Award-winning wildlife garden
by Abigail Willis
When Thierry Suzanne moved in to his house in Forest Gate in 2007, his first priority was to create an alfresco wining and dining area in the back garden, along with a herb garden and veg patch. But, this done, it wasn’t long before a more adventurous plan began to seed itself in his mind. Seven years down the line, that germ has blossomed into a full-on wildlife garden that is as much a haven for birds, invertebrates and amphibians as it is for its human custodians. And it’s not just the local fauna that appreciate Thierry’s efforts – the garden won Best Small Residential Garden in the RHS/Wildlife Trust’s 2012 Big Wildlife Garden competition. Over a cup of coffee and a bowl of blueberries, served in his newly constructed green-roofed gazebo, Thierry explained the journey he and his garden have been on.
“When we came here, the garden had a more tropical feel, with several large cordylines and a lawn,” Thierry recalls, “but I thought the cordylines were out of context in London and I couldn’t be bothered with the lawn so I replaced them with a wild flower meadow.”
While the ready-to-roll meadow matting that Thierry installed was agreeably low-maintenance, requiring just a twice yearly mow, Thierry found that it grew tall and floppy, and made nearby plants too leggy as they competed for light. After two seasons he scrapped both meadow and fledgling veg patch but not before noticing how much wildlife the meadow plants had attracted. Thierry started to research the subject and had his eureka moment – “I realised that wildlife would make a really great focus for the garden.”
Since then, he has gone all out to tempt the birds and bees into his 48 x 14 foot urban patch, researching each step of the way (“I’m a bit obsessive about it,” he admits). His first major project was a pond. The organic oval shape was marked out in pebbles first before Thierry started the laborious process of hand digging. The centre of the pond was dug deeper to provide a sanctuary for hibernating aquatic creatures, while the edges were sculpted with shelves for plants and shallow,sloping beaches to allow birds, toads and frogs to enter and exit the water. Thierry then laid down a triple layer of landscape fabric, liner and a further fabric liner before filling the pond with rainwater harvested from his water butt. Carefully arranged boulders and pebbles define the pond’s margins, and the water is kept sparklingly clear by barley straw, which releases a chemical that naturally prevents algae.
Wildlife-friendly native plants were sourced from online aquatic plant specialist Waterside Nursery (www.watersidenursery.co.uk) with Thierry’s choices including water crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus), miniature waterlily (Nymphaea pygmaea Helvola) and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Thierry’s local Freecycle group turned up trumps with a marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) – a water’s edge plant that the Forest Gate hoverflies, bees and butterflies just can’t get enough of. Now in its second season the pond is already as busy as any watering hole in the Serengeti, although instead of wildebeest and crocodiles, its clientele takes the form of teeming tadpoles, thirsty songbirds and clouds of darting dragon and damselflies.
Elsewhere in the garden, Thierry has also selected plants for their wildlife worthiness. The inappropriately exotic cordylines were replaced with a trio of fruit trees – crab apple for the wildlife, cherry and plum for Thierry and his wife Sarah. Fragrant lavender was sourced from lavender specialist Downderry Nursery (www.downderry-nursery.co.uk) with Thierry opting for a range of hardy varieties, including ‘Gros Bleu’, ‘Loddon Blue’ and ‘Peter Pan’ to maximise the flowering season. Buttercups, plantain, silver-leaved rose campion and pretty pink and white valerian – remnants of the ill-fated meadow – still pull their wildlife weight, while the raspberries that bask on the sunny side of the garden, are veg patch survivors, their stay of execution granted as much for their bee-friendly flowers as for their delicious fruit. Boring boundary fences are camouflaged with flower and berry rich climbers and shrubs, while the kitchen patio doors are framed by a luxuriant passionflower (“The bees love it!” Thierry enthuses).
Proving that an ecological approach does not have come at the expense of style, Thierry has built attractive pathways around the pond – pea shingle and sleeper on one side, mellow reclaimed brick paviours on the other – and experimented with colour-themed planting. A white border illuminates the shady side of the garden with a tranquil scheme of honeysuckle, variegated ivy, Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’, aquilegia, saxifrage, white geum and Japanese anemone. The yellow foxglove that has sprung up cuckoo-like in the midst of this pristine paleness would, admittedly, have been more welcome in the blue and yellow border, among the cowslips, Jacob’s ladder, primulas and bluebells, borage and buddleia, but Thierry is stoical, pointing out the intruder with a philosophical shrug of his shoulders.
His latest ongoing project is the green-roofed gazebo at the far end of the garden. This Japanese-inspired structure has been built from recycled timber and is orientated for sunny breakfasts or shady afternoon tea. Its green roof was inspired by the one installed by John Little from The Grass Roof Company (www.grassroofcompany.co.uk) in April 2013 on Thierry’s bike shed. Using John’s DIY guide (http://www.livingroofs.org/diy-guide-green-roofs) as its template, Thierry’s green roof incorporates different soil types and even two hills into its compact dimensions. A ‘dry stone wall’ made from recycled roofing slates keeps this high-rise habitat in place while offering additional nooks and crannies for wildlife. The plants themselves came, fittingly, from the packet of seeds that was part of Thierry’s Big Wildlife Garden prize and include cornflowers, poppy, and corn chamomile (Anthemis arvensis).
Seeing habitat opportunities at every turn, Thierry has planted a native hedgerow as the rear boundary of the garden. Purchased as bare root plants from online tree and hedge specialist Ashridge Nurseries (www.ashridgetrees.co.uk), the hedge is a tapestry of dog rose, dogwood, Viburnum tinus, spindleberry, blackthorn, hawthorn, field maple, wild plum and common elder. Along one side of the gazebo, Thierry has stationed fragrant, single-flowering rose varieties such as ‘White Star’, ‘Frances E. Lester’ and ‘Mermaid’. Enclosed within a protective gabion, these thorny customers have proven bee appeal, but will also provide cover for the robins that Thierry hopes will take up residence in the nesting boxes he has installed there. Frankly, the robins would be mad not to – this garden is a tailor-made for them, with Thierry laying on daily supplies of live mealworms, served in a specially constructed magpie, squirrel and starling-proof feeder.
Thierry researches everything exhaustively – “I’m not an impulse buyer,” he says firmly. To earn a place in the garden, plants must not only be the right ones in the right place, they must also have impeccable wildlife credentials too. Even the mesh on the robin feeder is the result of Thierry’s ultra-observant approach – 40x40mm being exactly the right dimension to let the robins in and keep unwanted marauders out.
His attention to detail has paid dividends, and seven years on, Thierry relishes his daily sightings of wildlife, from the common mint moth in the herb patch to the sex-mad shield insects on the raspberries. His enviable roster of avian visitors alone includes goldfinch, fieldfare, greater woodpecker, and jays, as well as the less welcome green parakeets and magpies.
With The Wildlife Trust award under his belt, Thierry is well placed to offer advice to wannabe wildlife gardeners but his top three tips are disarmingly straightforward: dig a pond, install a bird feeder (“it’s simple but it works!”), and finally do your homework – “you can always find a plant that does what you want it to do aesthetically but that is also wildlife friendly.”
©Abigail Willis June 2014
RHS Perfect for Pollinators, (2 downloadable plant lists, one for garden plants, the other for wildflowers)
Bumble Bee Conservation plant list
Green Roof Resources