Creating A Global Crisis Garden
I have created five new gardens, each subsequently passed over to the people buying our property. It was a an herbaceous garden in Wolverhampton and then a heather and conifer garden in Penrith. Croydon followed and that included 13 garden zones including an herbaceous area, a vegetable plot and a flint or scree garden. My photo shows this garden with self set forget-me-nots, beech hedging and silver birch trees. Seaside Christchurch was about palms and exotic species as well as insect friendly plants. We have always sold our houses easily and an immaculate garden has helped. My next garden is currently a building plot covered in mud. I shall be starting anew but this time is easily the most challenging. Lawns, herbaceous borders and sterile bedding plants are not the way forward. Creating a global crisis garden is the biggest challenge I have faced.
I was an horticultural trainee at Shrewsbury in 1961 and supervised by a gardener trained by Percy Thrower. Consequently, I was trained to dominate nature, to tame its rampant desires. I was taught to apply chemicals and mow grass. My lawn edges have always been immaculately straight and neat; they define me. The thought of my new lawn being a wildflower meadow is challenging. Add in the fact that I cannot welcome tulips into my garden and it will keep me awake at night. For me, buying bulbs is similar to a woman buying clothes, a joyous treat. However, times have changed and so must I.
Convey the message
You, like me, will say that your little lawn is so small it cannot threaten the environment. However, millions are saying the same thing. We should really be asking ourselves a more potent question. If our lawns are so small, why can’t we just change them, why is it so difficult? Bluntly, if we cannot dump a lawn how can we ever save the world?
Ann and I have talked over and over about whether to have a lawn. An artificial lawn is beyond the pale. However, our concern is because we are older and cannot manage too much work. I also know that I am the weak link, that I may die and leave Ann to cope alone. Ridding the garden of mowing may seem advantageous, but not if the alternative is even more work. The lawn really needs to be a wildflower meadow. Fine, that looks lush in the spring, flowers over the summer and looks scruffy for the rest of the year. Scruffy is an odd word that simply reflects its contrast with a mown lawn. The autumn and winter are simply a seasonal recess. If cut once, in October, after all the insects have finished their life cycle, it will look tidy over winter.
I have never tried an ‘alternative’ lawn. Some of the advice on Google is pretty suspect. However, it sounds an interesting challenge. You can use short plants like thyme or sedum. Both plants, I suspect, will grow well for a few years. Then, the woody centres will die back and look bare. The horticultural choice, at least decades ago, was chamomile ‘Treneague’. It smells sweet but will not take much wear and tear – no football! ‘Mind you own business’ (soleirolia soleirolii) is another option. These will survive better if stepping stones are used to cross the lawn. These plants like richer soils rather than the poor soils favoured by wildflowers. The native thyme is my preferred wildflower lawn. It is hardy, will tolerate drought and frost and may never need scything. We will see!
Wildflowers need poor soil, not rich. That means you must not put compost or artificial fertiliser on the wildflower patch. Ideally, it will be scythed, by hand, and the toppings composted. That compost can go on the veg patch or on any area where you want more worms. Wildflower lawns are not easy to manage and the soil is the key. If it is nutrient rich, grasses will dominate. Most people don’t see grasses as welcome, but they are good for insects. That assumes that the grass is allowed to flower. Only then can the insects complete their life cycle. However, many British grasses will then be 2′ or 3′ high. Many insects, not least crickets and meadow brown butterflies, will welcome the grasses.
The palms I planted in Dorset would be absurd in the chilly Peak District. What’s needed is plants that offer nectar, pollen and food in the form of berries. Soft, sappy plants, can host many aphids and they can feed many small birds like long tailed tits. I have watched these birds visit dahlias on a daily basis to eat blackfly. Native plants are best but they are not so visually attractive as all those variegated and exotic plants at the local nursery. However, its important not to ignore all non-native plants. For instance, owls and many birds use evergreen conifers as winter roosts. All ivy, including non-native, attract insects and also shelter birds. A basic planting frame comprising of native plants throughout the garden is best. Exotics can then be placed in the spaces between.
