One of the skills we teach in Elements is resilience. Not just through being in the elements and outdoors, but also being able to be a part of the natural world and use what we have around us.
This week we focused on nettles, how they were great for wildlife, excellent as a tea – lots of Vit K and iron, a great blood purifier – and of course what we REALLY focused on, making nettle cords.
We ended the session doing land management – cutting the dead branches of trees to let light in a give more access to everything. This was my favourite part – to know that they have contributed to making this tiny part of the world a better place.
Our sessions are always filled with activities pertaining to the time of the year. This time we looked at the riches of the hedgerows and collected and made fruits and leaves to make hedgerow tea. These fruits are filled with Vit C and other minerals and trace elements. Collecting them at this time of the year to dry would have been something added to the medicine cabinet back at the house. It would have been beneficial for the long winter months to ensure that we were able to remedy a cough or cold.
One of the elements is in fact, Earth and today we studied the magic of soil. A substance to which we owe our entire existence. Barely a few metres on the surface of the planet, it is a marriage of minerals and plants. It is what we depend on – the forests, our food, the animals – everything depends on the soil and today we looked at how we could look after it.
Part of our mission is to do some serious Citizen Science – this consists of ordinary people taking part in data gathering or helping scientists do things like figure out complex and puzzling problems. This has been used for everything from doing wildlife surveys to spotting new black holes.
Tomorrow we will be counting the Frogs and hopefully spotting a Smooth Newt or two, in order to start a record of the wildlife on the site.
However, we aren’t JUST doing Citizen Science. We are also doing habitat restoration. This will consist of pruning ivy off trees which are being strangled by the creepers. As lovely as ivy is, it is not great for the trees. So we will be out with pruning saws to give our beautiful trees a chance.
And we will also be lighting a fire in the Main outdoor area and perhaps even giving it a name. It is all go for our first day. Yes it is fun to be outside, but it is also satisfying to be giving back. I do hope you will be able to join us.
The Belvoir Oak is thought to be between 500 and 600 years old. It is almost certainly the oldest tree in N Ireland, possibly all of Ireland. It is a magnificent ruin but is still alive. I have watched this tree teeter on the brink of collapse and then, a few years ago, appear to start to come alive once again.
The Belvoir Oak has seen much. 500 years ago it was 1520. It was the height of the Renaissance in Western Europe. In Ireland, things were coming to a head. The Ming Dynasty in China saw an unprecedented period of exploration and culture. The first age of globalisation was well underway.
It was during this time the Belvoir Oak was a seedling. A youngster. Since then it has seen empires rise and fall, kings come and go, wars, society undergo unrecognisable transformations, and it is still here. To stand beside the Belvoir Oak is to feel its unfathomable presence.
This is the magic of being in the forest. This September, in addition to being with dragons, we will also be with trees. Whether we are at the Quarries or in Hillsbrough, we will be identifying three native Irish trees: the oak, the rowan and the willow. We will accompany the trees, learn about them, learn how to be with them and how to care for them.
Because our Forest School is also about learning how we are the warp and weft of the fabric of the cosmos and the guardians and caretakers of this wonderful planet.
It may be too late to plant a wildflower meadow, but you can think about native plants. And you usually put them in late winter, so you can start planning for where you want to put your new friends.
We start with trees because they are the structural bit of the garden. It is like having a frame to then hang things one. Trees are that frame.
If you have a regular sized suburban garden whatever you do, do not put in a proper tree. Think beech (which isn’t native anyway but naturalised), oak, chestnut, etc. That is a tree. Do not put one in unless you are prepared to keep it in check.
Instead go with more modest plants like hazel, elder, rowan (the elements’ tree!), cherry, hawthorn, birch, etc.
Try and get a tree which bears fruit.
Trees which grow in the shade or in watery type habitats are alder, willow and blackthorn. I mention these because they aren’t too large.
These trees also produce leaf litter which are great for mulching and insects.
You discover something new every year. So this year I discovered that my overripe fruit was being used by insects and when they fell on the ground, worms, etc would eat them. Having a native fruit tree is such a pleasure.
Where to put them?
As far away from the house as possible. A tree’s roots grow as far as their crowns. So think about what your tree looks like and if it has a huge crown, it will have a massive root system. It makes sense right – except for beeches. I have seen innumerable numbers of beeches upended in storms because of very shallow root system. So be careful when choosing your tree – just stay away from very large trees.
