You could be forgiven for thinking that ‘wildlife gardening’ and ‘rewilding’ appeal to very different audiences. For me, and my own set of stereotypes, any reference to wildlife gardening used to evoke an image of octagenarian garden centre patrons browsing the latest range of bird feeders. Rewilding seemed to be a euphemism for importing wolves.
Now though, I’m convinced that I was wrong, and that the only difference between these terms is scale. I’m also convinced that those of us living in towns and cities should carefully consider whether we have truly ‘rewilded’ our own spaces before we start calling on rural communities to invest in restoring the UK’s post-glacial ecosystems.
Gardening vs. Rewilding
Having read this far, I know lots of readers will be fuming about the scale point. As well as wondering how exactly gardening (an activity) can be considered rewilding when rewilding is about ‘letting nature go’.
First I would say that scale is subjective – rewilding a few square metres of your garden might be just as important to a shield bug (one of my favourites) as rewilding an entire valley might be to a golden eagle.
On whether gardening can be considered ‘letting nature go’, I’d argue it is. All rewilding in the UK is relative. Even the largest rewilded landscapes need skilled workers to manage visitor pressure and local support to manage participation. And wildlife will always be affected by activities outside the boundaries. The most common theme across wildlife gardening is that aside from tree planting and pond digging, you should do at least a little bit less. That means not sweeping leaves in winter, not mowing the entire lawn throughout the year, not applying pesticides, not removing the ivy from trees and walls (it doesn’t always cause damage), and not laying plastic turf. For me, this is absolutely consistent with a central tenet of rewilding – to allow natural processes to resume with less human interruption.
An even deeper argument (get your sandals and huggable tree ready) is that humans are also part of our ecosystem. So managing gardens for our enjoyment is no different from an ant colony making a nest. Is a flower growing on an ant nest any less wild for growing on a habitat made by another species?
How to rewild your garden
So, if we can rewild in our urban areas, how do we do it? Fortunately, wildlife gardeners have been enthusiastically debating this for decades. It might be going through a renaissance now, but wildlife gardening isn’t anything new. Most of the content in the latest wildlife gardening books can be found in my 1970 edition of ‘Wildflowers for the garden’. This means there’s a lot of help out there if you know where to look.
The most important thing to remember is the scale point – you can help nature even if you don’t have a 200-acre estate, a garden, or even a balcony. The least you need is a window. With a window, you can attach one of these and start helping out your local bird population, or plant a window box full of plants from the lists below.
I’m not going to list lots of ideas and advice here, as there are plenty of excellent resources online. Instead, I’m listing my own favourites to provide a one-stop-shop for small-scale rewilders of all abilities and interests. If you have any other favourites please let us know in the comments!
A good place to begin is to take a look at the Royal Horticultural Society’s page on wildlife gardening and their work with the Wildlife Trusts on supporting garden wildlife. There are loads of project ideas and some good explanations of basic principles:
It’s also well worth signing up to the Wildlife Gardening Forum’s newsletter for the latest news and advice on supporting wildlife, and their conferences get rave reviews.
If you’re looking to help bees and other pollinators with a nectar supply, the RHS has a list, but it’s very long and not very helpful unless you know your plants very well. Long lists like these have also been criticised for lacking evidence in their development. I prefer this list, from Professor Dave Goulson at Sussex University, which includes photographs of the plants and an honest acknowledgement that the list is based on anecdotal evidence.
Providing nectar-rich flowers is great, but butterflies and moths also need plants for their caterpillars (larvae) to feed on. Planting any of the plants on these lists is a surefire way of improving your piece of wilderness for bugs.
Larval foodplants for butterflies. Some of the butterflies are very rare, but you can plant for the common species almost anywhere. In the UK that includes brimstones, peacocks, red admirals, and small tortoiseshells.
Larval foodplants for moths. You don’t have to be able to identify moths to find them amazing, and they provide a valuable food source for birds and bats. The species listed here won’t just help moths, but also a wide variety of other wildlife.
Not just plants
Most bees also need a place to nest or burrow. Their needs vary – there are 275 species of bee in the UK and Ireland, and many other pollinator groups. Thankfully there are guides online to provide the soil banks, bee hotels, and rough grassland areas that each species likes. Unfortunately, many of the ‘bee hotels’ sold in garden centres aren’t suitable, so I recommend taking a look at the links here or here for inspiration.
I admit it’s a bit niche, but if you have some time to spare then you can help out hoverflies and contribute to citizen science in the process. You only need a tiny area to create a lagoon…
There are some superb UK-based shops that provide plants and wildlife habitats with advice on where and what to do. I’d encourage everyone to try wildlife gardening. But we need to do so in a way that doesn’t inadvertently cause harm. The easiest ways to do this are to buy organic and peat-free. Some frequently recommended suppliers include:
- Any from this list of organic nurseries: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=960
- Rosybee: https://www.rosybee.com/
- The National Trust garden centres: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/
- Bee Happy Plants: https://beehappyplants.co.uk/
Happy garden rewilding!