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Life in the undergrowth

By Alex Barton

Having and tending to a garden has done wonders for me - I would be bereft if it were suddenly taken away. I never gave gardening a second thought until we bought our first home with its own little plot 6 years ago, and even then I didn't think about it until we finally had the overgrown garden levelled and landscaped in October 2017. We'd saved really hard to get this done, and it dawned on me that this would be money wasted if I couldn't now look after the planting. Gardening was suddenly on my radar.

I had no idea what I was doing, but my local college was offering gardening evening courses, so I dived in. Attending these helped me to figure out two things: firstly that I one-hundred percent wanted to create a wildlife garden, and secondly how to begin to do so.

Our first wildlife friendly installation was a bat box, installed facing south and situated over 3m high. We have little pipistrelle bats that flit around the roofs but they are (at time of writing) yet to find our bat box. We're still hopeful, but for now it is the home of a ferocious looking tube web spider, and I'm not about to argue with it so it can stay as long as it wants to.

Our next endeavour was to create a wildlife pond, which is now the love of my life. We dug in multiple levels and we didn't dig it too deep. Without a reserve of rainwater we had to fill it from the hose, but made sure to leave it for weeks on end for the chemicals to evaporate. A bucket of my mum's pond water was chucked in to get things going and pond plants were added. We provided multiple exits should small mammals and amphibians decide to visit - a pebble shore on the one side and a ramp on the other. Trailing plants are now also growing in the rockery around the pond edge, hanging down into the water and providing another lifeline for creatures needing an exit. I sat back and watched in anticipation as the pond became thick with blanket weed, I watched as mosquito larvae danced around on the surface, and I watched as the clouds of gnats came, and so thick was this cloud that it made it pretty impossible for me to watch anymore. It was pretty gross, but the oxygenating plants slowly started to spread, and the lily pads multiplied to create much needed shade on the surface. Fast forward to today, and the water is clear. I still get mosquito larvae but the froglets and damselflies are making a meal of these. Common Darter dragonflies sunbathe on the pond rockery, a common water strider patrols the surface chasing away the riff-raff, a hedgehog uses the ramp to drink from the water (at least it did until the badger came along) and bees, hoverflies and soldier flies stand on the lily pads whilst dipping in to quench their thirst. A resident wood pigeon regularly submerges itself and reappears double its size. I love our pond, and I gaze adoringly into it as often as I can.

With the appearance of the hedgehog, we swiftly installed a feeding station at one end of the garden, and tucked a hogiloo under a conifer at the other. We then had the pleasure of enjoying the company of two resident hedgehogs over last summer and this spring, but sadly a young badger turned up and we haven't seen the hedgehogs since. We hold out hope that they (or others like them) will return. A little field mouse will occasionally pop into the feeding station to eat up the little bit of food we still put down.

And then all the planting ... Everything for pollinators! Foxgloves, Hebe, Lavender, Salvia, wildflowers, Cone Flowers, Wallflowers, Mint, Thyme and Rosemary, plus so much more. We over-seeded one half of the lawn with white clover and it is now awash with bumblebees, honeybees, solitary bees, hoverflies and micro moths. When I take a closer look I can see the thick-legged flower beetles, candystripe spiders, speckled bush crickets, ichneumon wasps and meadow ants.

We wanted the bees to hang around, so we added an insect hotel and hung up various bee houses in sunny spots around the garden. Since then, leaf cutter bees have been neatly cutting half-moons into my Acer to line their tubes, and I have been watching a blue mason bee filling up her brood cells with mud. I've found tiny fork tailed flower bees sleeping on fennel and have watched minuscule silvery Lasioglossum's zipping around and sparkling in the sunlight. I'm completely obsessed.

We have hung up bird feeders which are frequented by great tits, coal tits and robins. The wood pigeons and magpies also do their best to get what they can. Now the hedgehogs have vanished I scatter mealworms across the lawn in the mornings for the blackbirds to feed.

There is still so much more we can do to bring nature back into our garden, but I love what we have managed to achieve so far. My inner entomologist wants to know what everything is, and my Instagram account has become a shrine to the invertebrates that I'm forever chasing around my garden, camera in hand.

The most important revelation for me is the impact on my mental health. When I'm in the garden (spying on leafhoppers or planting flowers) my well-being skyrockets. Watching the goings-on in our little microcosm makes me feel connected to something greater and allows me to step outside of myself. Mountains become mole-hills when I'm in the garden.

Everyone should try to nurture a little bit of their own outside space. If you don't have a garden, go for a couple of pots outside your door, or hang a window-box or two. Before you know it you'll have a little vibrant green cucumber spider hiding under the foliage and a succession of visiting hoverflies and bees - I can think of nothing better and it will make you feel grand!

(Instagram - @albapics42)


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