The smaller shrubs can be used to make an interesting hedge that bears lots of fruit. A fantastic planting to try is: dogrose, hawthrown, blackthorn, hazel and elder. The elder can get out of hand so make sure you keep it control at all times. This hedge will give you a lot of beautiful flowers through the year, smell amazing in the summer and give the birds and insects plenty to be happy about until the dog days of winter.
Fruit trees like cherries and plums can be the centre pieces of a garden. Use them to ‘anchor’ plantings. you could have two fruit trees (no more) in a regular sized suburban garden, and then have a pond and some smaller plants amongst them. The fruits then can be shared between you and your wildlife.
Remember trees give shade – so think about the amount of shade you can live with.
Where to get them from?
You can contact local garden centres to ask them about their native tree stock. You can also ask Conservation Volunteers, although I have heard that they tend to order their stock from abroad. But ask around. I got my trees from a garden centre and friends!
Good luck! Never too early to start planning for what trees/shrubs you are planning to put in over the winter!
So now you should have figured out what your garden does through the year for sunshine and shade, AND you know the type of soil which you have. Unless you invest heavily in infrastructural changes, then you are going to have to work with what you have. This is yet another great thing about native plants. They already have this place sussed out!
Do not worry if you have only concrete – you can still have a garden that attracts wildlife. I’ll talk about that right at the end.
Rethink the lawn
I really want you to rethink the lawn. The idea of the lawn came from the 18th century when people had too much money and time – made from usually very questionable sources (think sugar plantations in the Caribbean, just sayin’). The time for the lawn is now past. It is a green desert, a waste of space. It is also full of chemicals, sprayed on to keep plants which are good for bees, spiders, butterflies, away. WHY???!!! There is no reason apart from it is ‘tidy’.
If you do have a lawn, and cannot bear to let the entire thing go, then you could do it in small spaces and create ‘artistically wild’ spaces. So let it grow out in patches. You can now see this in the more enlightened councils where they let the grass verges grow out to host a plethora of grasses and wildflowers such as cuckoo’s flower and corn marigolds.
The flowers we have in them are so important for wildlife – dandelions and nettles are also edible for us and really good for us too (although if you are planning to do this, make sure your land has been free of chemicals for a few years.) But there is nothing lovelier than seeing the once barren and tired lawn now covered in clover, buttercups and daisies buzzing with bees.
Also, they are way easier to maintain. Just cut it two or three times during the growing season. Put a sign in your lawn saying it is an Ark.
If you really want to go the whole hog, then you could replant the laws as a wildflower meadow. Or you could do just the edges, or again in patches.
Before I get into this, you must know that the time for planting wildflower meadows is past. You need to do this either in late winter but I much prefer doing it in early spring. Around March. This is because I once planted it in the autumn and we had such a rotten spring that all the seeds rotted and we had next to nothing.
So, plant it around March/April. Nothing later.
Here is how you get a foolproof wildlife garden.
Rotivate the soil. This is the hard part. You can dig it with kids as well. I have found that if you don’t do this, then you don’t get nice seeds. If you are a no dig philosophy, then wildflower gardens will have to come naturally for you.
Get a good wildflower mix.Ecoseeds is a great place to go to. Make sure they send you native Irish mixes. They are expensive because they are tedious to collect, but Eco Seeds’ mixes are more or less foolproof. However, once you have put them in, you don’t mow the lawn for the entire season. Think about that. It pays for itself and it is so very very pretty. Whatever you do, do NOT buy them from those cheap discount stores. They are mostly sawdust.
Make sure you have the right soil. Many wildflowers are for arable soil – that’s how they started anyway. If you have wet, clayey soil, it is not going to work. Much better you think about having a pond instead. how do you find out what kind of soil you have? Walk out into the garden on a dry day. If you socks start filling with water, you have clayey soil. Grass does badly in clayey soil anyway. You cannot get it to grow.
Make sure you have loads of sunlight. You cannot plant a wildflower garden in a dark shady place. Opt for plants which thrive in the shade e.g. comfrey, borage and alkanet. I’ll talk more about these tomorrow.
How to put in a wildlife garden
Between mid March and April, rotivate (till) the soil.
Remove all the grass and weeds. The soil needs to be nice and clean. Yes, it is a real hassle, but if you have an army of children, or even one or two, they will enjoy doing this.
Make sure the soil’s texture is nice and crumbly – you may need to sift the soil. Mulch it, etc.
