I’m as guilty of whinging about ‘wildlife’ in the garden as most other gardeners. Rabbits, pigeons, rats and mice, slugs and snails are the less welcome visitors to The Garden Deli. Them and the mole who started digging up the veg patch earlier this year… luckily he decided to move on before I had to take any drastic action.
Wouldn’t gardening be easier if we could exclude all that pesky nature from our plots? Control what flies, crawls or hops in the space defined by the hedges or fences surrounding our gardens? While the majority of gardeners don’t want aphids, wasps or weeds/wildflowers in their gardens, most are happy to see bees, butterflies and hedgehogs. So maybe the answer is “Yes”… but selectively and on our terms. Problem is, nature doesn’t work on our terms. Most gardeners don’t have the resources to exclude all the unwanted natural visitors from their own patch of ground, although if the State of Nature report published earlier this year is anything to go by, many of the UK’s native species are struggling and may no longer pose a ‘problem’ for gardeners.
So what can nature offer to the average gardener? Well, first up, and a hot topic in the news just now, is of course pollination services. Bees, butterflies, moths and (depending where you live and garden) possibly bats and hummingbirds are all essential components of the pollination process. Without visits from these wild pollinators, gardeners would be missing out on apples, strawberries, beans, tomatoes and more. Basically we need pollinators – especially bees, to move pollen from one flower to another because we want to eat the fruit and seeds that result from this process.
Pest control can be managed in two ways – chemicals or natural control… ok there is a third way, integrated pest management is a combination of chemical and natural, but isn’t something that’s often used in domestic gardens. Taking the natural control route, leaves hoverflies and ladybird larvae to munch their way through countless aphids and save your rose bushes and broad beans. Frogs, thrushes, hedgehogs and ground beetles will all eat the slugs and snails that would otherwise reduce your lettuces and precious seedlings to a stalk surrounded by a slimy trail. Even wasps have a positive side – no, really… they will eat the caterpillars of small and large white butterflies, the ones that make huge holes in your cabbage, kale and cauliflower leaves.
Then there’s the compost heap. Homemade compost is pretty important to any garden – a great (and free) way of adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil, helping to keep it in tip top condition. But all that kitchen and garden waste you throw onto the heap needs natural processes to make the transformation from grass clippings and potato peelings to beautiful, crumbly compost. Have a dig around in your compost and you’ll soon see small, dark red worms – brandling or tiger worms, woodlice, millipedes and spiders. And this is the nature that you can see… hard at work too are the microorganisms, fungi, mites and single celled organisms all pulling their (admittedly very light) weight to decompose fresh vegetable waste and produce perfect compost.
But perhaps for the future of the natural world, the most important thing nature provides us with in the garden is an emotional and seasonal connection with the world around us. The first unfurling of green buds in spring, the arrival of swifts and migrant butterflies in summer, elderberries, sloes and blackberries in autumn and the birds on the feeders in winter are all markers of the passing of the year.
And then there’s that childlike sense of wonder we can experience when nature invades the garden – how do those big, furry fat bumblebees manage to fly, how do pond skaters walk on water… and how does one small, green caterpillar eat through so many cauliflower seedlings in one night… well, it’s not all good.
Of course, the flipside of the question ‘do gardeners need nature?’ is ‘does nature need gardeners?’… but answering that one is going to take more space than one blog post deserves, so we’ll save that for another time.
Are you a wildlife-friendly gardener? Where do you draw the line when it comes to embracing nature in the garden?