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If you pay even the slightest attention to the media then you will be aware of what havoc humans are playing with the environment. Since 1970 we have managed to lose 52 percent of the Earth’s bird, mammal, fish and reptile and amphibian populations according to the World Wildlife Fund. That is a staggering statistic especially when combined with equally shocking figures of deforestation, soil loss and pollution.
Now before those figures make you start reaching for the anti-depressants or that bottle of scotch you keep tucked away in the potting shed, bear in mind that this is a battle we gardeners are well positioned to engage in. We might not be able to rush off to the Antarctic and save polar bears or crew on a ship trying to cut off the Japanese whaling fleet but we are can still take part in an important frontline battle of our own.
With more and more of our country being taken over by mass industrial agriculture and urban sprawl even our small gardens can provide a welcome refuge for wildlife. Habitat loss has played an enormous part in many of the species extinctions recently but gardeners, even those of us with dodgy knees and lumbago, can recreate a nature friendly oasis.
A good place to start attracting wildlife is by changing the plants we use. Many of our most widely used garden plants are exotics imported from various countries because they were pleasing to the eye or because they provided some other service that our gardening ancestors thought of as beneficial. From an insect’s or bird’s point of view, these plants often offer little in the way of food or shelter
By altering our planting plans to include some indigenous plants we can start to change our garden habitat. Using indigenous plants has many benefits beyond just attracting insects. These plants are ideally adapted to the environment in which they evolved and so are less prone to pests and are more tolerant of local weather extremes. This usually allows for less pesticide use and reduced watering. Suddenly armed only with some good garden tools and a few seedlings we are beginning to work with nature rather than against her. Don’t feel you have to go all “eco warrior” and remove every single exotic from your garden. A visit to a nursery that specialises in local plants may well awaken a new passion once you discover how wide the indigenous choices are in your area. I try to keep a balance between indigenous plants and those imports rich in pollen and nectar, knowing that this is a small step toward reversing the terrible decline in bees that is taking place around the world at the moment.
LOSE THOSE CHEMICALS
Many of the chemicals available to modern agriculturists are having a devastating affect on not just the insects they target but on the larger animals that used to rely on those insects as a food source. One powerful range of chemicals, the neonicotinoids, have been banned in most of western Europe though they continue to be used in much of the USA. The base compounds from many of these concoctions are similar or the same as those we use in our domestic gardens. The truth is we have many organic options that are far less harmful to wildlife and ourselves for that matter. They can be perfectly effective and put less strain on out pockets at the same time. My own tactics have definitely evolved in recent years. Now when I discover my roses supporting a horde of aphids or I have a devastating attack of lily beetle I don’t simply reach for the pesticide. Instead, once I have stopped cursing, I apply a vegetable liquid soap or my home made nettle tea.
This gradual conversion on my part did not come naturally to someone who would once have happily used Agent Orange in defence of his plants. At first I was desperately afraid I would be overrun by all sorts of creepy crawlies but the transition has in fact been remarkably smooth and I have no regrets.
BRING IN THE BIRDS
A bird feeder with a variety of nuts and seeds soon attracts a colourful array of garden guests that most people enjoy sharing their property with. Many gardeners are unaware just what benefits a growing bird population has for them. Most garden birds, seed eaters included, are omnivores at some stage in the breeding process. To supply their growing chicks, parents gather thousands of small caterpillars, aphids and other insects and so the advantage of a resident bird population can be huge. Encouraging them to become resident merely requires food and accommodation to be easily available. Bird houses can be bought or easily made. Be sure however to check what birds will be using them and to provide the correct diameter entrance. Your chubby little feathered assistants will not squeeze into a box they feel too tight for their little pot bellies. Also be sure to place them at an appropriate height, as birds can be quite fussy tenants.
TIDY IS NOT ALWAYS BEST
Many of us have become a little obsessed with tidiness and whilst this may be pleasing to our modern tastes, it is not always ideal for wildlife. The variety of creatures that will move into a pile of dead leaves or a small log pile is quite extraordinary. The problem is, we have become so conditioned to having everything neatly arranged that we sometimes feel we are not managing our gardens correctly if everything is not orderly. Even the most obsessive gardener can find a hidden corner to stack a few logs and a pile of decomposing leaves without losing his Good Gardener badge taken away. You don’t need to do any more than that. Given time natures creatures will find their way to these scruffy little hotels and set up home.
LOSE THAT LAWN
This is always a contentious subject because lawns have come to play such a central roll in what we regard as the ideal garden. From nature’s point of view, our highly tended green carpet is a desert. Few insects can find enough sustenance to live there and most of the ones that do we regard as pests and promptly attack with chemicals, blunt objects or any other weapon that springs to hand. Managed correctly lawns are highly demanding of both time and labor and are high in water requirements. Each year Americans spill more petrol refuelling lawn mowers than the Exxon Valdez disaster and those mowers contribute significantly to air pollution.
I am not suggesting total eradication of the sacred green turf. I realize that to do that would be to invite death by angry e mail correspondence. By reducing their size though, we create space for more beds or planting areas and once again provide a nature friendly habitat that can be highly attractive if well designed and carefully thought out. Smaller lawns are easier to aerate, mow and keep looking perfect.
WHAT ABOUT WILD FLOWERS
If you garden is large enough a wildflower meadow can be a visually delightful area that offers a real nature haven. There is much debate at the moment as to the sudden demise of both the honey bee and the bumble bee but it is certain that loss of habitat is playing a roll. By allowing naturally occurring wild flowers to establish themselves each year we give back to nature some space in which to re-establish itself. Wildflower meadows can be a little tricky to get started but once up and running they become self perpetuating and set their own seed for the following season. For the lazy gardener like myself they also require little maintenance during the spring and fall which are the gardeners two busiest seasons.
THE POWER OF THE POND
Probably the most powerful magnet for wild life that you can add to your garden is a pond or water feature. These do not have to be particularly big as even the smallest area of permanent water will soon be teeming with wildlife. Once established, amphibians such as frogs and toads will appear as if by magic. Amphibians are some of the most endangered creatures on our planet at the moment and they need all the help they can get. In return they consume slugs and snails with great relish.
The pond also provides us with a zone in which we can plant a whole new range of beautiful plants. From there it is just a matter of time before the arrival of dragon flies, darters and water boatmen. I have learned through experience that the addition of cute little exotic goldfish is not always a good idea as they quickly take to eating the locals.
Most of these changes, and I have mentioned just a few, require more of a change in mindset than anything else. There is no need for fancy machines and a few good hand tools should be all that you need to get started. Like many old gardeners, I am a creature of habit but I have no regrets about the changes I have made.