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How to save the planet from your own garden: Install a pond, plant trees and DON’T mow the grass

What can one person do to prevent climate change, stop the felling of rainforests or protect the threatened rhino?

Very often, the big issues facing the planet seem beyond us as individuals and any response to them seems trivial and ineffective. It’s all too easy to feel helpless and despondent.

But there is a little corner of the Earth that you can control and where you can make things right. And that’s in your garden.

Even a tiny garden can contain many hundreds of species of wild insects and plants. By treating your garden as a nature reserve, you can help to reverse a potential catastrophe [File photo]

I’m a professor of biology at the University of Sussex and the author of several bestselling books on insect life – and I take huge inspiration from my own garden in the Weald of Sussex.

This is the scale on which I work best, where I can see and feel the effects of my actions. For me, saving the planet starts with looking after my own patch. And it truly is an effective way to do it. 

Even a tiny garden can contain many hundreds of species of wild insects and plants. By treating your garden as a nature reserve, you can help to reverse a potential catastrophe.

Since the 1970s (but particularly in the past two decades) insects have been declining at a dangerous rate, mostly thanks to industrial agriculture, urbanisation and pesticides.

Very often, the big issues facing the planet seem beyond us as individuals and any response to them seems trivial and ineffective. It’s all too easy to feel helpless and despondent [File photo]

Very often, the big issues facing the planet seem beyond us as individuals and any response to them seems trivial and ineffective. It’s all too easy to feel helpless and despondent [File photo]

A recent study from Germany found that insect biomass fell by 75 per cent over the past 26 years. 

Older readers may have noticed that nowadays – even when driving in the height of summer – you almost never need to stop to clean your car windscreen of bug splats in the way that you once did.

We need desperately to stop this trend. Insects make up two-thirds of the life on Earth and play an obvious and critical part in the food chain. Their demise would spell nothing short of ecological armageddon.

The good news is: there is something we can all do.

Wildlife gardening is easy. Plants grow themselves and bees and butterflies will find them when they flower. Herbivores will appear, slugs, snails, weevils, leaf beetles and caterpillars, and in turn predators will arrive to eat them.

Successful wildlife gardening is as much about what you don’t do as what you do.

Insects make up two-thirds of the life on Earth and play an obvious and critical part in the food chain. Their demise would spell nothing short of ecological armageddon [File photo]

Insects make up two-thirds of the life on Earth and play an obvious and critical part in the food chain. Their demise would spell nothing short of ecological armageddon [File photo]

This is not to say that a wildlife garden has to be untidy. Many people imagine a wildlife garden as an unruly tangle of brambles, nettles and dandelions and it is true that a laissez-faire garden like this will certainly attract a lot of wildlife, but it is also perfectly possible to have a tidy and beautiful garden that is teeming with life.

Gardens provide us with a place where we can reconnect with nature. If we embrace this, we gardeners might just save the planet, and in so doing save ourselves.

Here are my top tips for transforming your humble garden into a lush, wildlife-friendly haven…

The single best thing you can do?  

Install a pond! I love ponds, and if I were Prime Minister, I’d make ponds compulsory in every garden.

I find it enormously sad that The Oxford Junior Dictionary recently removed the word ‘newt’ (along with acorn, minnow, kingfisher and dandelion, among others) after deciding the word was no longer relevant to children.

And yet in my experience, pond-dipping is one of the few childhood activities that wins out over screen time – at least for a while.

Miraculously, an empty pond will develop a diverse community of life within just a few weeks.

A garden pond attracts all sorts of life. I’ve seen an occasional heron come by to eat the fish in my pond. If you are spectacularly lucky and live near a river, it is just possible that you might even be visited by an otter [File photo]

A garden pond attracts all sorts of life. I’ve seen an occasional heron come by to eat the fish in my pond. If you are spectacularly lucky and live near a river, it is just possible that you might even be visited by an otter [File photo]

The first arrivals are usually flying insects, such as water boatmen, pond skaters and water beetles, but it’s not long before other creatures such as leeches, frogs or pond snails start to arrive, perhaps hitching a lift on the feet of birds, or crawling laboriously through the damp grass at night.

Garden ponds provide an important network for our pond creatures. As bigger rural ponds decline in numbers or are polluted with agricultural run-off, suburban ponds can replace some of that vital lost habitat.

A garden pond attracts all sorts of life. I’ve seen an occasional heron come by to eat the fish in my pond. If you are spectacularly lucky and live near a river, it is just possible that you might even be visited by an otter. 

What better way to ensure that newts are not just relevant but are loved by your children than to give them a chance to catch them, feel them wriggle in their wet hands and gaze into their golden eyes? Go on, grab a spade, and get digging. 

Leave that lawn mower in the shed 

We Brits love our lawns. We tend and pamper them and mow them weekly in neat stripey lines. For many people, grass is supposed to be short. Anything else is untidy and the result of laziness. But there are dramatic benefits for wildlife when you opt for less frequent cutting.

A close-mown lawn supports very little life and the mowing prevents flowering, so there is no colour, and no nectar or pollen for insects. 

Why you should boot out your begonias…

If you wish to encourage wildlife, what should you plant? 

In general, herbs (think rosemary, marjoram, catmint, lavender and thyme) and cottage garden perennials such geraniums, above, and comfrey are good.

Annual bedding plants are best avoided because they have been intensively bred for bigger flowers and have often lost their nectar or are so misshapen that insects cannot get into them.

But it’s important to remember – any plant is better than decking or paving slabs and the more plants you have the better.

Go to your local garden centre and let the insects tell you what to buy. Visit on a quiet day and stand still for a moment. 

Scan across the neat rows of alphabetically arranged herbaceous plants, and you will very likely see movement: bees, butterflies and hoverflies moving among the flowers they prefer and avoiding the sterile ones.

Act like them, and go for any plant getting repeat visits.

Few lawns consist of pure grass. In one survey of 52 lawns, 159 different flowering plants were found, with overall numbers of species per square metre similar to that in a semi-natural wildflower meadow. Stop mowing even for a week or two and these plants really burst into life.

In a healthy lawn, there should be a diverse community of insects, millipedes, centipedes and worms, not to mention countless microbes, living in the soil beneath the turf.

If you are really lucky, you might have some ground-nesting bees too, such as the handsome tawny mining bee.

All of these insects are an important part of the food chain.

Lawn-dwelling leatherjackets are one of the favourite foods of starlings, a species that has undergone alarming declines in recent years. 

Leatherjackets hatch into crane flies (commonly called daddy-long-legs), which are hoovered up by some of our larger bats and moths.

Adult cockchafers love a good lawn, and despite their unfortunate name, are spectacular and beautiful beetles, with magnificent fan-shaped antennae with which they sniff the air.

When it comes to lawn maintenance, less is definitely more. Mow sparingly – or leave a smaller patch altogether, cutting perhaps once a year, to create a truly wild meadow in your garden. 

Don’t fear moths- they need your help 

To many people, moths are drab, brownish creatures of the night, annoying little beasts that flap into the house on a summer’s evening and bash themselves to dusty pieces on the light fittings.

But it’s an undeserved stereotype. In reality, moths are a hugely diverse, beautiful and fascinating group of creatures, with more than 2,500 species known just from the UK.

Sadly, moths are in decline and this has knock-on effects for all manner of wildlife.

No fewer than 62 British species have become extinct since I was a child in the 1970s.

To many people, moths are drab, brownish creatures of the night, annoying little beasts that flap into the house on a summer’s evening and bash themselves to dusty pieces on the light fittings [File photo]

To many people, moths are drab, brownish creatures of the night, annoying little beasts that flap into the house on a summer’s evening and bash themselves to dusty pieces on the light fittings [File photo]

Counts from a national network of moth traps reveal that, in the South of England, total numbers of all species have fallen by about 40 per cent since 1968.

Moths are a major food source for bats and nocturnal birds such as owls and nightjars.

Their caterpillars are a vital food for the chicks of many birds in the spring – moth caterpillars are the main food for cuckoos and their reduced abundance is thought to be the most likely explanation for the dramatic decline in cuckoo numbers.

Could your dog’s flea treatment really kill 60 million bees?

Here’s a worrying thought. Just one of those monthly spot-on flea treatments pet-owners administer to their cats and dogs – say, 250mg for a medium-size dog – contains enough toxins to kill 60 million honeybees.

That’s because those treatments, dripped on to the back of the animal’s neck, contain an active ingredient called imidacloprid, a systemic insecticide that belongs to a class of chemicals called the neonicotinoids, which are banned from use on flowering crops by the European Union.

Of course this isn’t necessarily a problem unless 60 million honeybees suddenly decide to eat your dog, which would seem a pretty unlikely event, but one cannot help wonder: where does this toxin go? 

To protect the whole animal against fleas the pesticide can’t stay on the neck, so it’s absorbed to some extent into the body, or perhaps it spreads over the surface of the skin.

I’d guess it’s highly likely to be in the pet’s urine, which is then sprinkled on to your garden, or into the local park or hedgerow when you take the dog for a walk.

If so, we know the chemicals will be absorbed by the roots or leaves of any plant they touch, and will go into the pollen and nectar if that plant bears flowers, where it will inevitably kill bees.

Be aware of how much of this treatment you are using. And if you have a small garden where your dog or cat regularly urinates, perhaps it is not such a good idea to allow the clover and dandelions to flower.

Luckily, many of the things you might do to help other wildlife in your garden are also likely to be of help to moths.

Nectar-rich plants such as valerian, buddleia and catmint, which you might already be growing in order to attract bees or butterflies, are often also visited by moths.

If you can, squeeze in a few evening and night-scented flowers too, such as evening primrose, sweet rocket, jasmine and honeysuckle, since moths love all of these.

Plant a tree and catch the carbon  

What can you do in your garden to help capture carbon and thereby truly do your bit for the planet?

If you have room, grow a tree or two. Trees use carbon to grow, which removes it from the air and ‘locks’ it up inside the tree. 

For example, up to eight tons of carbon is locked up in a big oak. It will stay there until the tree dies and rots away, which in theory could be 800 years from now.

What can you do in your garden to help capture carbon and thereby truly do your bit for the planet? If you have room, grow a tree or two [File photo]

What can you do in your garden to help capture carbon and thereby truly do your bit for the planet? If you have room, grow a tree or two [File photo]

Most gardeners don’t have room for large trees, but the basic rule is that the more bulk of vegetation you have, the more carbon you are storing. 

It’s very much a win-win since the more vegetation you have, the more insect diversity you’ll have too.

© Dave Goulson, 2019. The Garden Jungle: Or Gardening To Save The Planet, by Dave Goulson, is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99. 

Offer price £13.59 (20 per cent discount) until July 19. To order, call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.

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