Most bedding plants are sterile and no value to the environment, even if they do look pretty. Begonias, petunias, pansies, primula and bedding geraniums are useless. They also require too much watering. Complex (double) flowers like cactus dahlias, daffodils, etc. often prevent the bees accessing anthers for pollen and nectar. Hydrangeas are poor as are many roses, ornamental grasses and many exotics. You need to choose your plants with bees in mind.
Don’t forget that many horticultural catalogues, such as Parkers, will highlight bee friendly plants. The best plants include wallflowers, forget-me-not and many perennials, especially verbena bonariensis, scabious and echinops. Others include echinacea, foxgloves, catmint, bergenia, poppies, thistles, monarda, hardy geraniums. All alpines, including asters, are good. Some plants like campanula and forget-me-not will keep seeding and cost you nothing. The new plants can be left where they grow or can be transplanted in damp weather. Consider that many herbaceous plants are not drought tolerant and will need watering in summer. Most annual plants, easy to grow from seed, are good.
Bulbs are my major weakness. The problem is that tulips, for instance, offer nothing to insects. However, they can be used decoratively, say in tubs, as long as you avoid peat based compost. Many daffodils are poor, especially those with double flowers. Try Shipton Bulbs for species such as narcissus obvallaris (Tenby daffodil) or narcissus pseudonarcissus (Lent lily). However, many bulbs do offer pollen early in the season and can be valuable. Muscari, snowdrops (not the double), snowflake, anemones including wood anemones, winter aconites and allium are all good. The large flowered crocus are poor but the smaller botanical species are fine.
I have a fondness for lilies, in part because I loved to see them growing wild in the alps. The blousy Asiatic and Oriental lilies attract lots of hover flies and offer gorgeous colours and scent. However, they and giant fritillaria attract lots of scarlet lily beetle. You have to kill these daily, by hand, if you want lilies to succeed. I am not aware that there are any natural predators of these beetles. Remember, creating a global crisis garden means we cannot use insecticides.
Fruit and shrubs
There are too many useful shrubs for me to list. Very few, of course, are native to the UK. Buddlia comes to mind and many non native honeysuckles. Fruit trees, especially apples, are adored by bees. Raspberries and gooseberries attract many bees, as do many rambler and climbing roses. The smaller flowered roses appear best. My favourite is Rambling Rector, with a gorgeous scent, but it is a thug and needs lots of space.
It is essential to add water to the garden. A shallow wide pool is best with plants at the margin and no steep edges. Watching birds wash is a joy and insects also need water. Access to the garden for hedgehogs is essential, even if it means cutting a hole in fences. Bee houses, especially those for miner bees, helps those species. Birdboxes, perhaps a swift box, are valuable. Leave deadheads on plants through the winter and pile clippings, brash, etc. as habitat piles to rot down. Be(e) untidy! With no lawn, you can let leaves lie on the surface. Plant hedges if you can. A beech hedge is perhaps the best and can be kept small with hand clipping.
You need a compost heap, perhaps even two. All kitchen waste can go on these but watch out for rats. Also, watch out for hedgehogs and bumble bees taking up residence. The second heap could be for woody material. Given time this will break down and can be added to the ‘active’ heap.
Creating a Global Crisis garden
It’s a great joy to see a bee fly on forget-me-nots in April. They hover over the tiny flower heads. A second joy is to see Hummingbird hawk-moths and they will visit both verbena bonariensis and fuchsias over the summer. Overall, I need a garden which does not need machinery, especially those using fossil fuels. Electric tools are okay, assuming we can obtain renewable electricity. However, we should not continue mowing lawns because it sucks up and kills insects. Finally, I cannot answer the crunch question; will creating a global crisis garden put off buyers when we sell the house? Hopefully, it will be a long time before I can answer that question.