How to rewild a new garden

You may be thinking you’ve stumbled into the wrong blog. And I can understand why. Smithery is a strategic design practice, which admittedly encompasses many things. But never gardens. What follows, however, is a documentation of our personal experience of a nature-based design intervention, and then some broader systemic thoughts on what might have worked better, more broadly, for a community.

Dr Rob Phillips, of the RCA’s Design Products team, asked me if I had some pictures of our garden before and after we made our version of MyNatureWatch Camera. It was a project centred on “self-build cameras for engagement with local wildlife and digital DIY”. Essentially, a design intervention to make people think more about the natural world immediately outside their door. Or the lack of wildlife in our case.

Our version of MyNaturewatch Camera, inside an old food container.

In 2016, we moved to a wildlife desert.

It was a new build estate in Sussex, which had been essentially scraped clean of any nature in order to build the houses, roads and other infrastructure that would support the new development. This was long before the Biodiversity Net Gain clause in the 2021 Environment Act, which requires developers to plan and get approval for a minimum 10% gain (calculated using Biodiversity Metric) in habitat, which is secured for at least 30 years.

Luckily, I take photos often, and of a lot of things. So nowadays, given everything’s stamped with metadata, I can look back and see which garden pictures we have, and from when, so I can tell a story of what happened before we built the camera, and afterwards.

At the start

What was the garden like when we moved in? It’s probably a typical new-build story; some turf laid over rubble and builders rubbish (oh, the things we’ve dug out of the garden in the interim years), and then some woodchip and selection of small bushes.

The front garden space isn’t huge, and just ‘neatened’. I can understand the argument that some people don’t want much in the way of maintenance in a garden, especially as they move in, but it certainly feels that there would have been an opportunity to inspire people differently.

The back garden, in hindsight, was more problematic. You can see the ring of low brick wall around the right hand side here to the road, creating a hermetically sealed section of the estate between the three houses on this row. It makes it virtually impossible for wildlife to get into, or pass through, this area. The other communal areas planted through the estate were pretty new as well, and contained as sparse a wildlife environment as you can imagine.

Before the camera

June 2016 – That first summer, I made a bug house. I can’t quite remember where the instructions or impetus came from, but with a few scrap materials and some basic tools, I put this together. It is still somewhere deep in the undergrowth today, in what became our nature garden. I should go and look for it.

August 2016 – I clearly remember seeing this butterfly emerge from its chrysalis that was hanging on the gate. It was perhaps remarkable because it was the first time I felt I’d seen a living creature in the garden which had made its own way there. I spent about half an hour watching its progress unfold, as its raggedy wings stretched out and flapped for the first time.

Summer 2017 – When the children were smaller, the back garden was kept as mainly grass for play, a shed for toy, bike and lawnmower storage, and not a lot else. We did put a young apple tree in it, a traditional Sussex variety called the Egremont Russet. Yet around then, we fenced off the little bit of space around the apple tree, and called it ‘the nature garden’. We let the grass grow longer in the hope that things might want to live in there.

I remember a trip to a nearby meadow with our daughter and a tupperware pot, to catch crickets and grasshoppers to release in this little patch. Out in the front garden, we plant a cherry blossom tree, but largely leave the rest alone.

Spring 2018 – In the first of the transformative attempts, we start taking out some of the more pointless turfed areas at the side of the house, replacing them with plants and a rockery. We read about how to make a a small garden pond using an old washing up basin, and over the course of a sunny Saturday afternoon, my dad helped my son and I make our first pond in the corner of the nature garden.

Shortly after this, the kids and I did find some frogspawn locally, and take a little and put it into our pond. What I know now was probably not a great thing to do; there are various issues that can arise in move frogspawn between locations. Yet, given the sealed nature of the garden, though, it’s hard to know whether frogs would have ever been able to make their own way there.

Literally two days after the pond was finished, though, something did find its way to the water. I saw a pair of mating red damselflies by the side of the pond, and most summers since then we’ve seen them around again.

What we have before we build the camera, then, is best described as a small nature patch, perhaps 5-10% of the total garden space available, where we were experimenting with things that would bring more nature in.

Making the camera

March 2019 – We bought and made our camera, tipped off by Rob no doubt. You can still by the MyNaturewatch camera kit here from Pimoroni. It’s a Raspberry Pi Zero W with a camera module and a few other pieces, and it connects to your mobile phone or computer so that when it’s outside and the motion sensor goes off, you can look at the photos or the videos you’ve set it up to capture.

We set it up opposite some bird feeders we set up in a small tree, and… waited. And waited some more.

As the birds failed to materialise, we started looking around the development with a keener eye, whether on school runs or playing in the common area. There just weren’t a lot of birds around. You could see some flying high overhead, as if commuting along the bird bypass to spaces in which they could thrive. But we couldn’t go and ‘kidnap’ them, as we had done with the crickets or the frogspawn.

