Nature

A radical new look at gardening for wildlife

What is really lurking in our backyards?

The UK’s residential gardens, when taken as a whole, represent a similar area of land to that of the Cairngorms, Britain’s largest national park. As far as their potential for supporting conservation is concerned, then, they are no trifling matter.

As the rush to build new homes escalates, the significance of gardens for wildlife is only going to grow and go. There has never been a more urgent need to trumpet the value of this habitat.

The time has come to end our addiction to insecticides and herbicides, to fight back against the rise of plastic grass – in so-called ‘lazy lawns’ – and to combat the filling-in of ponds.

The enforced localism of the pandemic has helped spotlight one major benefit of thriving gardens, which is that contact with nearby nature can have tremendous benefits for our mental health. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

But gardening for wildlife is not just about creating a fountain of joy and a place for human relaxation. There are deeper issues at play, chief among them being our duty – and I do not use that word lightly – to give all our fellow species a chance to carve out an existence on this one shared planet of life.

It has thus been my great pleasure to write a book – titled Thirteen Paces by Four, in honour of the diminutive nature of the plot of land on which it focuses – about my own experiences of gardening for wildlife, and the many unexpected creatures to be found living there.

I had kept one eye on my back garden for over a decade, but when I really started to look at the creatures who were making a home there, I was truly stunned.

In the book, as well as saying something about many of the garden’s non-human residents, I offer some practical tips for what has worked well for me. Digging a small wildlife pond, for instance, has proved to be of huge benefit. A few years on, there are now four species of amphibian living in the garden, which is more than have been recorded at several nearby nature reserves.

Other successes have come from adding piles of dead wood, sowing native wildflower seeds, and generally trying to garden with a ‘light hand’.

In addition to the practical pointers in the book, I also dig into the underlying soil of broader societal issues.

What can we learn from the way that food grows in our garden about sustainable agriculture? How should the scarcity of freshwater in many parts of the country, and the wider world, shape our attitudes and behaviours to the precious life-giving liquid? These are some of the questions that I ask.

From the experience of writing the book, it has become clear to me that gardening for wildlife provides a touchpoint for the human relation with the wider world and can be a powerful motivator to go to do even greater things.

Small projects that begin at home can also, themselves, quickly start to snowball into larger-scale initiatives for change. As a recent case in point, two A-level students were recently featured in The Guardian for a project that has started out in their back gardens and might just have the potential to boost reptile and amphibian conservation in the UK.

Another recent story coming from a backyard related to a project to re-populate a threatened butterfly species in California.

All told, it is time to re-think the role of gardens in conservation and to get our hands dirty.

How to buy the book

The book can be ordered through various online platforms.

For UK-based readers, if the book is purchased through Bookshop, proceeds go directly to independent sellers: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/thirteen-paces-by-four-backyard-biophilia-and-the-emerging-earth-ethic/9781913680060

For any non-UK-based readers, bookdepository.com is a good option offering free worldwide postage: https://www.bookdepository.com/Thirteen-Paces-by-Four-Joe-Gray/9781913680060

About the royalties from the book

100% of the royalties from Thirteen Paces by Four are being donated to the World Land Trust.