4 Ways to Rewild Your Garden

CC BY 2.0. Mike's Birds -- Two titmice enjoy a garden bird bath.

Learn how to transform your yard into a sanctuary for birds, bees, and other little critters.

Two years ago I bought a house that came with extensive gardens. The gardens were immaculate, maintained by the previous homeowner who was retired and spent multiple hours a day caring for them. It didn't take long for me to realize that (a) gardens don't stay that way unless you work at it constantly, and (b) I don't enjoy gardening as much as I'd expected to, mainly because I'm chronically short on time.

Ever since I took ownership, the gardens have become considerably less immaculate than they once were. My feelings about this have evolved from disappointment and guilt to acceptance; but after reading an article by Patrick Barkham called "How to rewild your garden: ditch chemicals and decorate the concrete," I'm thinking that it may even be great for my gardens to be less manicured.

Barkham argues that carefully manicured lawns and tidy gardens are "desolate and hostile, stripped of the natural abundance and vigour that our soils and climate naturally serve up, even in the heart of a city." Humans should try to view their outdoor spaces through the eyes of wild animals. Is it a place that can provide shelter, safety, nourishment, water? If not, how can you make it more like that? Consciously choosing to 'rewild' your garden is a responsible thing to do, not a negligent one, and you can do this by making a few key changes. Barkham has a few suggestions:

1) Make a pond. It doesn't have to be big; you can use a mixing bowl. His own pond measures 50cm (20 inches) x 90cm (35 in):

"[I] collected some duckweed and other common pond 'weeds' from a friend’s pond. Within a year, it was found by mating frogs, newts, pond snails and damselflies."

If you don't want to make a pond, then at least provide a source of water, perhaps in the form of a bird bath or fountain. Animals are attracted to the sound of running water, and it prevents it from going stagnant.

2) Decorate your concrete. There's always room for something to grow, whether it's squeezing hedges and bushes along the sides of your driveway or planting ivy that can climb up the side of a house. After looking at some beautiful urban gardens in Bologna last week, I've discovered the power of large plant-filled pots, and how effective they are at creating a sense of lush greenery.

3) Stop mowing your lawn. An act of true rebellion in today's era of obsessively perfect lawn-scaping, quitting the mower can result in a wildflower meadow in your own yard. Barkham writes:

"If lawns are old and not weedkillered to death, they are full of different species of grass and herbs, many of which 'flower' as beautifully as flowers.I still have neatly mown paths and borders around my long grass. Orchid-lovers like to cut their 'meadows' in July but I leave mine until November – late seeds are food for goldfinches and a high autumnal cut doesn’t kill the butterflies such as meadow browns whose caterpillars have fed up on grass and are safely hibernating in the turf."

4) Plant less. Wait more. Many zealous gardeners buy expensive native perennials in an effort to make their space more natural and friendly to wildlife, but this can also be achieved for considerably less money and effort by waiting a year or two. Your garden will rewild itself naturally, and many of the flowers and trees that sprout will be more well-suited to your soil than an introduced species.

All of these ideas (and many more, outlined here in the full original article) make me feel considerably better about the fact that my own gardens are rougher, looser, and scruffier than ever before. But as long as the butterflies, cardinals, honeybees, mourning doves, and chipmunks continue to frequent it, I can't be too far off the mark.