Posts Tagged ‘gardening for wildlife’

Natural stone in the garden

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

Old stone properties usually have a disused pile of stone somewhere in the garden whilst local quarries are exciting places to source from.

These projects: Devon, Dorset and Somerset illustrate how stone can be used creatively linking garden with the larger landscape.

Dry stone walls – perfect for wildlife

Water in the garden (2)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

I have just come back from Marrakech, a city that exists and functions as a result of the water channelled from the Atlas mountains. As any short break should do, I have come back refreshed and intrigued by the architecture, the culture and the contrasts of that city. Back home things couldn’t be more contrasting, a lush landscape in the full throws of spring, where we tend not to think much about water in our daily lives, where we can be free to play with it in our gardens and even waste it.

Water in hot countries is used in gardens for its cooling effect, for example in Marrakech the ‘riad’ courtyards are open to the sky with a simple pool of water at their centre, this creates an upward draught of cool air. Here in our gardens water is not usually taken very seriously however it can be a fantastic addition to the garden attracting insects, birds, amphibians (snakes!) as well as being attractive, creating dancing patterns of light, possibly introducing sound and supporting a range of interesting aquatic plants. The bigger the water feature, the bigger the benefit!(

In my garden, the pond is the main focal point, at coffee time, I often sit outside my office next to the pond, and marvel at the life it supports, it is a haven for newts, they are a joy to behold, gracefully gliding through the water and the more I look, the more diverse life forms reveal themselves – last week we discovered that great crested newts have adopted our pond, a large, majestic but rather shy beauty!

The pond in our garden is about ten years old, approximately three metres square and 0.7 metres deep, the base is deeply covered with oxygenating weed (therefore offering different niches, oxygen, shade, shelter, breeding sites…). It has been fish free for about 6 years and it has gradually become inhabited by newts. Last year we had breeding grass snakes in the garden and feared for the future of our newts but happily they are still doing well.

Landscape architect, Kim Wilkie, has a great approach to using water in his projects, in his words “I try to understand the memories and associations embedded in a place and the natural flows of people, land, water and climate” (

Rain garden feature – Cyber park – Marrakech

Bees venture out

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

On Sunday we enjoyed glorious spring sunshine, I spent the afternoon tidying the garden as bees from my hives tentatively sought out fresh nectar from early flowering plants. It was a joy to feel the warmth of the sun – for everyone and everything. Here is a bee on  Daphne Jacquline Postil

To tidy or not to tidy

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

I don’t usually like to tidy the garden in the autumn, I prefer to let it collapse on itself protecting the soil structure, giving shelter to tiny creatures (e.g. newts) and seed heads for the birds. However 4 years are up and the herbaceous perennials need to be split (before everything becomes over whelming!) so now my compost bin is heaped with dead and woody stems and my borders look re-organised and neat. Of course neat and tidy gardens are not the perfect wildlife haven but there needs to be a balance between the gardener’s needs and that of the wildlife.

I am poised to mulch my beds with woodchip and I have potted up many of the split plants that I no longer have space for (these will be donated to a local plant sale next June).

There is space in the beds now for the spring bulbs to put on their show in a couple of months time – I can’t wait!

In the meantime there is some good foliage and the Iris unguicularis has been flowering for weeks.

Wildlife garden progressing well – Devon

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

One year on in the build, two years on in the design and we are almost ready for planting.  The garden has been levelled, using low retaining stone walls, into 4 separate gardens based on the original slope of site.  A rill garden, a canal and an upper pool garden will all be enclosed with yew hedging this autumn.  The majestic kitchen garden lime mortar walls are almost finished.  There are many beautiful details in the stonework in this garden and a huge boulder serves as a stepping stone through the canal via the central axis path.

