How do you create a wildlife garden from scratch? Anne Horner who moved to Somerset from London last summer begins to put down roots
It was a cruelly bleak March day when Penny Richards of the Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Gardening for Wildlife Group came to look at our plot.
We’d moved to our country home from London at the end of last summer but our evacuee plants - hellebores, ferns and sedges - overwintered in trugs until March. We were feeling similarly bedraggled and rootless and as the winter got bleaker and stretched its icy fingers into March and even outrageously into April our faith faltered. Doubt whispered: was our big move a mistake? Could we acclimatise to our exposed plot flanked by the Blackdown Hills or were we city types through and through?
The day of Penny’s visit was one such when my courage almost failed me. In brain-freezing weather we toured the garden as I suppressed my longing to sneak into the kitchen and huddle by the Rayburn. Even Penny, made of sterner stuff, admitted later: “It was a bit difficult to think straight in the cold.”
But there were rays of comfort. Penny drew my attention to features that already make my garden a haven for wildlife: the hedges surrounding my garden of beech, laurel and holly, the profusion of mature ivy with its black berries, the well-established herb garden of basics: sage, marjoram, thyme and rosemary.
Penny pointed out: “You are lucky to be starting with such an interesting and fully stocked garden.”
Just these words were enough to remind me that on the June day when I’d first seen the garden it was a beautiful serene haven.
And there was more comfort in Penny’s hint that it would be foolish to rush in and rip up the garden. She had said: “As it is such an established garden with some interesting plants it is worth avoiding the temptation to do too much!”
That chimed in with my feeling that in the first year it would be best not to be radical and do too much digging. And so although March would be a perfect time to dig our longed-for wildlife pond I’m going to be patient. Penny confirms the spot I’ve selected would be ideal sheltered, no overhanging branches but it will have to wait until we have the stamina to dig and move piles of earth.
A welcome visitor
No sooner do I decide to delay than I spot my first amphibian: a toad squatting on the wall by our back gate, undoubtedly a common toad not the rare natterjack which is not found in Somerset, but rare or not the toad is a very welcome visitor and we’ll welcome him with a new pool to spawn in when we can get our act together.
Even without the pond there’s loads to do. Penny has left me with lots of brilliant suggestions and the cold weather that follows is perfect for sitting in doors and researching plants. Thrillingly she confirms that a narrow strip of lawn at the bottom of the front garden that looks as if it wants to go native would be a great site for a wildflower meadow. It is rather damp and she suggests cuckoo flower, ragged robin, field scabious, meadow cranesbill, common knapweed and yellow rattle would be ideal.
When Penny writes to me with suggestions of wildlife-friendly plants to include in the garden, many of my favourites are on the list... ribes, the flowering currant, dogwoods beloved of so many gardeners for their colourful bare stems which bring much-needed winter cheer and could be positioned in full view of the kitchen window, winter honeysuckle and the wonderfully-scented mahonia that always exerts a calming effect on me. It’s a plant that delivers on so many levels, primrose-coloured racemes, scent and holly-like leaves.
The days after Penny’s visit bring profusions of golden daffodils, snowdrops, primroses and primulas and green bulbous fists that promise hyacinths will be next up, and I feel the truth of Penny’s words. We are lucky, the house’s former owners have done lots of groundwork for us.
In the third week of March I see the first butterfly of the season, a tortoiseshell, and the rose bush branches bounce with chaffinches. Sadly it’s a brief respite as the end of March brings more biting cold. I decide that I can’t wait for better weather and must make my mark on the garden before Easter and so I stride out to plant my first specimens: Ribes sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’, a wonderful flowering currant that will appeal to wildlife and be covered in deep pink flowers in April and blue scabious to underline the cottage garden feel of a wide border
And so the first roots are laid at last. And despite the chill of the coldest March for 50 years, we know five months of warmer, longer days are ahead of us now and the spectre of our first bleak winter here will fade.
Next time: planting blitz
For more information about creating a garden for wildlife visit our wildlife gardening pages by clicking here.
Photograph of Toad courtesy of Wildstock. Others courtesy of Wikipedia.