Chaos Vs. Order – the conservationist gardener’s predicament

My plan for the garden here always involved leaving the top section of the 200 foot length to grow slightly wild and unkempt. The initial idea was to have a shady, slightly Japanese inspired oasis of bamboos and Acers, long grasses, a meandering path of slightly shorter grass, leading to a shallow ornamental pond and raised deck with a summer-house. Sounds good, right? So far, all I’ve managed is some seriously long grass and a ridiculous section of rotting turf at the very top of the garden. Yay (that was sarcasm).

Amongst the long grass, I’ve planted three fruit trees (two apple and one pear, all on semi-dwarf root stock) and three dark foliage ornamental trees (Prunus ‘Royal Burgundy’Prunus cerasifera Nigra and Malus ‘Royalty’. These aren’t showing much growth yet, but it’s the first year. I look forward to seeing these trees flourish (hopefully) and fill their allotted space in this section.

Last year, after moving in, I left the dog’s paddling pool in the long grass at the top of the garden. It filled with rain, then dried out, then filled with rain, and so on. It has been almost full for some time now, due to the rains we’ve had in May in the UK. I moved it to empty the nasty water over the trees a few weeks ago, only to spot a small newt plop out onto the soil as I poured. I was amazed, and horrified. I quickly put the paddling pool back in its previous spot in the long grass, then scooped up the newt (with difficulty – slippery things), and put it back in the water. In my panic, I put a large rock in the water with it, and a plant in a pot. I’m not sure why – something for it to do? In all seriousness, I was ecstatic to find this single example of unusual UK wildlife in my garden, and immediately went into action to encourage it to remain. The odd bank of rotting turf, weeds, long grasses, and self-seeded saplings popping up behind the paddling pool have obviously attracted small animals and birds. It is a rare area of uncultivated and undisturbed wilderness – small as it is – in an otherwise ordered and highly maintained row of urban gardens.

I mean, I knew we had foxes. I’ve even fed them once or twice, and they have rewarded me with some lovely dusk antics (and the occasional harmless digging in my veg bed). I’ve seen the occasional bat swooping low at dusk, and some swallows darting and screeching across the gardens in the last few days. All wonderful, but none of these seem too concerned with the wild state or otherwise of my garden. I realise they are dependent on insects, and how I plant and maintain my garden will affect insect populations and, thus, affect them (e.g. pesticide use and planting insect attracting plants); but that is slightly different to the implications of the actual physical state of the garden.

Since then, I have seen the same common newt in the paddling pool, but we now have two Great Crested Newts, a male and female. I’m out of my tiny mind with joy. I’ve also seen Burnet Moths (loads) stopping to enjoy the long grass and sanctuary, and a small common frog. This is great! My son, who was reared on long walks in the countryside and respect and love for wildlife, has spent more time in the garden in the last few days watching the newts and moths, than he ever has in the previous eleven months. Now, I’ve realised I have a bit of a quandary.

‘The Plan’ involves clearing this top section of garden, removing the bank of turf, clearing away the unwanted saplings, and building a raised deck and summer-house. It also involves putting in a very shallow ornamental pond. ‘The Plan’ never took into account existing wildlife, nor did it take into account any wildlife looking for refuge from other gardens and locally cleared areas. It should have.

When I think back to the garden as it was, when we moved in, it was ALL long grass and wilderness. What creatures lived in it, back then? What wildlife did we disturb in the process of creating something ordered and cultivated, and pleasing to the human eye? What the hell do you do if you want a horticulturist’s dream garden – trimmed lawn, herbaceous beds, well-maintained shrub borders, cultivated veg and rose beds, etc. – and at the same time wish to attract and nurture some of the UK’s most endangered wildlife? It seems to me to be a very serious issue. There is and has been a long-standing war between humans and wildlife, with many of the minor battles taking place within the average urban garden. Wildlife is losing.

Now I find myself completely re-considering ‘The Plan’ for the top section of garden, and it is having an effect on my maintenance, too. There is a small section of wild scrub running alongside Flame’s lawn, and I had been planning to clear it this weekend. Then, I saw a frog in there, and that activity went out of the window. What if that is its home? How many other small mammals live in there? I’d really like to encourage frogs, as my Hosta ‘Blue Wedgewood’ (decimated) will testify, so do I really want to clear away its home? No. And, again, that leads me to ponder which animals’ homes I removed when we initially cleared the garden. Shouldn’t we all consider the implications to our local wildlife when we move into a new garden and make plans to cultivate and clear? Should it even be a legal requirement to survey and monitor wildlife in a garden before making changes to the physical layout? Probably.

That may sound extreme, but I’m really anti human arrogance – the idea that we have the right to charge into an area and do what we like with it is seen as a perfectly acceptable one, but it isn’t. We are a part of a whole – we are interdependent, and when we do what we like with an area of land, there are implications to wildlife populations, whether we are aware of them or not. There is a knock-on effect. Frogs and toads control pests, insects feed birds and bats, yet we are constantly striving to remove both from our gardens using our own highly questionable methods. Those methods are now being called to account for the catastrophic decline in bee populations, along with the general trend in drastic decline in small mammals and invertebrate populations. Organic gardeners know that we must use and encourage natural controls, rather than using lethal chemicals and destructive gardening practices which are ultimately counter-productive and disastrous for wildlife (and us).

‘The Plan’ as it stands? To hurriedly rush up to the silly blue, scallop-shaped paddling pool every morning and every evening to study the newts and search the long grass for moths and butterflies. Long-term, I’m thinking of building a much-bigger-than-planned pond, something deeper, with ledges for marginal plants and invertebrates. I’ll wait until Winter to start clearing the old, rotting turf, when hopefully most animals will have found somewhere to hibernate or hide. I’ll leave some of it undisturbed. We should still be able to build a raised deck area for  a summer-house, and the space beneath would potentially be ideal to locate a hedgehog hide, and for foxes and other mammals to nest in. I’ll keep the grass longer than planned, with the hopes that once the dust has settled from the deck construction, existing wildlife will make use once again of the hidden spaces and wild bits. I’ve cleared away the mental image of Japanese-inspired, ordered space, and come to terms with a different, wilder, less ordered vision of garden tranquility. It will be wonderful and guilt-free, the best kind of garden.

To landscape or not to landscape, that is the question. Think I’ll be pondering this one for a while. Perhaps we should all ponder… Ha, ponder? Never mind.