This is a wildlife garden designed for low maintenance and low impact on the environment.  The canal already attracts swallows, they create stunning acrobatic displays as they swoop down and drink from the canal.  All the pools have egress points for the creatures it may attract.  The kitchen garden walls have nesting holes built into them, all the other walls have recessed pointing to encourage plants to grow in them and to offer shelter to small creatures.  Lime mortar  is used throughout.  Lawns will be planted with daisy and Prunella and cut less frequently than most lawns.  There will be trees and hedges which are beneficial to wildlife on so many different levels and borders will be planted with plants providing a long season  pollen and nectar.

Months of hard work have gone into this garden already by an excellent team of builders.  The design of the garden is the result of a partnership between myself and my client – a very exciting project.

Nimbyism – I am talking snakes

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Most of us enjoy the birds, hedgehogs, dragonflies, frogs, newts and butterflies that visit our gardens but I also have rabbits, deer, moles and voles to tolerate not to mention the large grass snakes that have taken up residence this summer. Surely this means I am a successful wildlife gardener?

There is usually a flip side to success and when it comes to snakes most of us do not want to share our gardens with these cool, long, slick creatures, me included. However these discreet sun worshipers have been squeezed out of their own habitat as hedgerows and woodland are ploughed or built over. I don’t therefore feel it would be correct for me to turf them out of my garden as much as I would like to. There is only one thing for it and that is to get used to the new occupants but it might take me a while.

Surprisingly I have come across a distinct lack of sympathy to my plight “Oh grass snakes are not venomous, I don’t know what you’re worried about”. I can only put this down to the fact that most people are not as intimate with their gardens as I am – or am I just being wimpish? You must agree that it is rather a shock when, after a long days work, you find yourself squatting next to a neatly coiled up grass snake in the polytunnel whilst weeding the tomatoes. However this is the best news ever for the common Natrix natrix if people really are as tolerant of snakes in their gardens as they are trying to lead me to believe. Hoorah!

For a great read on wildlife gardening “No Nettles Required” by Ken Thompson

Productive plot

Monday, June 9th, 2014

My productive vegetable garden reclaimed from scrub land 5 years ago – the hedgerows are harvested for logs by coppicing and hedge laying, there are hens, compost bins, fruit trees, log storage, polytunnels willow beds and Phormium (for weaving).  Birds nest in the trees and hedges (goldfinch, bullfinch, chaffinch, greenfinch, blackbirds, wrens, pigeons, thrushes, etc…), a huge grass snake has decided to make its home here too.

High labour inputs this time of year but there will be food for the house right through until next spring.

3 good reasons

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

“Never do anything without having three good reasons” this is a permaculture principal I prefer to follow. As a result I have been holding off tidying my garden beds all winter aware that all the dead stems and leaves from last year’s growth have been helping to protect the soil from the pounding rain, that they have provided shelter for insects and amphibians as well as protecting the crowns of my plants from the worst of the weather. I know that a tidy garden is not the best wildlife garden but people do judge me by my garden so I try to aim for a happy balance. I have been missing my garden for months now so I am itching to get out there and do a bit of gardening and I want to enjoy the effect of the spring bulbs when I look out from the window.

Every  action has a knock on effect so scooping up all the dead stems from around my collapsed herbaceous perennials exposes hiding weed seedlings and makes the beds look tidy but my action breaks the carbon cycle removing the nutrient source for all the associated micro-organisms in the decomposition process. My soil will be more prone to ‘capping’ (surface compaction), weed seed germination, loss of soil micro-organisms and the associated humus and fertility but not all is lost, my dry twiggy debris is added to my compost bins and last season’s compost (which is ready) is returned to the beds so ‘mending’ the carbon cycle.

Having spent a few hours today, out there in the crazy wind, I can now enjoy the dainty snowdrops, Eranthus, Crocus and primroses in tidier beds, I have exposed weeds and made a start on dealing with these; the ephemeral, peppery and edible Hairy Bittercress and the irritating Poa annua undaunted, merrily pushing up flower heads, the tiny dandelion rosettes doing their best to get a hold without my noticing. Now I am motivated to get an early start on my weeding and whilst tiptoeing through the beds I see the tell tell signs of rabbits, grrhh, I get excited about plants that I will take cuttings from any day now, plants that I will divide. I prune the roses and the apple tree whilst I am there, the spotted purple apple prunings will be woven into something in my workshop. Oh it is very cold and blustery but whilst the rain holds off it is such a treat to get out there and to be up close to ‘spring’.

