Biodiverse Gardens: Where Doing Less is More
Kiftsgate Court Garden: The Wild Garden 1. An example of a “wild garden” in the UK, where the plants have been left to grow (Image Credit: Michael Garlick, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)
How do you make your garden more biodiversity-friendly? During my time at the Futurum exhibition at The Big Challenge Science Festival, I spent a lot of time talking to people who expressed a desire to be manage their gardens for more plants and animals, but were unsure where to start. So I’ve compiled a brief guide on what to do, and it’s your lucky day – it involves not doing anything.
I had the pleasure of joining my colleagues from the NTNU University Museum at The Big Challenge Science Festival in Trondheim recently (you can read more about that here). When presenting people with the loss of native species, and the potential influx of alien ones, many people seemed genuinely worried. The changes this part of the world have already experienced were also apparent. It hit very close to home for me hearing some of the children visiting our stand ask what a barn swallow is. I have fond childhood memories of those birds flying around every summer, and I’m definitely not old enough yet to start talking about the ‘good old days’.
There are plenty of reasons why the decrease in biodiversity is happening, arguably the two largest being habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. All over the world, cities are growing and inevitably, this happens at the cost of other habitat types – although some species have made the cities their homes (I’m looking at you, rats and pigeons).
Fragmentation occurs when a large patch of habitat (be it a forest, grassland, riverbed, you name it) is cut up into smaller pieces. Your garden can be viewed as such a fragment, potentially resembling a miniature grassland. Even though the total area of miniature grasslands spread out in your neighborhood might be equal to the grassland area that was there before, the inability of many species to move directly from one small patch to the next means the two aren’t equal. One large patch is better than several small ones. But as cities keep growing, even more fragmentation is happening. Therefore, it is so important that we let those tiny fragments be of high quality.
Several visitors to the exhibition seemed thrilled by the idea of managing their gardens for biodiversity, and the prospect of having more wildlife on their doorstep. One woman happily showed us a video of a badger, which had moved in after they started managing their garden with biodiversity in mind.
People asked us what they themselves could do. They wanted in, but just did not know what to do or where to start. Therefore, we are here to give you a (by no means complete) checklist on how to manage your own backyard to benefit local biodiversity. If you are lazy, like myself, I have great news! The main thing to do is: do less!
Put your feet up, chill out
If you are a garden owner, this might sound counterintuitive, but I am dead serious. Stop doing so much! Stop mowing the grass and trimming the hedges constantly. The constant stress and disturbance is working against most species. For example, the Danish Ornithological Society advises people not to trim their hedges at all until after August 1st, as several bird species can have their nests in there (you wouldn’t like it either, if someone tore down the wall of your bedroom during breeding season!).
This point also includes cutting back on fertilizers and pesticides.
Leave patches untouched
To continue the point above: leave some parts of you garden alone completely, or at least mow them infrequently and strategically. Guidelines can be found online, e.g. here. The grass will be tall, the dandelions will bloom, but so will other gorgeous plant species, and these will attract insects, which will attract insect-eating birds and mammals, which in turn might attract birds of prey and other predators (I think you get the point by now).
Maybe even leave some dead branches or rotting leaf matter to allow decomposers as well, and make a little pond for drinking and amphibians – you can get the full cycle!
Pull the plug on the robot lawn mower
If you can’t do that, at least adjust the height of the clipping to a bit taller than before – this way some smaller herbs might survive. And for the love of God, do NOT leave it on during the night! I repeat DO NOT leave it unsupervised – an increasing number of hedgehogs are mutilated and/or killed by those things.
Do not plant alien species – use natives!
We have covered this point before, so I will not go into details – instead, check out Malene’s great post on the subject here! In short: do not plant species which are imported and/or are not natives!
Build homes for native animals
Now you have the plants covered, but the animals are a little slow to find their way to your little sanctuary – so write the invitation in bold letters! Put up an insect hotel to encourage more critters to settle, put up some bird boxes, or maybe even bat boxes!
For a guide (in Norwegian) for how to build an environmentally friendly garden, you can check out these points by SABIMA as well.
So in summary: let it grow, and let it be messy. Now go and be a good garden manager: sit down, out your feet up!