On rewilding our gardens - and why we can do better

On rewilding - art by Aimée Lister

Recently, my dad and I started an experiment. It came about when one Friday evening we were watching Gardener’s World and a clip was sent in from a woman who had let patches of her lawn grow long. I mused aloud: “Whenever I get to own a garden, I’d love to do that.” Dad turned to me and agreed, “I’d like that too.”

I’m not sure why it took a national lockdown to realise that we had this in common, but if I’m honest, the fact we do is not really a surprise. The idea of ‘rewilding’ has been hovering around for quite a while in the collective consciousness. Indeed, as we face global uncertainty and the Climate Crisis, it feels more important than ever to do our bit with the little parcels of green we might have access to. It’s certainly a feeling of taking back environmental control.

Our experiment started with me standing on the patio and directing him as he mowed the grass, leaving two rough semi-circle shapes untouched. One on the left of the garden, in the shade of the plum tree, and one impromptu one on the right where a lot of buttercups had recently come up. After he’d put away the lawn mower, we stood and looked over them, feeling smug. Biodiversity was on its way back.

We were a little ahead of ourselves in terms of what we’d achieved, but it is true that long grass does the world of good for biodiversity. One study used data from all over Europe and North America to show that letting your grass grow just a bit longer increases pollinators as well as plant diversity and even reduces greenhouse gas emissions. As gardener Alys Fowler argues, ‘your lawn is already a wildflower meadow - every inch of soil is waiting for its moment to burst forth.’

Admittedly, so far, our attempt at rewilding hasn’t brought forth too many different wildflowers. They’re there in quantity – there are blankets of white heather with the buttercups still thriving on the right-hand side – but they don’t appear to the naked eye to be all that diverse just yet. Dad and I have tried to remedy this under the plum tree with a selection of wildflower seeds but from further research it turns out we’d be better off putting in wildflower plugs. It’s simpler where the buttercups have moved in on the right; we’re just letting that area grow. Truly letting it just be ‘wild.’

About a month after starting this rewilding journey, courtesy of Dad visiting the local market, the January edition of the Gardener’s World magazine fell into my lap. And what should I find on page 19 but Monty Don’s monthly column on rewilding – and why he was against it.

I felt slightly cheated that the magazine edition of the TV programme that had encouraged me to rewild in the first place was now telling me off. Once I got over my frustration at the headline, I read a little further and was intrigued.

Monty Don’s argument was primarily that we should ‘not wash our hands and walk away.’ He argues that much deforestation occurred 2,000 years ago, and many of the areas are simply not big enough to ‘rewild.’ At least not completely, with every element of the food chain.

He quotes the example of the Oostvaardersplassen, just outside Amsterdam in the Netherlands. A 5,600-hectare area, the project began in 1983, but it has recently come under a lot of criticism for causing the starvation of many of the larger animals. The supporters of the project point out that this is part of the ‘cycle of life’ and that in other ways the biodiversity of the land is thriving. They plan to put in more protection for the animals that are still there. Critics say that it’s animal cruelty – and, for the larger animals at least, the area is too small to experience any real ‘rewilding’.

The Oostvaardersplassen case is an odd one. What stuck out to me the most was that the land they’re rewilding was actually reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s. The cynical bit of me wishes to point out that the most ‘natural’ destiny that land could have would be to let the sea wash back in.

Humanity hasn’t been kind to the Earth and as Monty argues, washing our hands of it completely seems unfair. We have the power to do a lot of damage, which means we also have the power to do a lot of good. Leaving areas to just be ‘wild’ – when they haven’t known wilderness for sometimes thousands of years – just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Especially in the cases like Oostvaardersplassen where there is not even a beneficial ‘wild’ to return to.

So, what does that mean for my garden? Forming part of a house built in the 90s, my garden has been around for about 30 years, and I’m informed by a local historian (also known as my father) that it was farmland for centuries, if not millennia, before that. It’s good to let the grass grow long. But what has more impact are the Catnip and the Lavender that are always covered in bees. Or the bug hotel we made out of an old log. Or maybe even my dad’s policy that he never kills a slug no matter how many times they destroy our runner beans.

To think of ‘rewilding’ is positive, but I think it should be more about considering ways to entice and invite the wild back in. Having a pot of bug friendly flowers, letting the moss and clover grow up between the grass, having a compost heap (if you’re lucky enough to have the space). Being less perfectionist about our gardens is definitely important – don’t go at your lawn with scissors! But don’t strive for it being completely wild. We want to feel like we can influence local ecosystems, and be part of creating a greener world - and letting a garden do what it wants in an urban environment may feel like the perfect step forward to achieve that. In reality however, in an area the size of a domestic garden, it’s most beneficial to deliberately design the space with a positive environmental impact in mind. Yes, letting the nature in your garden do its thing is great, but the rewards will be much greater if we provide a little helping hand.

By Louder Than The Storm writer Daisy Everingham


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