My 3 good reasons, well 3 or more reasons:  gardening makes me happy and feel alive, material for the compost bin, getting a head start on the weeds, ‘taking off a load’ from some of the perennials in this strong wind, getting ready for propagation, collecting weaving materials, planning pest and disease control measures…

Orchard notes – Shepton Mallet

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

A beautiful bright sky this morning, cotton wool clouds sailing across a pure blue background, a strong biting wind ruining any plans of enjoying some gentle pruning in the orchard. This morning I was scheduled to welcome Shepton Mallet Horticultural Society to my orchard for a pruning practical but the weather forecast of chilling winds and heavy rain led this to being cancelled; this is the gist of what I was going to talk to them about.

Spacing is a funny thing, books tell you one thing and yet horticulturists constantly bend the rules – and you can if you have a plan. Traditional cider orchards are planted at approximately 10m x 10m with the plan that the grass is managed by grazing animals. It is an extensive and relatively low input system which works beautifully (other than risk of physical damage to the trees and soil compaction if badly managed). In other orchards you will find spacings anywhere from the 10m to an in-row spacing of 2.5m or even less (i.e. the hedgerow system). Inputs increase proportionately with closer spacing as there will be more pests and diseases, more trees to purchase and plant, more supports will be required, more spraying, more mowing, etc….

I find in my job that fruit trees in gardens cause a lot of misery; ‘the tree is shading my garden’, ‘this tree was planted too close to this one what should I do’, ‘my tree is growing too big’, ‘the tree produces far too much fruit’, ‘the fruit make such a mess’, ‘If only I knew how to prune’, etc… Gardeners tend to fear trees that grow beyond their reach and respond aggressively yet horticulture is all about understanding plants and responding or manipulating growth accordingly, it is a fantastic occupation whereby you develop a relationship with each plant through the seasons.

Some knowledge and courage, a good dose of patience along with regular interaction are key when it comes to managing fruit trees.  First, rather than be swayed by romantic notions or impulse buying (1) be sure you do want to plant a tree in your garden bearing in mind its mature size (2) do your research; find out which rootstock is appropriate to your conditions as this will give you an idea of how big the tree will grow, of what sort of staking is required and it will help you decide on an appropriate spacing (3) decide from the outset on the shape of the tree you going to prune to, this will also be influenced by the shape of the tree you are buying.  Plants are among the most forgiving of living organisms, they will grow despite your mistakes or neglect, they will usually give you a second chance however the more knowledge and practice you have under your belt, the more beautiful and fruitful your trees will be.

Rootstocks are not just about final size of tree, more vigorous rootstocks should be chosen on difficult soils (e.g. clay). That said it is a complex balance between choice of rootstock/ soil conditions, vigour of variety (e.g. Bramley and most other large apple varieties are very vigorous trees ), pruning and cultivars that you like to eat and have a use for.

So we come to pruning, traditionally fruit trees were grown as lovely open centred, bowl shaped trees, these allowed good air flow and sunlight into the heart of the tree however these days the trend (particularly in orchards) is for a central leader. Open centre trees require a lot of regular pruning and can suffer from poor (weak) branch angles whilst trees pruned to a central leader will tend to grow taller with good branch angles and a gentle taper from base to tip. I am growing my 500 cider apple trees with a central leader and I am aiming for spiralling layers of branches, about 3 branches per layer, so as to allow good light levels around each branch.

