Recent publicity on television and in the gardening press has drawn attention to the way we manage our outdoor spaces, including our private gardens at home and the public areas in towns, churchyards and village greens. With farmers under pressure to produce more cheap food by the most price-efficient method available, and with councils focusing on reducing costs and unsightliness, the needs of wildlife often get pushed down the agenda. Better education and good publicity has highlighted the need to conserve hedgerows, reduce chemicals and encourage biodiversity, but numbers of many native plant and insect species are still declining.
Should we rethink the role that our gardens and public spaces play in the local environment? There is a growing realisation that gardens are emerging as a vital habitat resource. Our gardens together could provide a greater range of thriving species than endless acres of grass on farmland that has been sprayed and stripped of productive hedges. We are being asked to adopt a new approach and to move away from the old-fashioned policy of shrubs plus mown lawn, which can look superficially tidy and well-kept, but which too often can mean sterility and a worrying lack of biodiversity.
Key to all of this is the health of the small insect populations which play a vital role in pollination. Bees, hoverflies, beetles and many other insects climb into nectar and pollen rich flowers and carrying the pollen to other plants which are fertilised to stimulate the growth of fruit and crops. The decline of pollinating insects is one of the most alarming consequences of decades of short-termist management of agriculture and gardens, and is threatening human food production as well as natural biodiversity.
Needless to say this is a complex issue, but one that we can all help to resolve. A starting point might be for all of us to keep an eye out for the number of insects on the flowers and plants around. If your garden has shrubs and grass, it will almost certainly lack both numbers and varieties of insects. Colourful flower beds in parks and villages, tended with such care under local work schemes and by generous volunteers, are often filled with plants that do not attract insects. Their flowers may be beautiful, but if they are not full of insects then their value should be questioned. Non-native flowers have little to attract local insects. Flowers with double heads are attractive to us, but not to pollinators if the flowerheads are too tightly closed for insects to be able to reach the nectar and pollen.
Some flower varieties are bred for their stunning visual impact, but are so hybridised as to be sterile and incapable of producing fertile pollen. Indeed there are varieties of seed on sale near you that are sterile and cannot reproduce. These seeds are cheaper, but you will have to replace them all next year. Their value to pollinating insects is minimal. A walk around the wildflowers of Cabragh Wetlands in spring will give you an idea of what a range of bug life can be sustained by native species.
So keep an eye out this year for how attractive your garden is to insects. Wander over to the flower beds on your street or by your village green and see if they are awash with bees, bugs and beetles. If not then maybe we should be re-planting with species that will attract the little creatures which play a key role in maintaining biodiversity and fertility in town and countryside. We all need to spend time learning about plant varieties, to ask the right questions in garden centres and to challenge the ingrained shrub-and-mow fashions in gardening. We’ll return to this topic.