Garden wildlife and autumn tidying

by Richard Jones

In the latest issue of Gardeners' World magazine, I go head-to-head with James Alexander-Sinclair by suggesting that gardeners are doing more harm than good...

Red admiral butterflyIn the latest issue of Gardeners' World magazine, I go head-to-head with James Alexander-Sinclair by suggesting that gardeners are doing more harm than good by too much autumn tidying. I just know that all this anti-gardening talk is going to get me into trouble. Especially as last weekend, I did a bit of, well, tidying in the garden. It was limited, however, to clipping a few stray rose branches that had suddenly shot out at eye height. And I picked up a few windfall apples to see which ones I could salvage for the crumble.

We don't have the most regimented of gardens, in fact it's a bit wild sometimes. But wildlife is, by definition, wild. As I said in the magazine, it has no time for straight lines, clipped edges, smart displays, or level lawns. We have none of these, but we do have plenty of straggly bits of long grass, clematis and ivy thickets you could hide a giant panda in, and an unexplored jungle, alive with distant roars, behind the compost bins.

I sometimes feel uneasy when I see a garden trimmed to within an inch of its wildlife. There are quite a few hereabouts in East Dulwich. They are so neat and manicured, so ordered, so precisely laid out and clipped to the millimetre, that I think wildlife would probably be enhanced if they used plastic flowers instead.

Does this sound harsh? If you think it is, I still can't believe that the Editor of Gardeners' World magazine let me get away with calling gardeners 'cack-handed' when it came to planting nectar-rich plants and hanging seed balls. On Sunday, our ivy was abuzz with bees, wasps, hoverflies and other insects, but when this fast-food source is gone, they will still need the most basic of their primary needs - shelter. Animals coming to 'visit' flowers, or bird tables, or fat balls, is all well and good, but they have also got to have somewhere to live - shelter. When their 'visit' is over, they have to go home to - you guessed it - shelter. Night-time roosting is important, but at this time of year over-wintering sanctuary is paramount. And yet it is precisely this shelter which is most in danger of being tidied away, cut down, mulched, shredded, composted or otherwise removed to make way for next year's grand displays.

If you want wildlife to feel at home in your garden, let it make a home there. Don't straighten the log pile or alphabetise the flower pots; don't deadhead all the seed capsules or cut back all the wilting leaves; don't fell all the dead wood or grub up the old stump. Instead, leave straggly bits of long grass, leave the clematis and ivy thickets, and leave the untidy mess behind the compost bins. Feel free, however, to cut down the odd rose branch that threatens to gouge out your eyes.

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Talkback: Garden wildlife and autumn tidying
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Gardeners' World Web User 13/10/2010 at 10:04

The secret to helping wildlife is to have a garden large enough to accommodate all the things you mention, Richard. I am very privileged to have such but it is anything but the norm in a big city. I do get great joy when I see a whole street of small front gardens all different however, as they are providing a range of habitats for the bees and butterflies. Some of them prefer the spring show, some summer and some look great in autumn with lots of berries and Michaelmas daisies. Here lies the solution - be an individual, tidy or untidy, in your garden and together the needs of the wildlife will be served.

Gardeners' World Web User 13/10/2010 at 11:28

How about a compromise, guys? Everyone has a area that is sort of ignored. Cut and trim all you want, but move the trimmings to that unused area for the winter. Works for us - and our neighbors aren't appalled with the "I don't care about my yard" look...

Gardeners' World Web User 14/10/2010 at 16:27

I agree whole-heartly with your blog. A clipped and trained garden says to me that the gardener is a control freak and is probably never happy with the way it looks ( I knew a gardener who clipped his lawn with scissors after he'd mown it, I'm not joking). This I find sad, as a garden is ultimately made to be enjoyed. The fact that a relatively 'wild' garden attracts wildlife enhances the pleasure no end.

Gardeners' World Web User 14/10/2010 at 21:54

My garden is a bit too wild at present, but the wildlife is amazing, particularly the birds. I am fortunate to live in Berks,but it isn't too far to where the Red Kite release programme took place in the 90's, so we get to see 1 RK every day. If only people would look up they would see this magnificent bird flying over their local Waitrose, sorry it doesn't seem to like Tesco on the other side of town. yesterday we had Coal Tits and Nuthatches on our seed feeder but what regularly entertains us most is our flock of House sparrows. There may be a shortage in London, good news, we have at least 50 living in and around our hedges. Bad news is we also have a resident Sparrowhawk and having seen that from about 4ft away I am very glad I am not a sparrow.

Gardeners' World Web User 15/10/2010 at 19:10

I agree. My garden is an organic "forest"--fruit trees,bushes & plantsbut everything tastes great!

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