When we moved here, ten years ago, the garden wasn't what it is now. It was a dark, damp, unloved place, over-run with rabbits who ate everything and plants that looked thin and sickly. As a consequence, there were no flowers and not much in the way of wildlife either.
My husband is a committed vegetable grower, that was the first change we wrought. My attention turned towards the garden properly about three summers ago when, for various reasons, I shifted focus from outside home to into it. We've worked hard at creating a garden that works for us and provides home, food and shelter for the wildlife we share this space with. We've cut down, cut back and cut out, and we've shifted around, created, introduced, sown and grown.
The two ponds (one wildlife, one fish) began to teem about three days after we made them. The first damselflies and dragonflies eclosed out of both ponds at their first anniversary (possibly the dragons had come in on introduced vegetation). Now we have three resident species of damsel (Red, Common Blue, Blue-Tailed) and three dragons (Broad Bodied Chaser, Southern Hawker and Common Darter) living in the wildlife pond, along with newts, various water beetles and, new for this year, at least one leech.
I keep Garden Lists each year of everything I see in the garden and the list grows steadily. We have rarities like Longhorn and Stag Beetles (creatures of rotting wood piles and ancient woodland) and the also rare Silver Washed Fritillary and Purple Emperor Butterflies. We have quiet, secretive souls like Grass Snakes, and night-time visitors of Tawny and Barn Owls, a Hedgehog and of course my moths, with over 400 different moth species visiting the garden each year. Two Pipistrelle bats nest in the eaves of the house and hunt over the garden at dusk, picking off the mozzies who come out of the pond. On at least one occasion I've seen a Noctule fly over. Several species of bee come to the garden (the Swarm, in case you were wondering, turned up in force before sunset and sat on the chimney pot for an hour or two considering their options before detaching and going off elsewhere), and the elusive Sparrowhawk who hunts occasionally nearby definitely visited this weekend and lunched on one of the Goldfinches. The Great Spotted Woodpecker's Child also arrived, with his red flat-cap, and went off again shrieking hysterically when he caught sight of me with the camera. A welcome return was made by the Marsh Tit, whom I think has chicks nearby, and all the usual gang are still here: sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, magpies, blackcaps, jackdaws, pigeons, collared doves, stock doves, dunnocks, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, nuthatches, wrens, robins, green finches. The list goes on. But the point is they weren't all here ten years ago.
The presence in the garden of so much wildlife, from the birds to the reptiles to the insect life, is down to the planting, and the fact we don't use poisons or chemicals of any description on the land here. If a plant has been grown to produce colour but has no nectar or pollen, we don't put it in. I leave the stalks of the year's growth over winter for insects to hibernate and breed in, and then scythe them down in late April and add them to the compost. We have areas of long grass year round which provide protection, food and breeding spaces, and we have a few places where small log piles have been left. Sometimes we bring back tree stumps and put them by the side of the garage where the wildflower meadow is and it always amazes me a year or two later to realise that they've disintegrated, used up by the insects who need them. In the autumn, the gravel path is settled on by Red Admiral and Comma butterflies who need the warm micro-climate gravel or stones offer to warm up, and the two compost heaps draw female Grass Snakes every summer. I know this because we find the empty eggs when we dig them over and use them to mulch the garden the following spring. There are places set aside for nettles, goosegrass, willowherbs, docks and thistles because, although gardeners may frown on them, these plants are some of the most important in the insect life-cycle. I made a herb garden out of a small strip of space and it is now thick with sage, thyme, marjoram and others, all starting to bloom and all used here in the kitchen. Fresh herbs roughly chopped and added to homemade pastry are fab (and healthy).
This summer we're digging four new beds. One has asparagus in it (grown from seed so its wispy right now) and the other three are for flowers. I've stuffed one with Nepeta, two kinds of Salvia, Verbascum, Veronica, Scabious and Red Valerian and I spend hours sitting beside it watching the bees work. They captivate me utterly with their busy buzzing. If you want bees stick Nepeta in your garden, or lithodora (but Nepeta will flower longer). If you've only got space for a pot or two they'll still come. The other plants that have drawn huge amounts of insects this summer are Poached Egg plants, Ox-Eye Daisies and Viper's Bugloss. The latter is planted beside a clump of Scabious and the bees buzz happily between the two from dawn to dusk. I grew it from seed and it takes two years to flower, but it is well worth it, producing tall spikes of purple/ pink flowers that the bees absolutely love.
I am open to thoughts as to what to put in the other two beds so please let me have your ideas. I'm not a fan of neat planting, much preferring the billowy and wild to the clipped and formal, but I would like one of the beds to be for cut flowers. Any ideas gratefully received. I know from reading your blogs that there is a vast pool of horticultural knowledge among bloggers: real people with real gardens who understand the joys and the occasional frustrations of creating and working with land and plants :o)
Last week I went out to get new taps for the bath (don't ask) and returned with a boot stuffed full of plants I didn't know I needed until I saw them and they whispered to me. Star Jasmine to trail over the new pergola (Hummingbird Hawk Moths love this plant and the scent is heavenly), Coreopsis, three Dahlias, two Freesias, a Gazania and two Garvineas. Have you met Garvineas yet? I have a weakness for Gerberas and bought eight plug plants on ebay last week (in defiance of the derisory snorts of a friend who runs a garden centre and holds firm that they are not worth the trouble of growing, but as I only want them as cut flowers I thought it was worth the gamble). Imagine my delight when I discovered Garvineas, a hardy new Gerbera (I may just have broken the low-or-no nectar rule here because I've yet to see any insects on them but I figure I'm allowed one exception). The two I bought are shamelessly gaudy and are now sitting in one of the new plots beside disco margerites, cosmos and leucanthemum.
I re-sowed one of the wildflower patches because the new mix I put in a month or so back wasn't working and instead of smiling when I looked at it I was grimacing. That's a good, simple test of whether you've got planting right, I think. I also think this kind of freedom, to move things about and try something new when something isn't right or isn't working is one of the most positive of all the life-affirming elements of gardening. It's taken me a while to understand that it's OK to change planting if you aren't happy with it. It all gets returned to the earth eventually. We should now get drifts of cornflowers, larkspur, corn cockles, poppies and various others lighting up the late summer months and drawing in the bees hoverflies and butterflies. I will post photos.
So that's the garden. With the addition of various trees that I haven't mentioned but who also play host to wildlife. Our oldest apple tree proved the perfect spot to hang Clearwing moth pheromone lures last week when I tried them out. No Clearwings came but we've all summer to keep trying. And the Bean Tree really is looking marvellous, with its bright glowing green leaves against the hard purple of the neighbouring cherry. And soon it'll be time to look out for Shieldbug eggs on the clematis and hopefully this summer the Mock Oranges I put in last winter will bloom, and then later there's the Callicarpa to be awed by. So much to look forward to.
Hope all is well in your gardens. Such special places.