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In a wilder garden

Heal co-founder Jan Stannard has spent #WorldEnvironmentDay 2021 in her small town garden, a somewhat wilder place these days.


I’ve spent #WorldEnvironmentDay watching nature in our town garden, where we went over to the (even more) wild side about three years ago. To celebrate this day, I’m simply going to write about how a small green patch in a town can teem with life, given half a chance.

Our house was built in 1870 and we suspect the garden was meadow before that, or orchards. While our children were small, having a small patch of ordinary lawn for them to run around on was really important, but they’re grown up now and not living here, and we’ve gradually moved to a nature-friendly garden over a decade or so, with that change accelerating from the time we began thinking about setting up Heal and since we launched the charity.

Going wilder in the last few years has meant:

  • leaving most of the former lawn to grow very long, but with mown paths so it looks like a plan and not indolence

  • scalping the former lawn here and there to make bare patches, as if we had wild boar briefly in it

  • stopping ‘weeding’ (a banned word in our house now)

  • adding wildflowers, either seeds or given to us by friends as seedlings

  • putting in a small pond with a pebble beach last year (so popular with the birds), replacing a useless, vertical-sided one put in by the previous owners, a hedgehog and bird death trap

  • pruning very lightly and randomly where it’s all getting a bit tangled up

  • leaving a lot of the previous year’s dead stems and flower heads in situ (Airbnb for overwintering critters), meaning the garden looks very unkempt from autumn to about April if one is used to dead-heading, removing spent flowers and generally ‘tidying up’

  • letting the Alkanet take over quite a lot (bee chocolate, basically). If you don’t know it, it’s a relative of borage, with a very small blue flower and prickly hairs on the stem

  • leaving a lot of nooks and crannies untouched, with lots of dead wood and stones

  • putting up more boxes for Swifts (now 16 nest spots, with six breeding pairs, and about 20-30 flying around our house every day in the season)

  • installing a Hedgehog feeding station (very successful, one or more come every night)

  • putting up lots of bird feeders which has pleased the resident Grey squirrel as well as half a dozen actual bird species, particularly Goldfinches

One thing I love is how new species of flower occasionally just turn up. We had Goat’s Beard for the first time last year (in 23 years here) and I definitely didn’t plant it or sow any of its seeds.

John Fielding / Goat's Beard (Tragopogon pratensis) / CC BY-SA 2.0

We also put a few cabbages in the wild garden area, don’t ask me why, and we missed a few which bolted. We left them and the yellow flowers are absolute insect magnets, who knew?

I’ve started to keep lists to see how profuse the wildlife is in the garden. My theory is that compared with any patch of countryside near us (about 2km away), our small garden has biodiversity and bioabundance in spades. On walks along local countryside footpaths, I might see one or two bumblebees. In our garden today, there were easily 20 or 30 visible at any time, if I just walked a few metres. And when it’s sunny, you can hear the humming and buzzing, which I never hear in the farmed areas around us. When I make the statement that the countryside in general is nature-depleted, that’s my reality as well as something that studies and reports like the State of Nature tell us.

My step count device tells me I’ve done almost 4,000 steps today and most of that has been walking about the garden and noticing what's about. I went indoors countless times to consult the absolutely excellent Field Studies Council guides to check up on things I’d seen.

We’ve noted the garden birdlife for years and as we generally see the same range of species season after season, I’ve switched my interest to insects (while still loving birds). The variety and abundance of insect life is astounding. I see new things all the time. The most frustrating aspect of this, though it’s essentially really good news, is there are so many insects that I can’t identify, which always fly off as I’m about to photograph them. One new insect I was able to photograph today was this amazing shield bug, which the FSC guide told me was a Juniper Shield Bug (but no juniper or cypress trees anywhere round here that I know of?). Look at those colours.

I also saw two of my absolute favourites this morning enjoying warm sunshine: a Marmalade hoverfly on chive flowers and a Thick-legged Flower Beetle on Cat’s Ear. Look at that glossy, gorgeous green and those chubby thighs!

One very noticeable phenomenon has been a big increase in tiny day-flying moths which rise up from and fly about over the long grass. I know that some moths eat grass, so maybe that accounts for it in part? We had two anthills in the long grass last year, rising about 2cm above the ground by the end of the summer as gentle domes. We also saw a type of Bush cricket last year (not yet this year), though I’m not sure which sort (the photograph problem again…). I only saw a Small White butterfly today, but in the last couple of years we've also had Peacock, Comma (one), Red Admiral, Brimstone, Common Blue (or maybe Holly Blue, flitted too quickly to ID) and Large White.

I wasn't particularly looking for spiders but noticed four or five varieties in passing (no idea of the ID though, scooted away too quickly).

We see damselflies all the time now (Common Blue and Large Red like the one below which I photographed today, sorry it's a bit blurry) and we have dragonfly nymphs in the pond and a frog! Not sure if the latter may put paid to the former…

We always have at least five species of bumblebee (Hairy-footed Flower, Early, Buff-tailed, White-tailed, and Common Carder) and Honeybees. I had the call today – “bee rescue needed” – and recovered a big Buff-tailed bumble walking slowly on the ground rather than flying. I set it up with some heads of Alkanet, into which it immediately stuck its proboscis, but it didn’t revive as I‘d hoped. I set up some shelter for it but it wasn’t looking too good. Their lifespans vary so this one could just have reached the end of its days.

And best of all we have staggies! Stag beetles by their proper common name, our magnificent largest beetle. The area I live is a stronghold and they love old fruit trees. We have the stumps from an apple tree and a plum tree that demised, and they emerge from near them. We find their huge white grubs in the soil from time to time. I haven’t seen one yet this year, but there are reports of them starting to be seen locally, so I have my eyes peeled!

Let go in your garden a bit, if you're lucky enough to have one. It’s less work and it doesn’t take long for wonderful wildlife changes to happen. And put in a pond, no matter how small.

Here’s to wilder patches everywhere. Together, they add up to a lot of vital pocket spaces for nature – and see how it thrives!



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