The wonders of our wildlife garden

Outdoor Living

LOW MAINTENANCE Mixed native wild flower meadow only requires one cut a year. Image courtesy of Oliver Whyte.

In The Garden
Oliver Whyte

The wildlife garden is a space where nature is allowed to recover with low levels of intervention. Compared to conventional gardening, the wildlife garden may not have year-round intense colour or impressive tidiness, but what does manifest is rapid recovery and a return of endangered plants and animals; our priceless natural heritage.
A silent extinction of our critical ecosystems continues globally due to human activity. The cure for despair is action. We as individuals now need to act with this extinction emergency. As transient guardians of land, from window sills to large farms, we can choose to implement wildlife-saving actions.  
The term ‘biodiversity’ to some is an academic concept; an obstruction to real-world productivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. High biodiversity results in real-world benefits: higher fertility soils, healthier plants and animals, cleaner air and water, drought and flooding resistance and pollutant removal.
These benefits apply to all our ecosystems, from gardens to farms, woodlands to rivers and oceans. The highest biodiversity possible is in the interest of all human health and activities.

Lessons learned
We have learned much since starting our garden project. We have learned how unimpeded, most land in Ireland will naturally and rapidly develop into temperate rain forest, how soils thrive when many plants interact together, but shut down when we reduce to single-figure species, and how weed killer is also a soil killer.
We learned too how pioneer trees like willow, birch and alder grow impressively fast and create rich soil from stones and sand, how up to 40 percent of what a plant produces is food for soil organisms, and how briars, gorse and bracken do not choke the land – they are players in a regeneration process called plant succession where there is rolling dominance of plant species towards the end goal – maximum fertility ecosystems.
We have come to know that predators are essential balancers and controllers of ecosystems, and that healthy ecosystems will control pest numbers without any human intervention – our slugs are rarely seen thanks to frogs, thrushes and hedgehogs!
In the wildlife garden, synthetic chemicals are never used, as they are toxic to a range of biology, from soil microorganisms to larger birds and mammals. Certain plants have been designated ‘weeds’ to be destroyed at any opportunity, particularly if they have defensive thorns or stings. However, these indigenous species arrived well before us and provide important services to the ecosystem. It is time we challenge this perception of what deserves to live and die.
Briars, gorse, ivy, nettles and docks are high on the conventional list for assassination, but they are among the most important of plants for wildlife and soil fertility. We lament the lack of our most common butterflies while cleansing our gardens of their sole nursery plant, the stinging nettle (the top mineral accumulator of all our plants). Dock roots penetrate down 1.5 metres through compacted ground and deliver essential minerals to the soil surface. Gorse, alder and vetches pull nitrogen from the air into our soils.

Recovery and rewards
The wildlife garden has a wide variety of habitat spaces and food sources – native trees, stones and wood piles, water features, grasses and wild flowers let grow to seed, as nature intended. Leaves, wood, grass cuttings, food left-overs are not removed but let decay to feed critical soil microbiology. Infrequent animal grazing (or human cutting and removal) also increases plant diversity by inhibiting dominant plants.
Biologists are pleading with us to grow plants native to our regions, as our insects and other creatures have evolved unique relationships with our native plants not present with exotic plants. Seek out Irish provenance plants where possible. (Generous friends gifted us many local trees, for which we are immensely grateful.) Collect seeds from endangered native plants from roadsides, ditches and local woodlands.
A water feature, whether a topped-up bucket or a large pond, is a wonderful resource for the entire garden wildlife ecosystem, and especially critical during the summer months.
Of course there have been frustrations; a fox ‘borrowed’ a few hens, rabbits bit some exposed young trees, the crows stole some hen eggs, field mice cleared out the planted acorns. We rail, cool down, and then empathy arrives: not everything is for humans. We have erased many creatures’ homes and food sources – they need to feed and live too.
Our wildlife garden has rewarded us with many wondrous experiences. The natural recovery has seen the arrival of the kestrel, stoat, newt, hedgehog, and the critically endangered barn owl. It has enriched our lives, and those of our children, immeasurably.

Oliver Whyte’s garden, Coill an Chúir at Sandyhill in Westport, is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail. A chain of beautiful and unique private gardens, the trail opens to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month, an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.