Where the wild things are
Allotments grow more than just vegetables
The Ecologist, July/August 2007
I can barely move in my orchard at the moment without stepping on a frog. Just walking from tree to tree is a nerve-wracking experience. I haven’t cut the grass for weeks, you see, and it’s going crazy. The reason for this is that I’ve been too busy. Too busy on my next-door allotment, frantically growing food and fighting off all the beasties who want to eat it before me. And too busy writing columns about being too busy. I’ve come up with a solution though: I am pretending that the grass is knee length deliberately, because that I’m creating a hay meadow for wildlife.
Which, as a matter of fact, I am: just by default rather than design. It turns out to be one of the best things I’ve done in a while, because the haymeadow that was once my orchard (and still is, once you plunge in and hunt down the trees) is proving a haven for any number of wild and wonderful creatures.
The frogs are the most obvious. I have no idea where they came from: there’s no pond within hopping distance. But they’re everywhere, bouncing about in the long grass. Bumblebees love it too, because wild flowers – again, who knows where they came in from? – have started growing amongst the waving fronds. There are crickets and grasshoppers, lacewings and sparrows, slow worms and blackbirds, hoverflies and millipedes and beautiful, metallic weevils crawling laboriously up the stalks. Rarest of all is the dipping, shrieking green woodpecker that sometimes visits, though he never stays long. He looks at my dwarf apple trees with contempt, then takes himself somewhere older and woodier.
It’s easy, when you grow your own food, to neglect the environment that you grow it in; to overlook it or to see it as something to be beaten down, as you hack out a space for your carrots or sweetcorn. But encouraging wildlife as you grow can be as important as what you grow for yourself, and it’s a key part, too, of practicing what you preach. An environmentalist tries hard to see the links between people and the rest of nature, to strengthen and understand them, and to help them survive and flourish.
This is why traditional growing-with-chemicals is so destructive. It severs that link: sees the soil as just a machine to produce food for us, rather than a place, harbouring life, some of which we can use to our advantage if we do so with respect and understanding.
I don’t want to come across as some ageing hippy here, especially as I’m not that old – but these links are important. This is why any self-respecting food grower should try and make some space within their growing area, however small it may be, to encourage wildlife to survive and flourish.
There are any number of reasons to do this, but here are just three. First, to make sure I’ve got your attention, the personally useful one. Wildlife – of the right kind – is good for you, and for your crops. Specifically, it is good for ensuring that you, and not the slugs, aphids, carrot flies, cockchafers and flea beetles, get to eat them. Encourage the right kind of predators, and your work as an organic gardener becomes a lot easier.
For example, ladybirds, lacewings, spiders and harvestmen will consume tons of aphids and other little pests. If you have the money and inclination you can buy yourself a fancy ladybird nesting box, but an easier way to encourage them is not to clear your plot or garden completely in autumn: leave some old dying plants or plant litter lying about over winter, so they have somewhere to hibernate.
Or what about hedgehogs, or frogs? They can get through whole bucketloads of slugs. A few undisturbed piles of wood, stones, planks or corrugated iron will provide them with good hibernation sites. Does your shed have holes in it that you’ve been meaning to patch up? Don’t. Spiders, beetles and maybe even queen bumble bees will find them perfect overwintering sites, and will emerge in April, with a spring in their step, to feast happily on your pests.
The second reason to encourage the wildlife on your plot or garden is not quite so self-centred. Wildlife, as we all know by now, has been having a hell of a time of it in recent decades. Intensive farming has caused a virtual holocaust in the countryside: so much so that urban gardens and allotments are now prime sites for species that were previously found only in rural areas. Climate change is set to make this problem worse. So the more havens you can provide, the better. Areas of long grass, uncut hedges, piles of old rotting wood, bird nesting boxes – it’s all good.
Best of all is a pond. I have a small, postage-stamp-sized back garden, but I still have a pond, and it is teeming with frogs, toads, newts, pond skaters, damselflies and the most weird and wonderful microscopic freak creatures. None of it is due to me; they just arrived, somehow, and colonised it. A pond mostly looks after itself, and if you can create one (on your own, or perhaps with others if you share an allotment or can find some unused communal space) it will attract everything from bats to waterfowl.
All this, of course, can be a bit of work, and it’s not always successful. You’re trying to create, or restore, an ecological balance which will be useful for you, and that’s going to take you some time. I still have slugs by the million on my allotment, and about a zillion flea beetles seem to have reduced my young broccoli and kale to dust this year. Trying to encourage the right wild beasties is a tough call, but when you’re successful, it will fill you with joy, even when the frogs get between your toes.
Which brings me neatly on to the final reason for donating some space around your growing site to wildlife: simply because it’s wonderful. Yesterday I sat and watched a large red damselfly hover above my pond. I didn’t move for five minutes. Its wings moved so fast that it looked like it was suspended in air with nothing to support it. It looked utterly alien, and utterly magnificent. As far as I am concerned, I need no other reason to share my vegetable patch with other creatures. They make it all worthwhile. As long as they leave the broccoli alone.
- Wildlife Gardening for Everyone (RHS Books),by Ecologist writer Malcolm Tait, is highly recommended.