A little bit of untidiness can go a long way

On a crisp, sunny winter’s day, it is hard to beat a bit of tidying up in the garden. It gets us outside, it feels like we’re achieving something, and we are getting the garden ready for the start of spring. But there is now lots of evidence that suggests we can do more for wildlife if we just leave the garden a little bit untidy. Even leaving just a few areas unclipped, unraked, and uncut, will help many creatures survive the cold season and thrive next year.

Scientists have realised that one of the most important, yet overlooked ecosystems essential to wildlife is our soil. They are not only concerned about over-ploughing, pesticides and herbicides on agricultural soils, but also impacts on urban and garden soils. A healthy soil system is crucial to all other life. The bacteria and tiny invertebrates which live in our soil perform a hugely important role, cycling nutrients and aerating the substrate. We cannot have a healthy environment if we don’t look after our soil. So think about how you feed your soil and try to replicate more natural cycles.

For example – concern about insect decline is making us rethink how we deal with fallen leaves every autumn. Before they become compost or leaf mould, fallen leaves can serve as habitat for legions of life forms, from tiny gnats and spiders to woodlice and springtails. Woodlice are an important food source for other wildlife in the garden, including spiders, toads and shrews. Some moths and butterflies overwinter as caterpillars hidden deep in fallen leaves, while others hide out as cocoons.

Our soil is a living ecosystem

Max Ferlauto, a doctoral student in America, is investigating the impacts of leaf litter removal on overwintering insects. Based on his preliminary results, the number of emerging moths and butterflies are reduced by about 67 percent in areas where leaves are removed. Raking up leaves from our flower beds and storing them in sacks to provide compost next year, might seem like encouraging a natural process. But we are actually depriving small insects, pupae and other creatures from the rich, protective layer of leaf litter they need to survive the cold winter months. Much better to add leaf litter, perhaps from your paths and your lawn, on to your flower beds.

The same is true of the dead flowers and stems of many of our perennial plants and shrubs. These can provide food and shelter over the winter months for insects such as ladybirds and other creatures. They can also look very attractive, particularly when covered in an icy frost. So try to leave them until the early spring.

Frosted seedheads - beautiful and a food source
Dead hydrangea flowers providing shelter for many creatures

Try to resist chopping back old ivy and hedges at this time of year. Ivy flowers develop very late in the season, and are a hugely important source of nectar for many bees. After the flowers come the berries, and along with other berrying shrubs, are another important source of food for many birds. It is usually much better for our wildlife if you can leave hedge and shrub clipping until late February – before birds start looking for nesting sites.

Bees on ivy flowers
A Redwing eating holly berries

So relax and let the grass grow tall, the flowers turn to seed and the hedges, shrubs and trees expand skywards. Resist over-tidying, and sit back with a cup of tea (or a glass of mulled wine) and enjoy a slightly untidier but wilder garden this year.

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