Wildlife gardening

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Because wildlife is in trouble. Some recent UK examples:
– Butterflies 70% of species are declining Butterfly conservation, 2015.
– Hedgehogs declined by 66% in the last thirteen years PTES, 2018.
– Frogs a 17% reduction in garden sightings 2014-2018 RSPB, 2018.
– Toads declined by 68% in last 30 years Froglife, 2016.
– Bumblebees one third of species have declined by 70% BCT).
– Farmland birds declined by over 50% 1970-2017 Defra, 2018.
– Brown long-eared bat declined by 31% since 1999 Bat conservation, 2018.
– Insects 40%+ of species declining Biological conservation journal, 2019.
– UK species declined by 56% 1970-2013 The state of nature report, 2016.

What’s causing wildlife declines? 
The reasons are complex and interlinked, but there are several main factors:
Herbicide and pesticide use. Intensive agriculture and horticultural practice using pepticides has reduced the abundance of wild plants and insects. This means less food for other animals, and fewer beneficial insects like pollinators.

Habitat loss and fragmentation. Hedgerow removals, loss of wildflower meadows, urbanisation of formerly rural areas, street trees cut down – all mean there is less wildlife and fewer places for it to live.

Pollution of air, water and soil. Pollution has serious effects – herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizer components persist in the environment with consequent impacts especially on microorganisms.

Try these tips – save money – re-use, recycle, re-purpose!
Rather than buying new gardening supplies which uses up more resources, look after your existing stuff and try your hand at making a few things from salvaged materials.

Flowerpots. Wash and dry your plastic flowerpots and store them away from sunlight ready for use next season. This will stop them becoming brittle and prolong their useful life. If they crack, don’t throw them away – put one inside another and use as normal.

Pots. Care for your terracotta pots too, protecting them from frost. If they do crack, use them as crocks to improve drainage in large pots and tubs. Buy as few plastic pots as possible; many are now sold which are made from recycled plastic bags. Consider biodegradable alternatives.

DIY seed pots and trays. Toilet roll centres can be used to sow seeds in. Or use a jam jar / small bottle as a mould and make your own seed pots from newspaper. These will all biodegrade completely. Rather than buying new, margarine and ice-cream tubs work as seed trays for small sowings, just make drainage holes.

Be a scavenger!. Keep your eyes peeled for things to use on your plot or in your garden. Home-owners are usually happy for you to take unwanted pallets and bits of wood from skips – but ask first! Supermarkets and garden centres will often have surplus cardboard and wooden boxes too.

Plant labels Clean these off and re-use them. Consider switching to biodegradable wooden ones, or make your own from used lolly sticks or spare bits of wood.

Grow from seed. It’s cheaper and you can swap surplus seedlings and unused seed with neighbours. Clear plastic bottles. These can be used as cloches to propagate individual plants.

Share advice and supplies. We can help each other out by sharing tools, supplies and expertise. A great way to get to know our fellow gardeners too.

Avoid commercially-made pesticides and herbicides
They are implicated in wildlife declines. If you really need to use these products, follow the manufacturer’s recommended application and quantity precisely; more isn’t better. Try alternative techniques for managing pests, diseases and weeds:
Crop rotation improves disease resistance by preventing the build-up of pathogens in the soil and thereby reduces the need for chemical sprays.

Grow perennial vegetables, eg. chard, cardoon, oca, sorrel, scorzonera or asparagus. They suffer fewer diseases as they adapt to their surroundings. They also help create good soil structure by being undisturbed. Plus they’re low-maintenance.

Select disease-resistant varieties. These require less disease management. Old-fashioned, ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ varieties offer superior flavour, reliability and may prove more disease-resistant when grown at a small scale on allotments.

Companion planting can help control pests and diseases, eg. sow spring onions amongst carrots: the carrot root fly is deterred by the onion smell. Sow ‘sacrificial crops’ of nasturtiums amongst brassicas; caterpillars will prefer them to your crops.

Replace slug pellets with physical barriers and less toxic alternatives – see our separate slug management poster and leaflet.

Make a ‘bug hotel’ to support beneficial insects. This is fun to build with family and friends and provides habitat for beneficial insects like beetles and pollinating insects. You can use almost anything – pallets, bricks, sticks, old flowerpots etc. They can make lovely garden features – take a look at the RSPB website for ideas.

Mulch to prevent weed growth and evaporation and to save water in summer. Many things can be used as mulch. Try to avoid plastic-based materials (eg. synthetic or foam-backed carpet) the chemicals from which may break down and enter the soil. Cardboard is easy to obtain and works well, as does straw. Good quality mulching fabric eg. made from jute, can be re-used from year to year.

Leave an undisturbed corner for garden-friendly wildlife. This will encourage beetles, frogs, slow-worms and hedgehogs which feed on insects and naturally control their numbers.

Home-made sprays. Soapy water (made from plain hand soap, with water, in a spray bottle) sprayed on aphid-covered vegetables will knock aphids off and coat them with soap, killing many.

Plant spacing. Make sure you space plants at recommended distances. This avoids overcrowding and reduces the likelihood of poor air circulation and associated mildews and rots becoming established.

Establish crops indoors / in polytunnel or greenhouse, harden off, then plant out. Sturdier seedlings / small plants are less palatable to insects.

Don’t be too tidy and save yourself some work
Plot holders need to keep plots cultivated and reasonably clean, but this doesn’t mean we have to manicure them.

– Leave some ‘weeds’ – a few dandelions will help our bees.
– Leave some uncut grass for beneficial insects like beetles.
– Leave seed heads as food for birds, and hiding-places for ladybirds.
– Leave fallen fruit as food for butterflies and birds.
– Leave leaves – worms will tidy them away for you!
– Leave ivy – it offers late-season pollen, nectar and berries.

© Erica Wells, 2019. We are very grateful to include photographs here which were taken by Adrian Audsley, Sally Beck, Lance Hodgson and Cara Russell ( © copyright for any picture on this site belongs to the photographer).

Click here for RAA sustainability group news archive.

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