Whether you live in a concrete jungle or suburban bliss, Charlotte Willis can help turn your patch of green into an ecological haven.
It’s a cool Sunday bank holiday afternoon. The sun peeks through the ominous grey clouds above as I meander my bamboozled, city-soaked body around Sutton Coldfield’s nature reserve. I call it green therapy. My mind slows, the never-ending to-do list of my 24/7 lifestyle blows away page by page with the light springtime wind, and I am submerged in an idyllic state of tranquillity.
Immersing ourselves in nature in this way harnesses incredible restorative benefits for both our mental, and physical, wellbeing. Unfortunately, our disconnection with the natural environment surrounding us, combined with the increasing pressure we are placing upon our local ecosystems, is resulting in an endangerment of species and wildlife populations like never before.
Make way for human intervention
The clearing of greenfield land (areas of untouched natural beauty and wildlife) to make way for concrete, glass and all things man-made is intruding upon the viability of our natural ecosystems at an alarming rate. According to the RSPB, we’ve lost over 99% of our unimproved grassland areas since the 1930s, with any remaining areas of land being severely fragmented by human interference. Not surprising really, when you consider the amount of land which is required to be sacrificed in favour of homes, schools and new infrastructure to serve our growing population.
Human intervention and interference is wreaking havoc upon our local ecosystems. Friends of the Earth has noted that almost half of rural hedgehog species in the UK have been lost, while a third of our bee populations are in steady decline, and hundreds of indigenous bird species under threat.
In part, we can attribute these losses to a reduction in natural habitat, namely rural hedgerows and meadowlands. Other culprits of decline include mass-farming practices and pesticide use, with the introduction of roads and transport networks throughout our countryside disrupting the natural migratory maps of some of our most precious wildlife species.
We are single-handedly alienating our local and indigenous wildlife species via our modern human ‘developments’. Whilst we may not have a say in the governmental-scale devastation of ecosystems for building, we can do more than just sit back and succumb to the destruction around us. It’s time to stage a wildlife revival, from the comfort of your back yard, balcony and window boxes.
Restoration begins at home
You might be thinking, oh it’s all good and well becoming a conservationist at the weekend, providing you are the proud owner of an acre or two at the bottom of your conservatory doors. Get real, woman.
Luckily for your ecosystem, I am here to burst your bubble of scepticism. It doesn’t matter if you live in a city or have a restricted garden area, your contentment in thinking there’s nothing you could possibly do to make a difference is misguided. If there’s a ledge or a sill, there’s a way. We all possess an untapped capacity to support our local wildlife and species. Whatever your outdoor space or level of gardening expertise, restoration begins at home, and is simpler than you might think.
Ditch your pesticides and weedkillers
Unwanted thistles and weeds might cause the proud gardener a sudden wave of aggravation, but rather than grabbing the nearest bottle of chemicals, reach for the greener option – your garden trowel.
Use of pesticides and weedkillers in your garden may be functional for purpose, but these chemicals will disrupt the health of your soil’s microsystem. Consider how many insects feasting upon the weed will be harmed and poisoned by the chemicals, not to mention the insects whom roam freely in the now toxic soil area.
The mammals, such as birds, who eat these insects will now have a reduced pool of food to consume, and may be pushed away from your garden in search of alternative sources of food. Consider if every household in the UK used such practices for dealing with weeds, and farmers surrounding us the same…Where would our species go?
Although this is a somewhat extreme scenario, you’ll be surprised at the difference you can make just by ditching chemical pesticides from your garden, transforming your yard into a haven for your soil and our local wildlife as a whole.
Plant biodiverse shrubbery
If you’ve got an area of soil or grassed garden, or alternatively a large planter you can use on a balcony, you should choose to fill your open spaces with a variety of wildlife-friendly plants, flowers and herbs. Holly, hawthorn and yew are all fantastic larger shrubs and trees to introduce into your garden, providing a combined year-round coverage of habitat. As with nature itself, the secret to ecological success is variety. The more fruiting bushes (such as blackcurrant and blackberry bushes) and nectar-rich flowers you can introduce, the more diverse the wildlife you will attract.
On balconies, your best option is to use ferns, creeping ivy and smaller holly bushes which can be maintained and trimmed regularly in order to prevent overgrowth. You can use deep containers for smaller bushes, the majority of which will be suited to areas of shade and limited wind. Be sure to secure the pots down, possibly using some twine or heavy potting stands to prevent wind damage.
Pot your wildflowers
Wildflower meadows are some of the most biodiverse areas of natural beauty in the UK. Rich in an assortment of wild grasses, these areas are layered with a healthy variety of pollinating flowers, breathing life into the local habitats surrounding them. Devastatingly, an estimated 97% of our wildflower meadows have disappeared from the UK*, to be replaced by intensive monoculture farming.
Here’s where you step in. Potting yourself a variety of wildflowers and grasses can help mimic the ecologically health-affirming benefits of wild grasslands. Introduce your garden, window box or balcony to a mixture of herbaceous perennials (such as lavender), annuals (such as daises and begonias) and biennials (including hollyhocks), which all flower at different times in the year, providing a continuous annual supply of nectar and diversity. Buddleia, lilac and oregano are also very beautiful plants which attract butterflies.
If you have space in your garden, or a particularly large pot for a balcony, plant a variety of mixed seeds including cowslip, knapweed, sorrel (which is important for butterfly caterpillars), buttercups and clovers. These will help attract a variety of insects and provide a habitat for a diverse range of species.
Stack logs, bricks and rocks
If you are blessed with a garden or ground-floor patio, turn piles of unwanted garden materials into natural habitats for insects and small mammals. Reserve a corner of your garden for a pile of mixed sized twigs and logs and turn hollowed sugar cane and bamboo, rocks and bricks into an insect hotel.
This is a super simple and extremely cost-effective way to introduce a greater variety of wildlife into your garden. What’s more, it needs no maintenance at all, not so much as a drop of water! Just leave on the ground and let the bugs shelter and thrive.
Compost inside or out
Composting is a fantastic way to help increase the biodiversity of your open spaces, whilst also reducing your food waste (what’s not to love?). You don’t have to have a giant composting bin outdoors either. There’s now a variety of kitchen-top, zero odour composting bins which are small enough to provide enough compost for a window box or balcony garden.
A collection of old newspapers, veg peelings, fruit skins and teabags will accumulate over time and create a homemade compost to allow your garden to thrive!
Work with your space
Creating biodiversity on a balcony or window box may seem like a challenge, but being smart with your space is essential. Use the vertical space on your balcony by planting climbing plants and bushes, and creating multiple-layered planting boxes.
You can even use hanging baskets, and attach a bird box to your outer wall (providing your landlord approves). With window boxes, diversity is the key. Plant strategically, using flowers which will bloom at different times of the year and grasses which are evergreen.
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.