Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Rewilding a garden

We thought we would share with you our experience of rewilding an ordinary garden. It's not the first time we've had a go at this but when we tried it before it was on a much smaller scale.

Buttercups flourishing in the uncut lawn

We currently have several large areas of lawn which takes literally hours to mow during the summer months. In addition there are six borders comprising large shrubs, two small trees and smaller low growing perennial plants. Keeping it all tidy was proving exhausting and it became necessary to cut down on the work. Of course, this wasn't all about not working. We were also very keen on rewilding and attracting native wild plants and wildlife.

The first thing we did was to stop all the more traditional jobs around the place such as sowing, planting, weeding, removing dead material, pruning, strimming and mowing. We did, however, continue to grow vegetables in the polytunnel.

Mowing was probably the most time consuming task of all. We, more or less, stopped this completely, leaving the lawn to its own devices. Areas close to a section of regenerating woodland quickly reverted back to their original state. The more formal lawns closer to the house are taking longer to rewild. It is possible they don't contain any original root or seed stock.

Part of the lawn that we cut for a seating area

We decided to mow a small section of lawn for our own use to put up a tent, lay in the sun, sit, read, eat and do small jobs like mend a bike. We also put in a couple of long narrow paths to reach the compost bin and the back door of the house. We used a small electric mower for this.

The old strimmer had long since given up the ghost and had been replaced with a petrol brush cutter - what were we thinking?! However, although it had been taken out of the box, it had never been used - we knew it was wrong! We just couldn't bring ourselves to use it mainly because it needed petrol, was extremely noisy and indiscriminately destructive. Finally, we purchased a long handled scythe. It is probably one of the best tools we have and is in constant use.

Rewilded (damp!) lawn area

The plants that came up in the lawn areas included buttercups, white clover, daisies, self heal, sheep's sorrel, stinging nettles, docks, horsetail, spagnum moss, common rush, lady's smock, bluebells, common orchid, germander speedwell, spignel, dandelions and hawkbit. The buttercups were probably the most successful and flourished particularly well. No surprise there!

A variety of flowers coming up in the lawn

Amongst the shrubs and other perennials, that the previous owners had planted in the borders, we had an interesting variety of new comers including wild raspberries, rosebay willowherb, bluebells, broad leafed willowherb, ground elder, brambles, common rush and germander speedwell. The wild raspberries and rosebay willowherb spread far and wide since their underground root systems are particularly robust. The ground elder appeared to be already well established and this spread. An attractive plant, it is often vilified by gardeners for its persistence.

Some of the established border perennials didn't get a chance to flower properly as they became overgrown. There was a tendency to want to revert to our old practice of weeding when this happened but we generally didn't bother. We'd like to say we made a great effort not to weed but there wasn't actually any effort involved. It was really easy!

Rosebay willowherb and wild raspberries in a border area

The benefits to the household of not doing all the usual traditional gardening jobs were immediately fairly obvious. There was much less work and this freed up our time to do other things! Occasionally we watered something we liked which we thought needed a little help during the hot weather. However, that wasn't really necessary in the often wet maritime climate of the British Isles.

We were surprised at the numbers of different plants that came up. Wild plant seeds, roots and bulbs were there waiting for a chance to grow, the variety of wild plants easily increased each year and the number of each species also grew each year. Once something grew, it spread. A lot!

One of our acrobatic red squirrels in a rather fetching pose

Overall we feel the number of butterflies, bees and other insects attracted into the garden has also been much higher. There have been a lot more this year (2018) than in previous years. However, there are probably more insects around generally this year so it is difficult to be objective about this.

There has definitely been an increase of food available for wildlife. The plants brought the insects in and produced a lot of seed. The seed from the long lawn grasses were welcome by birds that turned up during the winter, particularly the chaffinches. There was more cover for wildlife. We have a variety of creatures visit and reside here including a great many species of birds, mice, newts, toads, red squirrels, brown hare and stoats. We've seen a marked increase in bird numbers and species of birds except the house martins whose numbers have dramatically decreased. This overall benefit seems to persist throughout the year since we don't clear away dead plants at the end of the growing season.

Pathway to the compost bin

There were some perceived downsides to all this. We noted at least five species of plants and shrubs, which had obviously been introduced to the area, spreading. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

We live in a rural area so didn't feel any pressure from neighbours to mow the lawn, weed the borders and generally keep the garden 'tidy'. However, we have experienced such pressure before when we lived in a surburban area and realise this might be a problem for some. Neighbours are often worried about dandelions spreading and don't like to see them in lawns!

To offset concerns that the wild garden is somehow 'out of control' we suggest mowing narrow pathways. This is a visible indicator that you have a plan with regards your garden and that you are 'in control' even if you are not! Pathways also benefit members of the household because they make walking any distance, the use of prams and wheelchairs easy and pleasurable. You can even make little patterns with the pathways for kids to run about and play in.

Ground elder flowering in one of the borders

Overall we feel plantlife and wildlife gained a lot from this hands off approach. For those who find gardening relaxing, this definitely takes relaxation to another level. We were much less stressed and more in tune with our surroundings. In addition, we would highly recommend it to those who are less able bodied and perhaps struggle to keep their garden 'under control'.

In our opinion rewilding a garden is highly beneficial to human health. There may well be research on this available already but if not there should be. We would imagine those living in urban areas would benefit the most from this effect and we really hope more people living in towns and cities will try it.

Common spotted orchid in the lawn area

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