How to rewild your garden

How do we get into the rewilding mindset?The key thing to remember is that rewilding is an approach not a target, you are not deciding what your wild patches will look like or which plants will grow where. It is about giving up control of these parts of your garden and letting nature decide. It should be an exciting journey that gives you the freedom to follow where nature leads you!

How do you get started?

Getting started is a case of deciding where your wild patch or patches will be. Bigger and more connected is better. So, ideally, you’d have your whole garden as a wild patch and you remove barriers (e.g. fences) to neighbouring land. But it is more than likely that you’ll want a few different things out of your garden, and you and your neighbours may well not want you pulling down the fences.

Using my garden as an example, we have a green house, a bank of four great veg patches (put in by the previous owners), a nice grassy area great for running around and playing with the kids, some hedges and wild flower beds and our main wild patch that covers about 22%of the garden.

So,map out your garden and decide where you want to let it grow wild. It might be one patch, or a few separate patches. It’s also worth making the most of edges. Messy edges are the way to go here, rather than those regimented, square and ‘tidy’ edges. Not everyone is going to be a fan of this, but it’s great to see a diversity of flowers springing up around the edges and providing cover for small animals to move around. If your garden is fenced, you can also look to put some holes at the base to allow those hedgehogs and other animals to move through.

A diversity of plants along our gardens edge

The simplest next step is not to do anything else, just sit back and see what grows and uses your wild patch. But if you want to inject a bit more life into your wild patch to get things started read on…

Kick starting nature’s diversity

As you may have thought, just because you stop directly influencing a patch of land doesn’t mean the past influences have gone away! The soil, seed bank, plants established, animals using, and much more will all have been influenced by people. Fertiliser and pesticides may well be in the soil. Plants and animals may have been eradicated long ago. New non-native species may be present to out compete and dominate others. Nature’s way of resetting past impacts is through what is normally referred to as a ‘natural disaster’. I say ‘disaster’ but it is worth remembering nature is well adapted to dealing with these disturbances. In fact, disturbance, whether from wild boar rooting to wild fires, helps to maintain the diversity of life. But a glacier moving over is particularly effective at scrubbing the past clean and allowing nature to start again.

While you could just take whatever starting point you have, you could also mimic some of nature’s big disturbances. You could cut all the vegetation back and remove it. You could turn over the soil. You could remove the top soil. Each of those examples would remove past human impacts to a greater extent. I wouldn’t say there is a right or wrong answer to what you should do. It depends on what is possible and what you want to do. But if all options are on the table why not roll a dice and let chance decide –nature has plenty of chance in it so it feels appropriate to me.

Finding your inner beast and creating complexity

There are very few gardens in the world that can accommodate many big animals, or medium ones for that matter. Mega herbivores and large predators (that would be almost everywhere if people weren’t present, see Through the Bush Backwards) need 100’s of kms to support family groups let alone viable populations of animals!

These animals have the potential to have big impacts on plants. So, take a seat in your wild patch, and ask yourself:if people weren’t here what animals would be visiting and using your wild patch? The answers are potentially really surprising. Check out our ‘Through the Bush Backwards’ and the ‘Trump cards’ to explore which species have been using Sussex in the past and could have been here today.It includes elephants, hippos, and lions!

The point we want to make is that if you just step back and let nature go in a garden where there is no chance of any big animals using it you’ll get a form of succession where taller and taller plants establish over time until big trees dominate (if there is space).

In nature things are more dynamic. Big grazers and browsers can suppress trees growing. Elephants can push over established trees.Wild boar root up vegetation and expose bare soil. Predators move the herbivores around meaning different things happen in different places. Together, these animals help create a more diverse community of plants and structure to the vegetation, and so a diversity of life in general. But the chances are these big animals can’t visit your garden- but could you mimic their impacts?

If you can’t get any wild boar back into your garden (and most won’t) then think like a wild boar and mimic a bit of random rooting in the autumn and winter (get the hoe out and turn over the vegetation in your wild patch and see what you find) and grazing in the spring and summer (now for the hedge clippers, trim off the ground vegetation and clear it off). This disturbance will stop some plants dominating and will make your garden more diverse. And I do mean be a bit random about this, set up some options and roll some dice to decide which animals could be visiting your garden and mimic their behaviour. Unconventional, I know, but it might mix your gardening up a bit!

A diversity of plants have grown in a patch where I mimicked some wild boar rooting

Connecting with nature

Rewilding is an evocative word and it is capturing people’s imaginations. There are many different visions of creating wildness, including rewilding oneself. Whether you are rewilding an enormous landscape or a small patch of your garden, it is a fantastic opportunity to connect with nature.

Spend time in your wild patch. Sit and enjoy the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the feel of it. The dawn chorus can be a particular highlight. Your patch will change with the seasons. Different plants will come into flower. Different animals will visit. If you have the space,create a camp fire and cook on it. It might only be your garden but a little time in the wild, even if it is only a little wild, is good for us. Moving over is an effective way of scrubbing the past clean and allowing nature to start again.

By Chris Sandom

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