The thing about consciously gardening for wild-life is…well, wild-life. Like the quote from Field of Dreams. ‘If you build it they will come’… As soon as we create space for wild-life to thrive, it will arrive without invitation and make it’s home in that niche. It will bring it’s friends, it will bring it’s enemies, it will have it’s babies and it will adapt that niche to perfection. Before you know it you will have welcomed a whole interconnected web of local ecology into your garden…such riches!
But equally so, it’s also true that ‘If you don’t build it they will come’…it’s about creating space, not filling space; nature really does abhor a vacuum, and will rush into any space and fill it with life without us humans doing anything, building anything, buying anything…. Sometimes, oftentimes it’s our not-doing which provides nature the opportunity to move in best.
At a domestic garden scale there are so many products you can buy to encourage wildlife into the garden; bug hotels, bee boxes, slow worm huts, hedgehog houses, bird boxes, bat boxes, owl boxes, bird baths etc etc. Some you can buy as little kits to construct. We have whole industries set up to service the basic building blocks of habitat restoration from the perspective of human intervention. Many are products sold by wild-life charities which help fund their conservation activities, which is great. These can be lovely projects, especially for children and they are especially useful in highly built up areas where they can and do play a critical role in re-creating habitat.
To be clear, I’m not dissing them out of hand! But….and it is a big but, when looking in horror at the loudly coloured cheap plastic tat and highly glued, varnished and painted wood products that somehow pass for bird and bee boxes on supermarket shelves in springtime, ringing the changes on the ‘seasonal shelves’, I do wonder if this commercialisation and commodification of habitat teaches children a very mixed message about nature and our place within it. That it is just another cultural expression of a world view where we see ourselves as separate, somehow outside of the web?
Are we teaching children that nature is passive rather than dynamic; that our interventions are like adding a puzzle piece to a 2d jigsaw puzzle rather than an alive and interactive 3d web? Analogue to digital? That we have to ‘do something’ to encourage wild-life into the garden and neighbourhood? I’m concerned that this approach could easily feed into the illusion that humans control nature, and therefore are responsible for choosing where and when it can flourish. If we are learning anything during lock-down, whilst we witness goats move into Welsh towns, deer into East London housing estates, and llegedly dolphins moving into the Venetian Grand Canal, is that when us humans stop with our human doing, then nature starts to recover!
Because often it’s about ‘doing nothing’; about leaving that pile of autumnal leaves blown into the corner (which hibernating insects have already made a village in) rather than ‘tidying the garden’; about leaving that broken upturned pot which now is home to a sheltering toad, about leaving that old bit of wood rotting, bow home to the wood-lice, and so on and so forth.
Since the late 90’s, when Ground Force, the original garden make-over show, started in the UK, our gardens have become rebranded as ‘outdoor rooms’ and extension to our living spaces. They have endured changing trends in much the same way as living rooms with changing wall-paper, curtains and sofas….. Think decking & pergolas, Chelsea Flower Show inspired plant fashions, ripped out and replaced each year akin to fast fashion…Think bamboo, BBQs, jacuzzies & the tyranny of ornamental features! On one hand it is absolutely fantastic that these tv programmes have broadened the national obsession with gardens out of the privy of the elite’s walled gardens and into the everyday lives of anyone luck enough to have any scrap of outdoor space in UK to call their own. But on the other hand, this rebranding of gardens as ‘outdoor rooms’ has led to so many ecologically rich spaces with habitats build up slowly and gradually through the years ripped out, flattened, smoothened, scrubbed and replaced with a low maintenance, low ecological value simulacra.
And yet, no matter how much we lay astro-turf (shudder) or mono-block and smother the land, a garden is not just an outdoor room: it is a living, breathing space that will continually try and grow, expand, evolve and welcome new life. Why fight for control, when instead we can learn to be lazy gardeners, observe more, do less to achieve more, and go with the flow of what is unfolding naturally everywhere all the time.
So what’s all this got to do with the wild-life pond in the corner of my garden?! The sun is out and the garden is calling, I think I’ll continue that story tomorrow!