Rewilding and Restoring A Small Garden

Judy Birkbeck
Thursday, 26th March 2020

Judy Birkbeck shares her journey transforming barren, flood-prone space into a buzzing and singing wildlife-friendly garden.

Gravel. Ten by twelve metres of it, fence to fence, and an ominous giant canister of glyphosate left on the windowsill. Simple, I thought: clear the gravel, lift the underlying weed control fabric, and hey presto – all that space waiting to be planted.

Wrong! Most of the topsoil had been removed and, worse, the subsoil had been tamped in places, forming a blue-grey, sticky, plasticine-like substance that did not and never would support any form of life.

It was a tedious business aerating the whole garden with a fork and adding topsoil, using planks to save further compacting the soil. Only one month after the December start and long before the work was completed, heavy rain flooded the bottom of the garden to a depth of half a metre.

A neighbour told me the previous owner had dug a six-foot sump and installed a pump. Not only did this fail to drain the rainwater, but the estate agent advised him that he could not show the property with an open pit, so he filled it with builders’ rubble such as large concrete paving slabs, lengths of piping and ceramic tiles, quite unsuitable for drainage, and covered it over. I removed as much as I could reach and refilled the hole with gravel, topped with weed control fabric and topsoil, then jam-packed the lowest part of the area, about four square metres, with small trees and thirsty plants: four guelder roses, two dwarf willows, a crab apple, a rowan, ferns, geraniums and crocosmias. A ring of thirteen hornbeams to be kept as a hedge and assorted other plantings completed the drainage solution.

The following winter, standing on the nearby pavers gave the impression of floating on a bog. Another year and the ground was firm. Success! One more year, and that corner is almost inaccessible and is left entirely alone.

After paths and planting of fruit trees and bushes, an early task was the pond. The plan was to make a natural pond by puddling the clay, and accordingly a conical shape with no shelf was dug, but we abandoned the plan in favour of a lined pond because, oddly, the gravel had penetrated more than two-thirds of a metre. At intervals the neighbour joked, ‘Have you found a body yet?’ Indeed, at a depth of one-third of a metre we found a button, and at two-thirds a tooth, but most of the bones dug up around the garden looked like chicken bones. All manner of other rubbish was unearthed, including eight two-foot concrete pavers. These and all the gravel were given away through Freecycle, and I bought in topsoil and 200 earthworms.

Apart from the compost heaps, water butts and vegetable beds, the aim was to fill all spaces with mainly evergreens for winter eye candy, and to provide a mix of wild and cultivated plants for pollinators: water mint, honeysuckles, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, lungwort, Bowles’ mauve perennial wallflowers, geraniums, cistus, Mexican daisies, purple toadflax, musk mallow, ox-eye daisy, hedge woundwort, herb Robert, globe artichokes, yellow flag, valerian, omphaloides, spring bulbs, sedums, hebes, heathers, buddleias, poached egg plants, helianthemums, primroses, cowslips, columbines, winter savoury, chives, lavender, borage, foxgloves, and a bounty of comfrey. Wild strawberries filled the gaps between raspberries.

So: not exactly rewilding, more restoring. I did not intend to let nature have all its own way. Herb Robert and hedge woundwort wanted the whole garden to themselves. In a small space, paths must be navigable and visible to avoid the risk of treading on frogs, some no bigger than a thumbnail. And no meadow. After the horrors of trying to do the October cut of a meadow full of tiny toadlets in my last garden, there would be no grass other than the couch grass invading from next door. Besides, a meadow is not ideal for a hay fever sufferer.

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Eight months after the December start.

Eight months later, the garden was lush with growth and a magnet for wildlife. The Jerusalem artichokes were two metres tall; bees, hoverflies, ladybirds, ground beetles, red admirals, peacocks and speckled woods abounded; sparrows and starlings pecked between stalks and their young queued at the beach for a drink and a bath in the pond. A long dry spell brought hedgehogs, which then became regular visitors. The pond was only two by three metres, but we counted as many as 11 full-sized frogs resting at the surface, perhaps too many, as on one occasion we saw a frog push its way between a mating pair, using all four legs to try to prise them apart. Dragonflies came to lay eggs, always first checking any nearby humans. In the second year a coal tit nested in the bird box, and in the third year buff-tailed bumblebees took up residence. Of course it is overstocked and some plants have been swamped, but days are filled with the twittering of sparrows, tits and goldfinches and, come nightfall, bats and frogs sortie in search of food and moths crowd round the valerians.

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Regrets? Mainly cats. Deterrents – citrus peel, vinegar, pepper, scaredy-cat plants, lion poo, ultrasound – have not worked. They know they’re not welcome and sneak in at night. I spotted one with a frog dangling from its mouth and the mouse has gone. We have to plant the vegetable beds with forests of bamboo skewers. Also, slugs. One-third of the slugs in the UK are invasive species and, being hermaphroditic, multiply faster than you can say boo. They shelter in the complete ground cover and can be seen at nightfall heading doggedly towards the vegetables. This year they munched their way through three packets’ worth of runner beans and three of spinach. They climbed the successfully growing beanstalks to a height of two metres. The biggest was fifteen centimetres long and still not fully extended, more than any hedgehog could swallow. My granddaughter trapped it under a plant pot, but an hour later it had edged its way out. I covered it with a larger pot and placed a half-brick on top, but it escaped. It’s still out there somewhere.

It has been a hard labour, but all in all we have turned a gravel-only garden, doused in poison, into a place teeming with life. This little patch of earth breathes again. Winter seems quiet except for hungry and thirsty birds, but in spring the dunnock will perch at the top of the neighbour’s fir tree and sing its heart out, frogs will croak and the sun will coax out the first bumblebees, the primroses and celandines will be romping away, and we will sit back in our oasis, ignoring the neatly striped lawns and concrete jungle all around.

Useful links

Book: Letting in the Wild Edges by Glennie Kindred - how to grow and manage native edible and medicinal plants in our gardens or on the wild edges of the land

Designing a wildlife garden and eating it too

Installing a pond for irrigation and wildlife

Watch: The 25 year permaculture adventure

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