Your beginners' guide to gardening for biodiversity
Why an untidy garden is the secret to supporting wildlife and promoting biodiversity.
by Felicia Hedetoft
‘Should we make a mess?’ I remember my preschool friend asking eager-eyed in the sandpit. My answer was no. An answer which within a single syllable reflects the character of my childhood self well.
I preferred spotless and clutter-free surroundings and made neat wish lists topped by items like a feather duster and a loft bed for all my toys and crayons, each one in need of protection from the curious hands of my baby brother. And let’s not forget my hands! Goo, grease or grime? Straight to the safety of the sink.
Many years later, I’m stubbornly clinging on to this childhood aversion for mess. After the retirement of both the feather duster and the loft bed, I’ve found myself a new obsession: Netflix super-declutterer Marie Kondo and her joy-focused method for cleaning and organising. And what decluttering at that! All my belongings lie divided into strict categories, folded vertically or packed into see-through boxes. A winter-long dedication to weeding out items that don’t spark joy has left my surroundings clean and organised, just as Kondo promised.
Yet as I find myself back in my parents’ garden on the southern coast of Sweden, my sandpit answer begins to feel much less convincing. Here, our family cat sits impatiently, glaring at my parents’ latest project: a brushwood fence (also called a dead hedge, a very descriptive name but not as romantic).
'This fence and compost pile in one, packed with all sorts of lives, is, let’s face it, a bit of a mess.'
In this fence of old twigs, branches, weeds and dirt, nothing appears particularly tidy. Insects hatch and swarm. Some are devoured by small birds who perch and energetically chirp in a conductorless orchestra while others simply seem part of the slow rhythm of decomposing grass. This fence and compost pile in one, packed with all sorts of lives, is, let’s face it, a bit of a mess.
In the company of the fence I can see the ins and outs of every twig, the comings and goings of every bird. A few more hours spent watching the action and now, I’d like to share my discoveries with you – some practical, beginners tips to create a biodiverse garden.
'Allow me to suggest that gardens are more than exclusively green, private areas framed by picket fences.'
And not just any garden, your garden – your own little patch of earth; your balcony, miniature patio, windowsill, community garden, even your public space. I know gardening can seem like a club with a membership tied to old age and floral garden gloves but allow me to suggest that gardens are more than exclusively green, private areas framed by picket fences.
A visit to the brushwood fence in my parents’ garden will indeed soon show you that fences need not be very picketed at all. To set the scene I should declare that the garden is a recently founded place. It’s a plot of fairly barren sandy soil and grass surrounding a new house, close only to one next-door neighbour. It has a pond, a compost and a few piles of shavings from local trees.
'One untidy fence may appear a rather small and underwhelming way to help this all-encompassing life force, but looks can be deceiving…'
The fence marks the beginning of my parents’ commitment to improving biodiversity in this garden. Biodiversity - the variety of life on Earth. The way everyone and everything is connected to – and dependent on – everyone and everything else. An ongoing jumble of strings and knots tying species together. One untidy fence may appear a rather small and underwhelming way to help this all-encompassing life force, but looks can be deceiving…
In fact, when searching the online archives for brushwood fences, records of their useful qualities pop up all around southern Sweden. Turns out they’re far from new inventions. Brushwood fences or ‘risgärdesgårdar’ were built here up until a few centuries ago – admittedly as a practical way of using material left over when clearing local pastures to fence in livestock. But then! As a by-product came something more: in the cut-off branches and thorny shrubs, biodiversity found a friend. Small birds, reptiles and mushrooms moved in.
Let’s put down the shovel for a moment here. Our quick digging into untidy fences tells us that they can be quite, or even very, helpful. But what is it about these sorts of spaces that make them so great for so many different species?
I find my favourite explanation in a no-longer-printed brochure from the project BushLIFE: environments are at their best when they have room for life. This is educationally illustrated by a pile of dead wood, a main focus of the project.
'The pile provides a place to be, meet and mate, as well as things to eat.'
The pile has many visitors: birds nest on its twigs and branches; its logs feed fungi, beetles and larvae; hedgehogs seek shelter in its shade; worms are greeted by its decomposing material in the soil. The pile provides a place to be, meet and mate, as well as things to eat.
These might sound like basic things, and indeed they are. But when our surroundings boast such messy qualities they allow a variety of species to survive and thrive. Biodiversity needs this mess because life is a mess.
Hold on! A tiny goldcrest has just caught an unidentifiable insect in the brushwood fence. What a place to be and eat, and be eaten for some.
The fence aside, there’s next to no trace of messiness in the area beyond my parents’ garden. I can see for miles and miles through the landscape. East, West and North are fields cropped into even squares. (If the Baltic Sea didn’t stop them, the fields would surely go South, too.) On them, rows of the same crops are sown. Old, dying and dead trees are cut down and removed. Streams once winding lie straight, as if stretched out. It all reminds me of a patchwork quilt neatly sewn, tucked over the land.