My trees are young and I am in the early days of developing a relationship with them. Some of them are growing ‘text book style’ whilst others can’t decide which shoot is going to be a leader, it is up to me on chilly winter days to make executive decisions as to which stem I elect as leader and which I cut out. My choice may not look obvious right now and my decision will be revisited next winter once I see how the tree responded to my cut(s). It is also now that I can evaluate the quality of the taper on my trees, if the trunk constricts too severely at a point that means that I have too many branches in a ‘layer’ and that the sap is taking the easiest route and being diverted into the branches of that layer rather than flowing evenly up to the tip of the tree. I want the sap to feed each branch equally and I want a gentle even tapering trunk for strength.

I have planted my orchard with an aim, I have an outlet for the fruit ( and I love the idea of transforming a flat field into a dynamic bio-diverse environment knowing that what I am doing has its roots in the Somerset tradition. Since I have an outlet for the fruit, I want to grow a big a crop as possible; I am farming light, light which will interact with the leaves to produce sugars which are converted into woody growth and apples. The taller the tree with beautifully spiralling well spaced branches, the more potential for a good harvest. All I need to do is cut out branches at the trunk in order to preserve the ‘taper’ of the trunk, this is called replacement pruning, it is simple to do and I don’t have to worry about shortening side shoots. If the tree is well pruned in its formative years then it will have the best start in life, just like us. A neglected tree but one which was given a good shape to start with can usually be brought back into shape over a few seasons by appropriate pruning but never remove more than 25% in any one season (little and often is best).

I understand that in a garden setting the aims are usually different and a glut situation is very rapidly reached so you might not want a big tall tree however a big tree is good for wildlife. Trees in the garden significantly contribute to biodiversity and the bigger the better! The more layers of vegetation (height) in the garden, the more habitat, shelter, the more food, the more creatures both microscopic and bigger, the more complex food webs. If you don’t have space for a tree, or trees, you can still have layers of vegetation from short grass to long grass, through to herbaceous perennials, small and larger shrubs plus a few bug hotels strategically placed around the garden.

An apple tree can live 100 years, when you plant a tree you are planting for the future, your choices (of variety, rootstock and spacing) will have a bearing on its chances of growing into a majestic specimen.

Summer management – this is another subject but for now just to say that… young trees (and shrubs) must be kept weed free around their base for at least 5-10 years or longer depending upon the vigour of the plant, this is a very common problem in gardens. If you have a plant growing in the lawn which just doesn’t seem to be putting on any growth it is because of the competition from the grass – hard to believe but true, a very common mistake in gardens.

A new cider orchard for Somerset – Pylle

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

The third and final phase of planting my 3 acre cider orchard is complete.  The last 2 weeks of dry weather arrived just in time to allow me to plant the last 150 bare root trees, this brings the grand total to 490 trees in my orchard.

I am growing 10 varieties, a mix of bitter sweets, sharps and bitter sharps, these are new cider varieties resulting from a breeding programme, led by Pomologist Liz Copaz, at Long Ashton Research Station in the 1980′s .  These new varieties have been bred for better disease resistance (particularly apple scab), earlier cropping (therefore extending the cider making season), more reliable cropping (as traditional varieties tend to become biennial croppers), and for bigger and juicier fruit!

Planning the orchard was a big task, I had so many decisions to make all of which would have very long lasting effects: which varieties, which rootstocks and what spacing.  Phase I  of the orchard (winter 2010/11) is planted on M106 rootstocks  but I then decided that maybe MM111 would be more appropriate to the clay soil, this was the great advantage of planting in phases – learning from mistakes / acquiring more knowledge.

I have planted at an in-row spacing of 4m with 5m between the rows.  All the trees have established well which is down to the excellent plants grown by John Worle, the use of mycorrhizal fungi and mulching at planting.  Trees are staked and protected with vole guards (which also act against rabbits).

Next month once flowering begins, weekly orchard visits will be vital for early detection of any pest and disease problems. 

The fruit from this orchard is being grown for Pilton Cider, a naturally sparking keeved cider which I defy you not to like!