There is much talk about the benefits of gardening at the moment: to one’s health and for the greater good of the environment. The last few years have seen a huge increase in the cultivation of vegetables and fruit by those who feel the economic advantages while for those with accounts at Fortnum & Mason it is a lifestyle choice.
Many of those taking up gardening are also choosing to do so in ways that support and encourage wildlife, by creating a range of sustaining habitats, attractive to birds and insects and beautiful to look at. I continue to be shocked by the number of fine houses on large patches of ground with little more than an expanse of lawn and a boundary fence. These are building plots rather than gardens and deserts from an environmental point of view. It is diversity that creates the conditions needed to support native creatures and as Europe gradually disappears under a sea of concrete, brick and tarmac the activities and attitudes of homeowners is becoming increasingly important.
A number of clients come to us each year asking for wildlife friendly gardens. The first thing I tell them is that wildlife will be encouraged to visit just by the simple act of creating a garden. We bought our last UK house newly-built and although a country property it was devoid of plant and animal life in the early days. As the range of plants was increased the feeding opportunities for birds, insects, invertebrates and mammals also improved. Bird-song was heard once again and in a few seasons our garden was teeming with life.
Food is provided by plants in the form of pollen, nectar, fruits and seeds and the wider the selection of plants the greater the diversity of animal life which can be supported. A extensive range of plants also provides nesting materials and protection from potential predators, while a covering of vegetation keeps the soil workable for those which depend on it for sources of food.
An overly tidy garden is of much less use to wildlife than one where flowers are allowed to go to seed and valuable cover is created when the pruning and hedge cutting is neglected. If every plant pest is eliminated the moment it is spotted more valuable nourishment is denied to those animals higher up the food chain. Pesticide use may also kill the very creatures which would control plant pests and I find myself picking off damaged leaves and shoots from prominent plants rather than automatically reaching for the spray can.
Specific plants will attract particular animals to visit, feed and stay and of course it is the prettier animals which people are most keen to see. Butterflies must come high on the list for most people and as many species are at risk from modern farming practices and the loss of habitats to housing they are worth encouraging. Nectar-rich plants attractive to adult Butterflies come in many forms: trees, shrubs, climbers, herbaceous and bedding plants, while wild flowers should not be forgotten. We were recently walking the dog in the French countryside and as we passed through a patch of Clover hundreds of Butterflies took to the air around us – a magical moment!
Other plants range from the common to the exotic, providing sustenance to either the adults or the caterpillars; and yes, remember that one man’s pretty Butterfly is another man’s caterpillar pest! One of the best food plants is the Stinging Nettle while other native plants include Bramble, Cuckoo Flower, Foxglove, Ivy, Poppy, Primrose, Thistle, Teasel, and Yarrow. We have generally been fortunate enough to have large gardens where some areas could be left undisturbed for wildlife to enjoy and where these weeds – or wild flowers, depending on your point of view – have been allowed to take hold. Here in our corner of France, where meadows of wildflowers are still a common sight, Butterflies and other insects thrive. Many farmers are also planting wildflower meadows or seeding an unused field with insect-friendly annuals. These are a joy to see and are bursting with life and we have adapted this idea in several of our recent designs for clients both in France and in the UK.
In the ornamental garden a selection from this far from exhaustive list will help support Butterflies: Alyssum, Aquilegia, Aster, Aubrietia, , Buddleia, Candytuft, Choisya, Cornflower, Centaurea, Delphinium, Echinops, Erigeron, Hebe, Heliotrope, Honesty, Kniphofia, Lavender, Lonicera (Honeysuckle), Marigold, Marjoram, Nepeta, Sedum, Sunflower, Syringa, Nicotiana, Petunia, Privet (when allowed to flower), Scabious, Sweet William, Thyme and Verbena.
The final element in our wildlife friendly garden must be water. At the gardens we built around our old offices (since closed) we had two water features: a formal fountain and a naturalistic pond with a rockery waterfall. While the pond was by far the most successful from a wildlife point of view even the fountain had its regular visitors of insects and birds. The pond provided shallow and deep water, hiding places and spots to settle on and drink. Toads came from nowhere and bred successfully while the water plants encouraged an additional attraction in the form of Dragon- and Damsel-Flies.
When discussing this kind of gardening with clients there are certain types who look at you as if you had suggested some kind of Hippy lifestyle. Wildlife friendly gardens may be a little less tidy but they are also full of colour and interest throughout the year, provide scent, fruit and interest, while demonstrating a real understanding of our place in the natural world. These gardens are prettier than a simple enclosed lawn and add real value to a property. They need not be hard to maintain and provide a haven of peace and beauty to come home to at the end of a hard day at work; sounds like a win / win situation to me!
We have been delighted to meet several Hertfordshire Countryside readers with properties abroad since we took the plunge and moved to central France last September. A few have been kind enough to employ us to design gardens for them while we have found ourselves project managing renovation work for others. Next week we have a 2,000 mile round trip in front of us, when we drive to southern Spain to see another garden. Having studied photographs provided by the owners we are well aware of the task in front of us. There is much clearance to arrange before we can see the full potential of the garden but it promises to be an interesting mix of wildflowers under Olive trees and more formal gardens near the house.
We have plenty of Mediterranean experience to call on and look forward to working in this tough gardening climate. While water will be important in the formal areas and for the first season or two elsewhere, we would hope to use plenty of native plants which will largely look after themselves. It is also nice to introduce plants which enjoy similar conditions but are native to other parts of the world, in this case California, South Africa, South America and Australia, give parts of the garden a country feel but using a far greater range of plants.
Anyone who has visited an area of French Garrigue will remember the scents and sounds of that habitat and if we can bring just a little of this to our clients in Spain I think we will have a satisfied customer….and millions of happy insects!