Updated: Dec 3, 2021
While this is often overlooked, one of the most important things to be aware of in our gardens is health. This is especially true for those of us creating wildlife gardens.
Our gardens, just like the rest of the world, are under intense pressure right now. I don’t need to spell out to you that our wildlife is already severely depleted, but now, with a changing climate bringing uncertain weather conditions, our plants and local wildlife are really up against it. The overall health of the system is in crisis. One of the ways we’ve been dealing with our own health through the coronavirus pandemic is by trying to keep fit and healthy, boosting up our immune systems to help our bodies repel the virus. In a similar way, we can help our gardens and their wildlife cope with these extreme weather events, by making sure they are in top health. This article will explain why this is helpful and will outline the simple steps you need to take, to help your garden thrive.
WHAT IS HEALTH?
When it comes to thinking about health, it helps to expand on that food web idea I introduced in my previous article about the foundations of a wildlife garden. Food webs describe the transfer of nutrients from plants up through the levels in the food chain, out through all the complicated networks of predators and prey. When we look in a little more detail, we notice, of course, that these nutrients ultimately cycle back to the soil through plant and animal wastes, before being taken up again by plants, spiralling back up into the system, through it and down again to the soil over and over again. As gardeners, the way we tend to our soil and plants affects the success or otherwise of this natural recycling system. When it comes to system health, this is key!
It is these essential nutrients and minerals that are vital to the health of the system. Nothing can build its body properly if it doesn’t have the right building blocks or the right tools or energy sources to fit those blocks together. ‘Nutrients’ is simply the word we use to describe these building blocks, biochemical tools and many of the energy sources needed by plants and animals at a cellular level. Creating a healthy garden is all about supporting these nutrient cycles.
So what can we do as gardeners to support this? We go to that all important base of the food chain (plants) and we make sure all their foundational needs are covered – food, water and shelter – so that they are in top condition, containing the full range of nutrients everything else in their food web needs to thrive.
1. RIGHT PLANT RIGHT PLACE
The first foundational need to think about is shelter. This means the right environmental conditions – the right amount of water, sunlight, wind protection, pH and the right temperature. We’re talking about that age old maxim – right plant, right place. Without the right conditions, your plants will be under stress and possibly unable to take up the food and water they need. Read your plant labels carefully, research the plants you already have, especially any that seem to be struggling. Nine times out of ten, plants that are struggling in a garden are doing so because their environmental needs are not being met. Be prepared to move or replace your plants if need be.
1. COVER YOUR SOIL
With plants' need for shelter – and by default, water – sorted out, the only other thing we need to help manage for them is food. This doesn’t mean artificial fertilisers, it doesn’t need to be that complicated. As we’ve said, food for plants in a natural system, comes from the soil, which is absolutely abundant with minerals. In fact the soil in your garden will contain more minerals than your plants could ever need. However, these are made available to plants only if that soil is full of healthy populations of microbes – beneficial fungi, bacteria and other microscopic creatures. So our second task in creating health is to look after the foundational needs of those microbes in the soil - making sure they have the food, water and shelter that they need. This will keep them active, so they can get together with our plants and keep this whole amazing, cycling system running smoothly.
In a nutshell, this means - Cover Your Soil! Good, organic mulches, such as compost or well rotted manure, help retain soil moisture, provide a food source for microbes and protect them from both the extremes of summer heat and winter cold. Home-made compost is particularly useful, as it will actively seed in beneficial microbes. Even better than a compost mulch, is a complete covering of plants. These also shelter soil from the elements, helping with temperature regulation. While they do drink water from the soil, plants in the right spot actually help prevent soil from becoming overly dry – think moist, woodland soil as opposed to the hard baked clay or dust-like conditions we get with bare, summer soil. Plants also provide food for microbes – they use some of the sugars made during photosynthesis to create microbe feed that they push out through their roots into the soil.
With a covering of carefully chosen and well-placed plants and with mulch over any bare soil, you’ll have done everything you can to keep the base of your food chain really healthy. This health will cascade up through the food chain, helping to build resilience into your local wildlife populations. In my next article in this series about wildlife gardening, we’ll be looking at how to choose plants and other features that will really maximise on the wildlife benefits provided by your garden, allowing you to support both a wider diversity and larger populations of wildlife visitors.
If you'd like to explore wildlife gardening more, have a look at the Nature Gardens project. This January, we'll be launching our new club - the Nature Gardens Club, where you can meet up with like minded people in the garden to discuss and find out more about wildlife gardening in practice.