Everybody has a different vision of a garden: an “outside room” with swimming pool and barbecue; a place for children to play; a productive area for fruit and vegetables; somewhere beautiful to relax. Wildlife gardeners have a different vision. For them a garden is a single ecosystem where each element, from the ground up, supports all the others to produce an environment for all kinds of life to flourish.
A wildlife garden can be just as beautiful as the best-kept show garden, with the added benefit that it will be full of butterflies, bees, birds, lizards and small (and sometimes large) mammals.
Non-organic gardeners’ eyes tend to glaze over at the mention of natural balances. However, a little observation shows that nature is in fact a system of checks and balances. The vegetation that predominates in a given area is that which has evolved over the millennia to suit its surroundings. Anything that can’t take the conditions dies out. The fauna that has evolved alongside is also uniquely adapted. The survival of predators and prey is linked and, in the natural course of things, no single pest will take control (unless through human interference).
In our gardens, we have upset the natural balance. We bring in plants that aren’t adapted to our conditions. We try to make it up to them by giving them extra watering and feeding; but, ultimately, an ill-adapted plant will be more at risk from pests and diseases than an indigenous one. So we resort to pesticides and further alter the natural balance for the worse. In the long run, the garden becomes a war-zone between the gardener and nature. No bets as to who will win here. Nature has a facility for adapting, as any farmer with herbicide-resistant weeds in his fields will tell you.
So, take a good look at your garden and do a little analysis of soils and aspect. If you have a large property, you may have a variety of different zones which offer different habitats for the wildlife. A quick way to get an idea of what indigenous species flourish in your area is to go for a long walk with a notebook and a camera. Ideally, do this several times, at different times of the year.
Generally-speaking, in Mediterranean areas many wild bulbs and orchids flourish in the spring, while early summer is the best time for flowers. In late summer, you can identify the real survivors of heat and drought; and in the autumn and winter, many plants revive and put out flowers much appreciated by pollinating insects, or produce nuts and berries.
Under the right conditions, our gardens can be a precious refuge for hard-pressed species. So if enough of us garden for wildlife, we can do something to halt or at least slow down the trend. So how do you garden for wildlife?
Wildlife gardening adopts the basic principles of organic gardening and, fortunately, these intersect quite happily with those of Mediterranean gardening. Chief among them are adapting your planting to your conditions and using indigenous plants, which are also key to gardening in a Mediterranean climate.
Most importantly, stop using all herbicides and pesticides. Not only is this absolutely essential so as not to kill off your wildlife, but it is also protection for you, your children and your domestic animals. Research shows that in some areas, 90% of the chemical products used in gardens is not taken up by the plants but ends up in the ground-water. So as a first step, go through your garage or shed and take all poisonous substances down to the dump. Do not dispose of them in the dustbin!
Create a natural balance in the garden, by re-establishing an ecosystem which functions as a whole. An organic garden has living soil full of micro-organisms which supports flourishing insect life. These insects in turn provide food for birds and small mammals, which in turn support larger predators. Without outside interference, a balance is reached within a year or two and, all things being equal, a system of checks and balances comes into operation, with beneficial insects and birds keeping the pests in check.
Take specific measures to encourage wildlife. Put up nest-boxes, make a pond or water feature, provide insect hotels or overwintering sites for small mammals, provide shrub cover for birds and wildlife.
Why is gardening for wildlife important? Biodiversity is under threat as never before, especially in Mediterranean zones. We all know about the effects of climate change. Average temperatures are increasing worldwide. Water is becoming scarcer.
In many countries (including the Mediterranean area), land is being built over to accommodate increasing populations. The use of pesticides and herbicides is widespread in agriculture. As a consequence, insect and bird populations are in decline, in some cases catastrophically. There’s no way of knowing what will happen if the trend continues unchecked, except that we know the consequences won’t be good. Gardeners in the Mediterranean can do their bit to increase biodiversity and see the results very close to home.
By Rosie Peddle
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Mediterranean Gardening Association – Portugal