some interesting mini-stories, with links to more detailed articles on the way climate change might affect such varied topics as tea, the arctic, herons, coffee, gardening, coral reefs, bluebells, hot summers and chocolate.

As a tea-drinking, bird-watching gardener the facts behind these stories make for uncomfortable reading, but obviously there’s much more to it than that. It’s about respect, about safeguarding our planet for ourselves, our wildlife and those who will inherit our world with all its wonders and all its problems. On the Climate Coalition website you can sign up to be part of campaigns or you can follow the campaign on Facebook or Twitter. Individual member organisations also often have campaigns which you can sign up to – helping spread the word and increase pressure on politicians by writing letters and joining peaceful protests.

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Show the Love for our natural world

I’ve struggled recently, like many others, to maintain a positive attitude in the face of political and environmental news. The relationship between humankind and the natural world, and our understanding of its importance, not just to our emotional well-being but to our survival as a species, seems to be degenerating by the day. Thinking about these big issues is overwhelming, leading at times to paralysis, a state where depression can affect the ability to act. So I’ve been trying to focus on the positives, trying to stay rooted in the here and now, concentrating on actions I can undertake which make a small difference.

I think about all the people around the country volunteering in community gardens, in public spaces where people can engage with nature and focus on its importance in our lives. Our community garden helps local people develop relationships with plants and the natural world. This is just a small step towards avoiding ‘plant blindness’ – a lack of awareness of the fundamental role plants play in feeding us, helping maintain our environment and treat our diseases. I think about my kids and the primary school children I work with, about the way nature opens their eyes, connecting them with the natural world – its beauty, complexity and importance.

I’ve been focusing on just two or three organisations which I can support by donating and writing campaign letters, rather than feeling I somehow have to support every cause and fight every corner. I don’t feel that focusing on the positives is evasion or delusion – it’s a coping strategy which allows me to continue fighting whilst maintaining a degree of sanity and a better quality of life.

What are your coping strategies and how helpful have you found them? What do you think are the most important steps individuals can take towards improving the way we view and safeguard wildlife and the environment? 

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I picked ivy for my green heart as it epitomises the every day plants which surround me. They aren’t unusual but they form the basis of my love of nature…

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