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Organic gardening: how a natural garden works

Val Bourne / 02 September 2019

There's nothing newfangled about organic gardening, we've been doing it for centuries. Val Bourne looks at how a chemical-free wildlife-friendly garden works.

Wildlife-friendly organic garden
A garden with a good variety of plants can help all sorts of insects

It’s more important than ever for gardeners to take up the wildlife baton, because the natural world’s in decline and the pace has accelerated over the last 20 years, as many Saga readers will know. Birdsong is becoming a rarity and there’s no need to scrape the moths and flies off the car windscreen once a week anymore, because all that abundance has gone.

I've noticed the decline in wildlife more than most, because I’ve been an organic gardener all my life. I learnt to garden with my grandmother when I was a small child and she was born in 1881 and she learnt her skills from her father, so there’s nothing new-fangled about gardening without chemicals. We've been doing it for centuries and you can have a beautiful garden and attract wildlife.

In the mid-1990s I realised that lots of gardeners were resorting to chemical props and I decided to write a book, The Natural Gardener, based on my organic Oxfordshire garden. There was one huge problem. I had no idea why my garden was healthy, so I started to try and analyse why my plants were healthy and why I didn't have many problems.

I had a Damascene moment in the late 1990s, when two children visited the garden. They began to ask questions about blackfly feeding on a white achillea. They noticed that ants were going up and down the stems and I explained that they were feeding on the honeydew coming out of the aphid’s bottoms. Ants farm the aphids because they like to eat the honeydew. A small parasitic wasp appeared and laid one egg in one blackfly. There were some ladybirds and then some adult blue tits began to collect the aphids and take them back to their fledglings. I used the words living jigsaw and that’s when I realised that my own garden had a series of tiny interactions going on all the time and I called this a living jigsaw. This is what you want in your garden, lots of interactions.

This is what you want in your garden, lots of interactions and that means laying off the pesticides, weed killers and slug bait. Don’t use garlic spray or soft-soap either because you’ll kill off all your helpful predators along with your pests. Without natural predators you’re likely to get more problems because there’s nothing’s around to control them.

There's another lesser-known, knock-on effect when you spray because the living world evolves by a process called natural selection. When you use an insecticide you’ll accelerate this selection process because any surviving aphids will have some resistance to that pesticide. These survivors will reproduce quickly, without having to mate, through a process called parthenogenesis, and the baby aphids will be clones of the adult and have the same genes. They’ll also be resistant too soon you’ll have created your own super race of resistant greenfly. If aphids really bother you just rub them away with your fingers, because their feeding tubes (also known as stylets) are incredibly fragile.

Ten wildlife gardening tips for managing your garden naturally

Take your lawn less seriously

More chemicals are poured onto lawns than anything else in the garden. It may look like a bowling green, but it’s a barren wilderness when it comes to wildlife. Leave your grass to grow a little longer and you’ll have daisies, selfheal and dandelions and all three are highly appreciated by wild bees, flying beetles and flies. Go one step further and create a mini-meadow and you’ll encourage mining bees. Less mowing will use less fossil fuel and brown butterflies are likely to lay their eggs on certain native grasses. You’ll also encourage more ground beetles and these are the best predators of slugs available to the gardener.

Find out how to create a meadow

Make use of roadside verges

Plantlife are encouraging people to plant up their verges so they form green corridors, because wild flowers are disappearing in the countryside. Download Plantlife’s Good Verge Guide to find out more. It’s also worth lobbying your local authority because some counties, like Dorset, have saved tens of thousands of pounds of council tax payers’ money whilst improving and conserving their local flora. They use mowers that collect the clippings and this keeps fertility down, allowing wildflowers more room to grow because coarse grasses are less robust.

Keep the flowers coming

Early flowers are particularly vital for bumblebees and solitary bees, fresh out of hibernation. Crocuses and hellebores provide early nectar for flight, and protein-rich pollen for breeding. Try to have a supply of flowers throughout the year and go for lots of different shapes including trumpets, saucers, daisies and umbels because different insects like different plants.

Find out about getting started with British wildflowers

Tolerate slugs

Although some slugs do damage plants, other slugs are very good at cleaning up the garden and getting rid of detritus or rotting material. if you want to target slugs go out at dusk and pick them off your plants and, if you're squeamish, wear garden gloves. Blue slug pellets containing metaldehyde are due to be banned in spring 2020 because this harmful chemical cannot be extracted from water sources.

Plant some annuals

The most attractive flowers for bees are definitely hardy annuals and biennials. The blue cornflour, Centaurea cyanus, is a favourite of the red tailed bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius. Other bees flock to annual scabious, foxgloves, phacelia and borage. Save your own seeds and store them in tins.

Go for diversity

Have one or two trees, some shrubs, some evergreens, some roses, some perennials, some ferns and some grasses, if you can. You’ll attract more insects.

Find out about how to encourage beneficial insects

Add some native woody plants

Native plants have an affinity with our wildlife so it's important to try and include some in your garden. A hawthorn hedge could, in theory, attract 149 species of insect. It’s fourth behind oak (284), willow (266) and birch (229). Apple trees, non-natives which have been here for centuries, are also insect-friendly and could possibly attract 93 insect. Portuguese laurel and Lleyland conifers attract very few insects and the both of these fast-growing hedges need cutting more than once a year in most cases.

Leave some undisturbed areas

Nesting sites are also vital but rarely mentioned. Try to leave a sunny bank unmown so that queen bees have somewhere to nest. Dry stone walls also provide crevices and they also like positions protected by overhead trees such as hazel.

Make a wildlife pond if it's safe

A small pond can attract all sorts of wildlife including amphibians and dragonflies. There are safety issues with young children but older children are fascinated by pond dipping.

Find out how to create a wildlife pond

Right plant right place

Growing things in the correct place means that they're not likely to suffer from stress. Stressed plants are more likely to become diseased. Don't try to grow moisture-loving plants like Phloxes if your garden is very dry. Go for drought tolerant silver-leaved plants instead.

Val Bourne is the author of The Living Jigsaw, Kew Publishing

Living Jigsaw 


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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.