Bringing the wilds home: a backyard experiment

The problem with living in any city, whether that be London, Manchester or, like me, Newcastle, is that space is often at a premium. Large expansive gardens and idyllic personal grottos are few and far between and, more often than not, residents are forced to make do with small, confined and often uninspiring spaces.

Living in Heaton, a large urban district of Newcastle, our terraced flat comes with very little land. A small back garden, walled on all sides and entirely covered in concrete the sum of the area we have to work with. Our mundane little plot lacked even a small patch of soil in which to grow something, anything green. Far from ideal for someone who yearns to engross himself in nature whenever possible.

Tired of staring uninspired at bricks, steel and concrete, back in the Spring, and my partner set ourselves a small challenge: to attempt to ‘green up’ our little corner of urban Tyneside. In doing so, aiming to make our space as appealing as possible to as many different species as possible. The sum of our garden wildlife sightings, until this point, consisted of little other than a handful of moths and the odd wandering Magpie.

Starting out…

The cornerstone of any garden the first thing we needed to add in order to make our space wildlife-friendly was, of course, soil. And so we set about buying planters of all shapes and sizes – long and shallow, round and deep, hanging, you name it – collected with the aim of growing as many plant species as possible. Including, we had hoped, at least a few edibles, alongside pollinator-friendly blooms and a few ornamentals. Within a few weeks, these initial pots and troughs had been filled: Honeysuckle, Lavander, Thyme, petunias and Bay Laurel representing the first living organisms to grace our plot.

A few weeks later, and lacking space for any substantial body of water, we opted to add a container pond, planting the admittedly rather unattractive plastic tub with a handful of native water plants – Marsh Marigold, Hemlock Waterdropwort and Flag iris. A mini-project closely followed by another with the addition of two mini-meadows – pots planted with Seedball wildflower mixes – and next, a raised bed suitable for our edible produce. The latter soon filled to bursting with chillis, lettuce, Bok Choi and later, a few more varieties of cabbage. Following this, more plants were added. Taller wildlife-friendly options – Raspberry and Blackcurrant – and a range of low-lying species.

Getting there (I promise Matt did not do ALL of the work)

Fast-forward to the end of Summer and, at the time of writing this, the garden – I finally feel comfortable using this word – looks altogether more pleasant. Looking out of the window this morning, I see pleasant green, not grey. And all in all, our space feels altogether different: uplifting as opposed to depressing. The results of our exploits can be seen below for those interested.

The current state of play…

But what of the all-important wildlife? Did it descent on our humble space en masse, as we had intended? Well, yes. To date, we have recorded no less than 66 new species for the garden. The pollinators arrived first, Tree, White-tailed, Red-tailed and Garden Bumblebees, Honeybee, Common Wasp, Common Carder, Marmalade Hoverfly and Large White butterflies representing a few of the more obvious visitors. Among the more common denizens, a few surprises were to be had too – the unlikely discovery of a small, metallic bee deceased in our new bug hotel heralding the arrival of a species which, before its occurrence here, I had never even heard of: the Bronze Furrow Bee. A species with a patchy national distribution; poorly recorded and not overly abundant.

Next came the Red Mason Bees – now in residence within a crack in our neighbour’s wall – while moth numbers to have increased also. Silver Y, Angle Shades, Setaceous Hebrew Character, Heart and Dart, Light Brown Apple Moth and Large Yellow Underwing respecting just a few of our nocturnal records. A more surprising record coming from a Six-spot Burnet found during the day on our Runner Beans in July – not a species I would often associate with the less than wild streets of Newcastle.

Heart and Dart, Angle Shades, Slug-fest, and a bumble rescue.

Of course, with a range of tasty edible crops planted, it was inevitable that ‘pest’ species would follow at some point. And sure enough, they did: our cabbages were besieged by the larvae of Small White and Diamond-backed Moth; our Honeysuckle fell victim to aphids; we lost an entire crop of Swiss Chard to Cabbage Fly and Yellow Cellar Slugs and Garden Snails were quick to find any seedlings. Interesting species in their own right which, in turn, have sparked an increase in other, much more welcome creatures: 7 and 14 Spot Ladybirds, colourful members of the Ichneumonoidea family, Harvestman, centipedes, beautiful Garden Spiders and fearsome-looking House Spiders. Now, equilibrium has been reached and plants remain relatively damage-free.

For the last few weeks, new additions to our growing ‘garden list’ have followed thick and fast. A fortnight back, we were delighted to discover no less than 9 Painted Lady at roost beneath one of our hanging baskets. This morning, they’re still there; although numbers have dwindled somewhat. Elsewhere, Matt discovered a Buff Ermine caterpillar ravenously consuming our small Buddleia plant and today, a glance in our container pond revealed a few new colonists: water fleas and hoverfly larvae.

Now, I will not go so far as to claim that our little urban garden looks all that nice. Nor does it compare to the micro-rewilding efforts often shared on social media – those wonderful tales of gardens transformed into makeshift nature reserves, gorgeous and incredibly biodiverse. We are definitely proud, however, to have created something beneficial to local wildlife and enjoyable (and useful, taking into account all our veggies) to ourselves. We stand content to watch and enjoy for the remainder of this year and already find ourselves looking forward to amending our space further in the future, so to make more of a difference. Perhaps we will invest in a creeper to cover some of the remaining walls, or just maybe, we’ll expand on our mini-meadows with another of our bargain grow beds. We will see!

On a final note, I must apologise for the quality of the photos used in this article – it seems there has been a problem uploading photos from my phone to the computer. Not that this presents too much of an issue, they still get the point across.

1 Comment

  1. What a great achievement! It’s true that where wildlife is concerned, if you build it they will come. One thing I’ve learned in over 30 years of container gardening: fewer, larger containers are easier to care for than many, smaller ones. Best of luck with your continuing success!

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