Scatter seeds. They will come with instructions about how much per sq metre. Then, using a straight rake (borrow one, or buy one, it is a worth while investment), gently rake the seeds into the soil. It should only go down like a little less than an inch. Do not rake them in too deeply… they will struggle to get out.
Get a board out – like an old plank and place it on top of the soil and step over it. Or you could let the kids jump on the plank – they love this bit. This helps the seeds to bed in and stops them from flying away. Or eaten by birds.
Water it. Keep it moist, but not soaking. Never let seeds dry out when they are growing. Once they are established, they are a little hardier.
Now, you just WAIT. The first shoots should be out in two weeks time and in a month’s time you should see them come up about three inches or so. They will grow like the proverbial weeds over May and by June you should have some flowers.
If you want to mix out own mix of wildflower here are some you can get in a garden centre and DIY it yourself.
Cornflower, nastursium, sunflowers, calendula, poppies, foxgloves (these are poisonous, so be careful).
So I have to say something for the nettle. It gets so much of bad press but it is hands down one of the best plants to grow for the garden. You just need to keep it in check. You can also use the leaves for mulch. It is full of great good things for the garden. plants like the nettle bring up the nutrients in the soil to the surface where you can reuse them.
Plus all kinds of insects love them. If you have them growing in your garden, consider yourself lucky. Just create a good corner for them – they love the shade. Let them live there. Sure what were you going to do with it anyways?
Red Admirals, an endangered species of butterflies, loves them.
OK, that’s how to destablish a lawn, grow a wildflower meadow and become an advocate for nettles.
You can then do flower ID, and insect ID with the kids. Press flowers, make pictures, create presents using resin, etc…
We take a short break now, just in case you are losing the motivation to do this, to say why we should garden.
Gardening is good, for start. Children especially love gardening and if you can start gardening early it is a serious life skill which they will have and be able to pass on. Growing things, being outside, getting exercise, using different tools, working with the seasons… the list goes on. Then you can grow your own food. I mean what is there to NOT like about gardening?
But gardening for wildlife? That’s even better.
It is not pretty much shown that there is MORE biodiversity in suburban and urban gardens than there is in the countryside and farmland. This is because there are more variations in garden habitat than there is in farmland. Gardens are now an important lifeline for not only our local birds, but migrant ones as well.
Why is biodiversity important? It is important because it creates resilience in the environment. A biodiverse habitat is one which is healthier on every level. Birdsong, bees, flowers, insects… they create a sense of life which in turns give us a sense of life. Think about a humming patch of brambles compared to a concreted over garden. I think you know what I mean.
So here are some dos and don’ts for gardening for wildlife
Do start small. I have given a masterplan and once this bit is done you can start seeing where you can begin. Keep working on the masterplan for a couple of days to get to REALLY KNOW you garden. If it is very large garden section off an area which you want to transform. A small win is much more heartening than running out of puff half way and having nothing to show for it.
Do be patient and have faith. When you garden you work with the fourth dimension – time. This is very difficult, especially if you are a new gardener and have no idea what you are doing. But start small and manageable. Do things which have easy wins (I’ll go through this as we go along.)
Do use native plants. Where possible, use native plants. Now this does not mean ripping out old established exotics, as they are called. Keep them especially if you love them and they are adding to the garden. But when you are getting in new plants make sure they are native. Here’s why:-
Native plants do better in this climate. (Yes, that is just so obvious, right?)
If they escape they will not become an invasive nuisance.
They just support a better range of wildlife. It has been shown that native plants tend to support up to four times more wildlife, especially insects.
They decompose better.
Their leaves can be composted and/or used as mulch. Exotics tend to take much longer to decompose and can end up clogging your garden.
Start simple. If you have no idea what a tool does, do not buy it. Work with what you know.
Invest in a beginner’s gardening book and a gardening journal. Even get one aimed at children – this way you can both learn together! A gardening journal will help you record what you have done if you have a poor memory. It is also a great way to chart your progress, success and failures.
Do enjoy it! Please, enjoy gardening. If it is too much hard work, just get a birdfeeder. I will talk about some easy wins in my next posting, in case you don’t want to go an an all out assault on the garden.
Here are the don’ts
Don’t use any kind of -cide Whatever happens, DO NOT ever use any kind of herbicide or pesticide. These are deadly to wildlife. Salting, slug pellets, Roundup, etc… they are bad for the wildlife and really REALLY bad for the soil.
