How do you create a wildlife garden from scratch? Anne Horner, who moved to Somerset from the big city six months ago, describes her plans to create a haven for birds and bees
Whoosh! It’s summer already, everywhere there are bright new shoots and yet we’ve had no build-up of warmer days to ease us into spring.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the warm weather, it’s just that a bit of spring would have been nice. I’ve missed that slow burn increasing to full-on summer fire. And the harsh late spring itself was certainly challenging. It brought tragedy to the kitchen garden in the form of another bad hedgehog experience. If you read my first column you’ll know that a hedgehog drowned in a wildlife pond I had in an earlier garden, despite the precautions we’d taken to provide sloping banks to give the hogs an escape route. This time we spotted a large bristling hedgehog in our kitchen garden and were congratulating ourselves on our hedgehog visitor when we realised the poor creature was dead. I sought advice about hedgehog care on the site Wild About Gardens (www.wildaboutgardens.org.uk), a joint project between the Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Horticultural Society. It says: “A late spring can mean death for many animals, exhausted after fighting the long winter months and unable to hold on for the last few weeks.” This year’s late frosts probably made the visitor to our garden particularly vulnerable. Next year we’ll be sure to put out meaty cat food and cat biscuits for hungry hogs.
The late cold snap meant I was really behind, completing my spring clear-up in early May, feeling under pressure to get on with planting now that the growing season had arrived. After hours of this catch-up work I thought of the Mole exclaiming “Hang spring-cleaning” after a tiresome morning spent whitewashing his home at the beginning of The Wind of the Willows. He runs away to get the sun on his fur and finds adventure on the river with the rat. If only… I’ll not be in a position to sit surveying my handiwork with satisfaction and a glass of something sparkling before many trips are made to the recycling depot.
As I clear masses of twiggy growth I’m buzzed by bees and frequently have to stop to wait for them to fly away. As a rather anxious finding-my-feet wildlife-friendly-gardener this makes me fret that I’m destroying habitats where all around me flutterings, buzzings and an orchestra of birds tell me many creatures are settling in to our garden. I wish I was clearer about the impact of clearing dead growth so late in the year.
You see I’m wrestling with my identity as a gardener. On the one hand I really want to make this plot a haven for wild creatures, yet I also need the garden to be a me space. I’m desperate to stamp my identity on the garden to feel a bit more in control and that means clearing away some plants that have been allowed to become triffids. One such is an ancient sage which is overwhelming the kitchen garden. It’s time to say goodbye to this plant and replace it with a new one. It feels bad to get rid of a plant but with this giant gone there’s space to make the herb garden more varied. So I do some serious surgery here, reducing the vast shoals of golden marjoram too which along with the sage has dominated the plot.
Building on what's there
My clear-up means that I’ve at last got space in the kitchen garden where I can build on the collection of herbs left by the previous owner. There are good basics as well as the sage and marjoram thyme, rosemary, chives and I add catmint, horse radish, angelica, mint, ordinary and bronze fennel, hyssop and the annual borage to create a more diverse plot. In the greenhouse we sow lavender in the hope that I will have enough plants to create a lavender hedge. We hope that it will provide these late summer flowering plants will supply food for honey bees when other blooms have finished their flowering season.
When Penny Richards of the Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Gardening for Wildlife Group visited us in March she recommended we increase the diversity of species throughout the garden with plants such as sea holly and globe thistle. I’m happy to oblige as I adore the appearance of these architecturally strong prickly plants and I also add a particular favourite of mine, teasel. It will be visited by bees when in flower and then the birds will eat the seeds.
I’m keen also to create a nectar café, then realise we already have one in a border that I’ve neglected which is full of cow parsley and honesty. I’d been feeling embarrassed about how overgrown this area is, but its many hoverfly, butterfly and bee visitors clearly don’t care and I remember Penny’s advice not too be too tidy and to wait and see what’s there. This is a lesson to me before I get too busy with the ripping up and making my mark.
So it’s clear that I need to do less. As I sink into a deckchair I look forward to the borage flowering. It’ll be a lure for bees and pollinating insects, and maybe I can pop some stems in to decorate cooling drinks that will sustain me as I plan and doze, doze and plan...