This landscape is not great for biodiversity. Too few diverse wildflowers bloom on the fields for pollinators – bees, bumblebees, butterflies, beetles and flies. Not enough dead wood for insects, birds and lichens. Only the occasional pool of slow moving water for fish and other small creatures living at the bottom of the streams.
'It’s an ordered and tidy sort of place, but it did not simply fall from the sky.'
It’s a landscape shaped by years of mainly human land use. And by a lot of human control – what crops to sow, where trees can grow and how waters will flow. It’s an ordered and tidy sort of place, but it did not simply fall from the sky. In it, some species are welcomed to stay while others are not (I’m looking at you, dear dandelion).
Let’s return to my parents’ garden as it stood before the fence. Or, I should say, let’s return to the lawn. For in Sweden, lawns have become synonymous with gardens, and gardens with lawns. The longing for lush green grass is just about a national sign of spring.
If you’ve ever spent time on such a lawn, you can probably see why. Soft, smooth, healthy-looking. Yet not many species like these green carpets. Actually, even the lawns themselves appear unimpressed, displaying their disapproval by going patchy and yellow when given a moment’s rest.
These lawns demand a lot of control to groom. Weeding, mowing (I once saw a neighbour using a pair of scissors!), watering, spraying. And for what? Paul Robbins grants us an answer to this by what he calls ‘lawn people’: a managed, freshly manicured lawn gives the impression of good citizenship. Of the ability to deal with mess.
But now, I ask you to imagine a different kind of garden. One where the question ‘Should we make a mess?’ is followed by a ‘Let’s!’ There’s a lot to criticize when it comes to the lawn-industry and unsustainable land use practices here and so much we could gain by changing them.
'...a few small changes could mean more lively landscapes.'
Where fertilizers and pesticides have damaged previously inhabited waterways and once flourishing insect populations (read this imprint article to learn more about other causes of biodiversity loss), a few small changes could mean more lively landscapes.
Biodiversity is an enormous, global issue. So, though shifts to support biodiversity must happen at scale, in our gardens we can make a difference by building from our own, literal, grassroots. And for a start, we need to do less.
Yes, you read that correctly. I – the former inofficial spokeswoman for tidiness – invites you to join me in doing less tidying. Biodiverse patches of earth can celebrate the win-win situations that form when not doing something, is doing something. Which means absolutely anyone can do (that is to say, not do) it. A real mouthful, huh?
So to you, budding gardener, I leave you with some final how-tos:
Quit waiting for the green fingers. Use the space you have, no matter how small. Biodiversity is kind to the inexperienced. Grow and place things on shelves or in hanging baskets and use climbing plants. And guess what! On a balcony there’s no need to wonder whether the grass is greener on the other side.
Don't bother buying every trending plant you see on social media. Choose so-called native and older versions of flowers. Many garden flowers have been refined to look pleasant, a process which often leaves them with less nectar and pollen. So, if you have your eye on a particular plant then always try and find an older species.
Give your lawnmower a break. Longer patches of grass and weeds provide both shelter and food for different species. Scatter some local wildflower seeds and you could even have your own mini-meadow.
Add water and allow plants to colonise it. This is a big step away from a clear swimming pool, but it’s great for frogs and dragonflies. Make sure your pond or container has at least one sloping side for creatures leaving the water.
Go with the flow. Not all plants bloom at the same time so it’s great to plan some seasonal planting from early spring to late summer. Goat willow supplies nectar and pollen to wild pollinators early in the season, while ivy is a late bloomer.
Leave your food waste in the garden. Create a compost! This is good for boosting your soil, with fungi, bacteria and worms. Plus, eggs from some bumblebees benefit from the heat in the compost.
Let old twigs and branches lie. Different species need different stages of wood: living, dying and dead. An insect hotel is an option if you’re running low – or as a way of making the most of your balcony walls. And if you want to create some distance to your neighbour in the process, build a brushwood fence.
Relax during the autumn. There’s no need to tidy up for winter. Piles of stones can help hibernating reptiles, while uncut, hollow stems can provide shelter for hibernating insects.
If this still sounds like a lot of work, don’t worry. A garden is an ongoing process. It’ll grow and spread and at some point inescapably wither. And more importantly, it’s a garden. What works in one garden might not work as well in another. But here’s the very best part: doing less means having more time to get to know your environment by simply being with it.
Has the time come to set Kondo’s method down, even if only out in the garden? My answer to this would have given the old sandpit a different fate: yes. Messiness can create places where more species are able and allowed to exist. And hooray for that! No more hours of cleaning and organising. As I sit watching the commotion in the brushwood fence, it feels good to say: it takes less to make a mess.
Resources for further reading:
Biodiversity in Dead Wood by Jogeir N. Stokland, Juha Siitonen and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson
‘Encourage Wildlife to Your Garden’ by the Royal Horticultural Society
‘Garden DIY: Building a Brushwood Fence’ by Sara Bäckmo
Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are by Paul Robbins
Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree
Felicia (she/her) is a Swede who never misses an opportunity to power walk. Following an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at Oxford, she has been learning-by-doing in a national park. Her flaws include an addiction to tea and a passion for country music.