Isn’t every garden a ‘wildlife’ garden? Even a carefully tended greenhouse has ‘wildlife’ – whitefly, vine weevils, woodlice, the odd fatally disorientated butterfly and – in the case of my friend Nicola who regularly leaves her swanky glasshouse door open by mistake – rabbits.
‘Wildlife gardening’ is often treated as a bit of a world apart, ideally and idyllically ‘organic’. But what are we supposed to do about wholesale destruction of various garden plants by ‘wildlife’? Butterflies we want to conserve start life as platoons of ghastly creepycrawly caterpillars that can demolish a square yard of nasturtiums in a day. I have a passion for birds, but don’t get me started on the subject of woodpigeons. And has anyone ever discovered an earthly reason for the existence of slugs, snails or wasps?
On an allotment it may be acceptable, but I don’t want my lovely garden to be festooned with glinting CDs, nor have to grow things under mesh or through cut off plastic drinks bottles – or alternatively live with disfigured flowers and maimed plants with mottled or bitten leaves..
I therefore admit freely that I wage a pretty unfair war on quite a lot of wildlife (aka ‘pests’), but not in the way I used to when I started gardening some years ago. Then, along with countless others, I routinely zapped the whole garden with what seemed like the best thing since sliced bread, newly developed, foul-smelling, now-banned Murphy’s Systemic Insecticide.
In those days it was even considered OK to water systemic chemicals in to the soil around the roots of our roses and shrubs to achieve, a day or so later, a total wipe-out and drop-off of just about every flying, buzzing, hopping or leaf-sucking insect known to man. And gardeners used to cast hideously toxic slug pellets containing now-outlawed methiocarb around by the fistful, as I recall. No one suggested for a moment that there was anything untoward about any of it.
In my garden (as opposed to on my allotment – where my Green-ness is a little more refined) I continue to maintain reasonable control of unwanted ‘wildlife’ with the help of chemicals. I use the newer, more selective, systemic pesticides (such as imidacloprid) with great care and caution, spraying to strive to control specific pests only on individual plants that I know will not perform to my satisfaction if munched, and trying to time my spraying to coincide with a point in each beastie’s lifecycle that it is most likely to be nobbled.
This means doing a bit of homework – and it also means that I may only spray just once, generally before things flower (therefore avoiding a conflict of interest with bees or beneficial hoverflies), with the intention of rendering the plants inhospitable to would-be invaders.
This year I blew it with regard to the mullein moth – one or two of my Verbascums were shredded while my back was turned by gorgeous-looking yellow and black ‘motherpillars’ and it is this that has made me peeved enough to sit down and bare a distinctly un-Green part of my horticultural soul.
Apart from this not-inconsiderable cock-up, by carefully-timed action this year I have managed not to have my solomon seal leaves shredded, nor have my day lily buds become swollen and slimy (full of the grubs of the hemerocallis gall midge); there are virtually no aphids on my roses and absolutely no sign of lily beetles on my lilies, my sages are not disfigures by lurking leafhoppers and my honeysuckles are unblemished by blackfly. In slightly greener mode, I have used slug pellets even more sparingly this year by using sheep wool pellets (Slugbuggers, my latest find) and copper barriers to great effect.
I make no apologies for all this, for despite my lack of Organic Cred, I have obviously barely made even a small dent in the local insect population, and my packed little garden is full of other wildlife – it sometimes feels like Picadilly Circus out there.
The hedges and trees are alive with birds, with resident nesting blackbirds, robins, tits, sparrows and starlings, visiting song thrushes, various finches, and a pair of nuthatches. I have regular nocturnal visits from at least two snuffly hedgehogs, and a young fox slakes his thirst daily before dawn from a pond that is home to frogs and newts and regularly visited by dragon- and damsel-flies.
Evidently, wildlife will and can, figuratively speaking, live cheek by jowl with a pragmatic but distinctly un-organic gardener.