Don’t think of weeds as weeds We are now rethinking our dandelions, buttercups and daisies, nettles, dock and willowherb. Manage them so that they are part of your garden, rather than pulling everything out. It will save you time as well! They are critical to wildlife and biodiversity. Learn to live with them.
Don’t spend loads of money Gardening is not meant to be an expensive hobby. Share everything – from seeds to tools and information. One of the best places to go to is an allotment to get information of how you could do things. Join a local gardening club. They will have loads of good ideas for you too!
I’m sure I have left out loads of things, so if you have any ideas, leave it in the comments section below!
Have you decided the kinds of animals you’d like to attract? Good. Now before we take a look at the plants, we need to look at your site. The site and the wildlife – plus what else you want out of your site and the work you want to put into it – will determine the kind of garden you will have.
Taking a look at the site is a lesson in mini geography.
Draw a map
Draw a map of your site. It doesn’t have to be to scale, just in the right shape. Make sure you have key features in the site. It should include
Any other important features like oil tank, a pond if you have one, seating area, paths, levels, decking, etc.
Where the sun rises and sets THROUGH THE YEAR. This is called the ASPECT
A word about Aspect
Aspect is the most important factor in the garden. It will determine what kinds of plants you have and it may even determine you reconfiguring the garden. When you do the aspect you may discover that your shed is in the sunniest part of the garden, which is a waste of space.
How to do aspect?
Get your compass points – N, S, E,W.
The East is where the sunrises and it then travels to the West, mostly in the Southerly direction. This is why South facing sides are sunnier, better, warmer. You really want a South Facing garden.
This about how the sun travels in the winter AND the summer. Is there any part of your garden that is in permanent shadow? Is there a part which gets lots of wind?
Shade all of this on your map.
Now you are ready for the last bit. Look at your soil.
Is it clayey? Retains lots of water? Sandy? Lets the water drain out.
Soil can be easily improved over the course of the year. You can do this by mulching. This is introducing compost to sandy soil.
You can also introduce sharp sand into clayey soil – although this is harder. Once you have done this, you are ready to move to the next step.
You don’t have to do a super complicated plan. Just get to know your garden. I suggest you spend about three days doing this in short bursts – like half an hour each. This is because ideas will come to you as you do this.
Get a vision board or a little folder which you keep ideas as well. Collect these as you get to know the kinds of wildlife you’d like to attract.
Tomorrow: The Benefits of Gardening and Wildlife Gardening
Sometimes it is hard to know where to begin with creating a wildlife garden. But nothing could be simpler. Today we have a rainy day and gardeners love planning on rainy days.
I will walk you through how to do this.
Rule No 1: Have a variety of habitats
Wildlife gardens are mini ecosystems, so you need to have different types of places for your creature friends to live. Any garden, no matter how small can be a wildlife garden. You just need to have different types of places which support different types of wildlife.
So, first think about the types of wildlife you’d like to support with your garden.
Bats are some of the most charismatic wildlife which we have. They are funny and lovely and adorable and very useful. They eat insects and are an important indicator that our ecosystem is in good nick.
There are many things which you can do for bats and many of them involve you doing nothing at all.
Bats often hibernate in roof spaces in the winter – so just leave them to get on with it. There is no need to call pest control – bats are clean and quiet.
Bats also use trees for this purpose. If you have trees in your garden, especially older ones, if they aren’t about to fall on your house, just leave them there.
The Northern Ireland Bat Group are a very active group which holds talks and activities for children. They also tell you have to identify your bats!
Link onto their page to see how you can get involved or indeed find out about the bats in your area.
Here are three fascinating facts about bats:
You can use a bat detector to detect the kind of bat – it works on a series of clicks and pips – essentially bats have different kinds of calls. The bat detector makes their sonic frequencies audible to human beings.
There are 8 types of bat in Northern Ireland. They are Common pipistrelle, Soprano pipistrelle, Nathusius’s pipistrelle, Leisler’s bat, Brown long-eared bat, Whiskered bat, Daubenton’s bat, Natterer’s bat.
Bats have nurseries where mothers and young roost together and look after their young. A female bat mates before winter, overwinters and then becomes pregnant when spring arrives.
Here are some bat related activities from the Bat Conservation Trust.
You can make an origami bat, a bat hat and learn to draw a bat. Bats are our friends! We should love them. If you find a bat call the Northern Ireland Bat Group and they will come and rescue it for you!