Beyond the bird feeder is a new column by Alys Fowler for Wicked Leeks.
At some point late last summer, when the garden was still a place to store empty cardboard boxes and all the other detritus of moving, I found my reason for how this garden should be designed. It was hidden under a shallow firepit that had been upturned on some grass.
When I went to move it, I found two beautiful slow worms, coiled into each other, eyeing me up as I lifted the lid on their slumber. I quickly returned them to darkness and then couldn’t help but take another peek. Slow worms, a great chorus of house sparrows, starlings, long tailed tits, wagtails, dunnocks, Buff Tip moths camouflaged to look like old birch twigs, violet ground beetles, swooping bats in the evening, the owl that passes by on the way to church, the mistle thrushes and blackbirds: the list of inhabitants in this tiny garden grew every time I stepped outside. And with every greeting, I found my reason.
In my last garden, it was more a case of that anything I did was an improvement on the biodiversity. It was mostly a blank space, not much more than a sea of gravel, with the odd bush here and there. Everything I added, the flowers, the vegetables, the fruit trees and bushes, the climbers up the walls, the spring bulbs and the large compost heap were a case of introducing a new potential habitat. I could garden entirely for myself and still improve the wildlife odds.
But in this garden, there are plenty who already called this place home and those curled slow worms made me realise how gently I’ll have to go at making this space into a garden for us all. I could very easily destroy sleeping spaces, breeding spots and food sources under the misguided notion that my desire to grow organic food matters more.
So, this time round I am making a wildlife garden that grows food – rather than a food garden that likes wildlife. At every step, I find myself adjusting, evaluating and then inching forward. This is a radically slower pace for me. I am usually a whirlwind of energy, tirelessly going at it all until the things I don’t want are gone and things needing to be tamed are chopped.
In one corner, a bramble so vast that it reached over three metres tall had grown up and over a rather nice mature ivy. It was a clever bramble; this is a corner bathed from mid-morning till the evening in the sun. There’s a strong argument for it to stay. In autumn, it provided berries for the song birds and in winter, behind its vicious thorns, the blackbirds gorged on the ripe ivy berries. But it is also the best spot for an apple. A tree that will, one day, be just as good a habitat as the bramble, and will provide me with more than just jam.
It was an intervention into an ecosystem that existed long before the place was named a garden. I left the bramble standing through the winter, taking it down bit by bit, so everyone could adjust.
With every wave of great change, I must make sure I have shared some other space. So, I fashioned the chopped bramble stems into a dead hedge with other woody material. I see the house sparrows sitting on it most mornings and this afternoon, I disturbed a wren hiding inside one of its many gaps.
As for the slow worms, they moved on from the firepit after a week or so. I spent an afternoon building a new shed base that would be slow worm friendly, with plenty of entrance and exit holes. I filled some of these spaces with rotting wood, as I read that they like to hibernate in the crevices of rotting stumps. The whole thing is a little eccentric-looking; I’ve planted two rhubarbs either side of the steps, and in the shadier spots I’ve added ferns, sweet violet and snowdrops for early spring foraging and tulips for later.
Over the next months, I’ll be writing here about my new garden in Wales, and how I’m going about making it a wildlife-friendly space. It’s not a large garden; it’s a typical terrace that lies at the bottom of a very steep hill. There is much work ahead, but I’ll take my cues from the other residents for how this garden shall unfurl and hopefully we shall all grow richer for it.