We used to have a huge sycamore at the bottom of our garden. It shaded the sunniest part of our long, narrow plot and throughout the year it covered the patio first in honeydew, then resulted in a spectacular carpeting of bird poo and finally a thick mulch of fallen leaves. In spring we’d spend hours weeding out the hundreds of seedlings strewn by its brilliantly-designed helicopter seeds. Miss one and we’d soon have a 6 ft sapling to deal with. It was the wrong tree in the wrong place. Far too big for a city garden, it no doubt started life courtesy of one of the many magnificent sycamores nearby.
We decided to take it out. There are plenty more trees in the garden, so we tried not to worry too much about the environmental impact. We donated chunks of trunk to our neighbour for the local nature garden where he works, but the logs were too tricky to transport. Wise and inventive, he incorporated them into a wild area at the back of his garden, a thicket of logs, branches and prunings knitted loosely together against the fence. It’s now home to, amongst other wild creatures, a family of urban foxes and two fluffy cubs.
Behind these logs and branches live a family of foxes
Those little foxes (cute if a little controversial) made me think about how - and with whom - we share our gardens, whether they’re rural acres or one of the patchwork of tiny plots in towns and cities which form a corridor supporting all manner of creatures, large and small.
In her brilliant book ‘The Living Jigsaw’, Val Bourne proposes that if you garden in an urban setting, your plot will probably contain more wildlife than one in a rural area. This is due, in part, to changes in rural farming methods such as ripping out hedges, planting to the edges of fields and the increased use of herbicides and fertilisers. Meanwhile, interlocking urban green areas – gardens, allotments, graveyards, commons and so on - can stretch for many miles and contain a wide variety of welcoming habitats such as ponds, streams, meadowland, woodland and wasteland.
The latter is the best environment for wildlife. It’s here that birds, beetles, hedgehogs and all kinds of pollinators thrive. So I’m actually delighted when one of my fence panels is rotten - it provides hedgehogs with a conduit from garden to garden, hopefully persuading them to hang out in my garden and eat the plethora of slugs and snails which seem to love gardens in built-up areas. Since 1950, hedgehog numbers have fallen by a third in urban areas and by half in the countryside – a difference explained mostly by declining hedge habitat.
Along with cover in the form of hedges, and the odd patch of brambles or nettles, water is also hugely important for garden wildlife. This spring I made a mini pond from an old butler’s sink I’d saved from our kitchen refit. I filled it with a bucketful of water from my neighbour’s pond (teeming with all kinds of life), and then topped it up with more water from our water butt (also teeming with life). I’ve put tiles and stones in the sink so hedgehogs can drink without falling in, and frogs and so on can get in and out. I’ve ordered a few suitable plants, too, so we’re all set for the life aquatic.
It’s not the season for hedge and tree planting, but when it is, consider hawthorn, hazel, apple trees, winter honeysuckle, holly and pyracantha. They’re some of the best for providing nesting sites, berries and fruit for birds, and flowers for pollinators. In the meantime, it’s not too late to plant perennials such as cosmos (bees and other pollinators prefer the single, open flowers), lavender (all bees adore lavender) and oregano (many aromatic herbs have sugar-packed nectar that butterflies love). They’re three of the best for helping our struggling pollinators.
Bees adore lavender
Happy garden sharing!
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer