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Gardening: Call of the rewild

11 September 2020

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OVER the past few months, many of us with a garden have been able to spend more time tending it. Paradoxically, this has coincided with a growing movement in the horticultural world to let things go. Rewilding, to use the latest buzzword, refers to allowing nature take over our growing spaces, to some extent. Where people differ is on where to draw the line.

In handing over the management of our former home to a letting agency, I was politely asked if I could tidy the garden up a bit. Evidently, the cow parsley that spilled on to the drive, the self-seeded daisy-flowered Erigeron karvinskianus in the hoggin paths, and the very blurred boundary with a vacant and truly wild plot next door smacked too much of neglect.

I pondered further on this fine line when we arrived at our tied accommodation in Oxford. What I am most excited about is restoring some order to our new garden, which has rightly been a play area for a young family, not to mention forage for Sampras, Christ Church’s resident tortoise.

Natural plant communities develop into woodland unless held in check by extreme climate, or intervention by people. The self-seeded buddleia, ash, wild plum, and elders by the back door are the pioneer species of this urban jungle, and need a severe edit if the space is to work as an entertainment space. The “weeds” in the lawn, on the other hand, are welcome cohabitants: the buttercups, clover, and yarrow provide nectar and pollen for the insect population.

Frances Tophill is a fresh young voice in the garden-media world, and, last month, her latest book, Rewild Your Garden (Quercus, £15, (£13.49); 9781529410259), came out in hardback. Frances freely admits that it was the publisher who approached her with the idea rather than the other way round. While the subject clearly matches her broader interest in the natural world, her voice in the book is not one of the strident evangelist, and its strength lies in helping us to cultivate our gardens more mindfully.

In the first part of the book, Frances divides managing the different layers of your garden, from soil up to the tree canopy, into three: the traditional, wildlife-friendly, and full rewilding approach. The latter can make scary reading for the orderly gardener, but the tone is sympathetic, and states the choices that we have in an adult way. Full rewilding is more workable at soil level. Don’t cultivate the soil, “let the weeds grow and leave the dead wood where it is; let nature take its course.” Frances concedes that this will appear messy to some.

When it comes to the canopy level, she goes further, admitting that leaving self-sown trees such as sycamore and birch to grow unchecked will lead to “a scrubby look, too densely planted and with few species at least for some years”.

The book offers useful advice on building a pond, and choosing trees and hedging for wildlife. I was intrigued by the idea of using prunings to build a wildlife-friendly “dead-hedge”, and, although I am itching to get busy in our new Christ Church garden, I am holding back and determined to garden with that bit lighter touch.

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