Letting Nature In - Guest Blog

Letting Nature In - Guest Blog

You don't need a masterplan to welcome nature into your garden, you just need to be open to trying something new and enjoying the pleasure you get from the journey.

Victor Allister, Ulster Wildlife member and Let Nature In supporter, talks about how he, and other tenants, are making space for nature in their shared spaces in Bangor, Co Down

A few times I’ve been asked if you need a master plan to make your garden more ‘wildlife friendly’ or to ‘let nature in’.

Not in my experience. In fact, your ability to accommodate nature will depend less on garden size, soil condition and so on than your commitment and, particularly, willingness to experiment, to see what works and what does not, and to improvise. Which makes it not only rewarding, but fun.

About three years ago when a few of us in our retirement community in Bangor decided that we should do something practical to help our beleaguered wildlife, we had not even heard the term ‘wildlife gardening’, but in the local library I happened upon a dusty copy of an All-Ireland Pollinator Plan booklet about flowers and bees, and that set us on our way.

Given what we know now, not least through Ulster Wildlife’s ‘Let Nature In’ campaign, it’s easy to forget that even three years ago there was little information around (or was just hard to find) and the concept of ‘don’t mow, let it grow’ had not yet really taken root, so we decided to sow native wildflowers in planters.

But despite a lot of googling, we couldn’t find any information about or a source for planters, so we designed our own, using ‘sleeper-type’ logs and basic, unfertilized soil. A local mental health charity heard what we were doing and contributed lots of ‘Bee Bombs’ which, with a little ceremony, were planted in April 2019.

Bear in mind that, candidly, we didn’t really know what we were doing and if it would work, but it did, and in summer 2019 we had a fine display of lots of flourishing wildflowers and had transformed our rather ‘passive’ garden site to one that actively promoted wildlife recovery. It also looked good to residents.

Was it plain sailing for our wildflower planters after? Of course not. In 2020 ox-eye daisies became dominant and many needed to be removed (mostly relocated), and a switch to different seed bombs, combined with the difficult Spring weather of 2021, reduced the visual impact. It’s been a learning process, and our wildflower planters are a work in progress.

What else were we doing? Well, we put many nest boxes in place for birds and bats, but our house sparrows and starlings mostly preferred the old fashioned but more natural nest locations under roof ridge tiles, while collared doves improvised nests behind roof level floodlights. But some tits have used nest boxes, and judging from spring birdsong and observations, in addition to starlings and house sparrows, we’ve had nesting blackbirds, goldfinches, great tits, blue tits, wrens, robins and dunnocks all sensibly hidden in hedges, trees and scrub within and around the site. Not bad for suburban east Bangor. While the bat box appears to be unused, it’s there if the numbers of nocturnal insects increase over coming years (build it and they will come?).

Bird bath at Montgomery Manor- V Allister blog

We’ve also planted native trees, including goat willow, crab apple, holly, and a solitary dogwood, along with honeysuckle, foxgloves, honesty, teasels (which grew to about 3m high!), dog roses and any other plant, native or not, which will benefit wildlife.

For instance, spotting about 10m of ‘dead’ soil (mostly Bangor clay and stones) along the base of a south-facing fence, we planted red valerian (which will pretty much grow anywhere, even in the mortar of old stone walls), which is much loved by bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects.

Our first attempt at ‘don’t mow, let it grow’ on an expanse of lawn was hugely successful, with wildflowers naturally regenerating, including orchids, but as if to demonstrate that we don’t control nature, this year we had an influx of horse tails, which, like the orchids, had been there in the soil, just waiting for the mowing to stop. So, next year we’ll just have to try something different.

Orchid at Montgomery Manor - V Allister blog

The two pieces of the wildlife gardening mosaic that most appeal to me are log piles and water. Just to look at a maturing, mouldering log pile and know that there is another little world in there, of beetles, worms and lots more, gives me special pleasure. On water, while we don’t have anywhere for a pond, bird baths have served well, and if you haven’t watched a woodpigeon bathing, you’ve missed a treat.

Montgomery Log Pile - V Allister Blog

Of course, we haven’t just benefitted nature, but ourselves too, by working together and introducing some folk to wildlife for the first time in their lives. And we’ve learned at first hand what experts now tell us…being close to nature is good for our mental and emotional health.

Another positive spinoff has been the spread of wildlife gardening to other places. Alpha Housing, which owns and manages our homes, enthusiastically grasped the baton, and is actively incorporating best practice into its planting and maintenance systems across its estate and encouraging tenants to participate. Alpha even became a corporate sponsor of Ulster Wildlife, symbolically very important, and has provided vital leadership for the social housing sector, where other housing associations are now integrating the needs of wildlife into policies and practices.

As I wrote at the outset, you don’t need a masterplan to change your garden, nor should you impose a rigid ‘regime’; just broadly follow the roadmap provided by ‘Let Nature In’. In addition to seeing and hearing more wildlife, the fun, the pleasure, will come from trying something new, adopting and adapting for your own garden space, always ready to change and improvise, going with the flow of nature.

~ Victor Allister