Sarah Raven's Biodiversity Lessons For UK Gardeners
In 2012, Gardening expert Sarah Raven hosted a BBC series called ‘Bees, Butterflies, and Blooms’ that explored the decline of Britain’s most cherished pollinators and what we all can do to protect them. Inspired by her findings and the people she met along the way, Sarah has been on a journey to increase biodiversity in her garden at Perch Hill, and to encourage others to do the same in theirs.
According to WWF’s latest Living Planet Report, global wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970. Many factors are negatively impacting global biodiversity including climate change, deforestation, and increased urban developments, but there are actions that can be taken at home to improve and rewild local habitats. Here, Sarah shares the top 10 things gardeners can do to encourage natural life to thrive in any garden no matter the size.
Sarah’s Top 10 Lessons In Biodiversity
If you’re yet to venture onto the path of sustainability, these are my recommended steps that all gardeners should take. Make sure you are doing four or five of these steps right now and aim to add one or two every six months or so. If you really want to make an impact, go the whole hog straight away and adopt all ten.
1. Stop Using Chemicals
Try to avoid using chemicals to mitigate pests and weeds. As we all know, insecticides are there to kill, and it’s unwise to use herbicides and fungicides as these heavy chemicals will wipe out microorganisms below ground. At Perch Hill, we use physical barriers against slugs and snails in a wet year and have found they work well. Strulch (a form of rough-cut straw), a moat of wool pellets, or a good 15cm zone of enclosing grit makes the world of difference when reducing damage from slugs and snails.
Companion planting is also an effective way to manage pests. We underplant tomatoes with basil, roses with small-leaved salvias, summer savoury under broad beans, and our lupins grow through a sea of tagetes which deters the aphids, so they don’t then overwinter to feast the following spring.
2. Embrace Peat Free Growing Media
Peat is a valuable carbon sink in the wild, and peat-based compost destroys that sink and adds additional carbon to the atmosphere, so it’s important to steer clear. More and more successful alternatives are in production, including composted bark that has less of a carbon footprint than coir.
3. Think About Water
Now is a great time to get ahead and implement water storage solutions to keep your garden hydrated and happy throughout next summer. Providing sources of shallow water for bees and birds is also invaluable. I love to sit and watch our water feature, an old, repurposed animal water trough with a 10cm flattened edge. Different bird varieties use it to wash and drink, and bees, wasps, and butterflies fill the edges in a hot day, drinking away.
If you’ve got room for a pond, add one. There’s almost nothing better for biodiversity than having a shallow-edged pond, and you’ll have frogs and toads that will munch away happily on your slug population. There’s nothing they love more.
4. Forget Immaculate Gardening
Now is the time to rethink your traditional manicured garden look and allow your borders, plants, and hedges to become looser and free flowing. This will enable more wildlife to live there, with you, and thrive. Link up with your neighbours and encourage them to create wildlife corridors, linking garden to garden.
5. Feed The Birds
At Perch Hill, we grow plenty of seedy plants and use bird feeders, but only put out as much food at once as they can consume in a few days, and don’t forget to clean feeders before refilling. This simple step limits the spread of devastating parasitic diseases, that affect much-loved greenfinch, chaffinch, and garden tits.
6. Introduce Early Flowering Plants
In the UK, we’ve wiped out almost all our flowery meadows which have traditionally provided forage for birds, butterflies, and bees. gardening to replace those lost plants with varieties that will bloom in February and March, will ensure birds and pollinators have access to food.
Varieties such as iris reticulata, polyanthus are all good choices, followed by single dahlias and salvias, which flower later in the year. Why not create a chart to ensure you have a succession of flowering plants throughout the entire year.
7. Fruits And Seeds
Providing garden birds with sustained meals couldn’t be easier. Adding roses that form hips is an excellent choice, along with planting a myrtle bush for dunnocks, blue tits, and gold finches to feast away. Instead of cutting back brambles and hedgerows, allow these to flower and fruit, and of course, hawthorn and crab apple are always firm favourites.
8. Consider A Diverse Range Of Plants
Wildlife thrives with a wide range of plants and structures – a tree, with a climber growing up it, a decent-sized shrub or two, perennial bulbs, and annuals, including grasses and grains. It’s true that our native plants are valuable, but don’t worry too much about this. Insects and birds won’t avoid more exotic varieties if they have the right forage or protein-rich seed available. Like humans, pollinators also benefit from a varied diet.
9. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Forget about purchasing brand-new things, and reuse what you already have. When applying this principle to the garden, it’s a lot more manageable than you might think. At Perch Hill, we now put many of our old empty plastic pots and polystyrene plant trays into the bottom of our whopper pots rather than the bin. They fill about ¼ to 1/3 the bottom of the pot, which we then cover with a layer of fleece, and then in goes the compost. This saves on the volume of compost required, plus it’s better for the environment and fine for the plants.
Make your own compost if you have the space, but if you’re short of room, what about a wormery or Japanese Bokashi kitchen composting system. Making your own compost is incredibly rewarding and excellent for soil health too.
Discover more by visiting the Sarah Raven website here