Putting a camera up really brought the message home; if you want to attract birds to your garden, you have to think about what birds want and need. Just like the red damselflies, who’d somehow spotted an environment that would work for laying their eggs.

Height, cover, food

Spring 2019 – The great thing about design gardens for wildlife is that there are so many resources available for inspiration, online and elsewhere. It’s really just a case of reading about what might work for you, where you are.

The core principles which seemed appropriate for us, trapped in the middle of a barren wilderness area, was to create an initial oasis into which birds could stop off, and find three things they needed; height, cover and food. The height would let them settle above the garden and survey if needed, the cover would offer places to retreat to, and then food would be provided by planting native species which would continue to attract different types of insects and the like on which the birds could feed.

The pond in the nature garden was upgraded using a preformed pond mould which was on sale, and alongside the apple tree we planted a gooseberry bush and a bramble. We then found a cheap garden arch in another sale, and placed that beside the nature garden. Then we started digging out borders around the garden, put in another tree, some trellis to grow climbing jasmine up, and made a wood pile in a darkened corner to encourage more bugs and grubs. We also let nettles grow in this patch to encourage butterflies to lay eggs.

It was a little bit of work across a couple of weekends, but it was fairly cost-effective and fun for the family too. And it became all the more worthwhile when in October that year we start getting visitors like this…

It definitely felt like validation of the work we’d been putting in, and the principles behind it. And over the following winter months, we are treated to many repeated visits from blue tits, all captured on the camera.

Spring 2020 – Moving in to the following year, we felt we could go further. Seeing the blue tits was great, of course, but it felt like it was a plan reliant on putting out bird food still, and it only really attracting one species at that. The plan evolved; what could we do to get different birds in the garden, and how could we provide food that doesn’t come from a packet?

June 2020 – It was peak pandemic time by then, of course, so we had extra time on our hands, and nowhere to go. We tore up the front garden, removing everything the house builders had put in there. We started with a rowan tree and a Boston ivy which could grow up the shady wall at the front. Going back to the principle of providing cover, I started looking around for where I can get a native wildlife hedge, and find an offer on what are known as ‘whips’.

Not long after, I took delivery of what I can best describe as fifty ‘sticks with roots’, a mix of hazel, bird cherry, field maple and purple berberis. We cobbled together enough buckets and pots to soak them, quickly planted some in the available space at the front of the house, and potted the rest until we could work out what to do with them.

July 2020 – The brick wall at the back of the rear garden was problematic; we couldn’t grow anything up it, as it technically wasn’t our wall. But we could grow things in front of it. We found some planters online we could assemble ourselves, and used more of the mixed hedge plants in them to start off a free standing hedge. The rest of the hedge plants we started giving away to neighbours, so they too could put some native hedging in.

Late 2020 – As autumn rolled around, the new planting was beginning to take, especially the Boston ivy which had begun to creep up the wall. In the subsequent January sales we find a bird box to go out at the front above it on the same shady wall. We had another couple of bird boxes in the back garden, both north facing too, but in hindsight they weren’t high enough, nor far enough away from trees. The hope, of course, is that the blue tits who still frequent the garden decide we’re hospitable enough to stay with for awhile in the spring.

Spring 2021 – It was time for more borders. We removed a fence from the bottom of the back garden, and dug out the space below where it stood for more low level planting. We wanted a bed of flowers to attract pollinators, predominantly, though they would also became a place we would find some of the young frogs who had made it out of the pond.

Summer 2021 – There was nothing to report in the bird box. Clearly the blue tits hadn’t got the message, or seen our listing on Rightmove. However, we were finally starting to see a lot of other birds around the garden too. Goldfinches, great tits, blackbirds, wrens, a fair few magpies, a goldcrest (just the once), a greater spotted woodpecker, and later in the year a black redstart. Plus all the other wildlife on top that was spreading out around the nature garden.

Spring 2022 – Last year, we finally got what we were hoping for; nesting birds. Except, not the blue tits we had been expecting, but great tits instead. In late autumn, we cleaned out the nest box and saw what they’d constructed. They’d used some of the wool packing which Helen had put in an old bird feeder around in the back garden. Pleasingly, they then came back again in 2023, and successfully fledging both years.

I can’t quite believe it’s been seven years already, and how much of a difference that moment of getting the camera in 2019 has made. As promised, now on to some reflections as to what it makes me think about when doing this at scale, across whole estates, towns, and the country as a whole, especially given the 2021 Environment Act 10% Biodiversity Net Gain conditions for developers.

i) Measuring success

I wish I could tell you that the pictures above of the great tits at the bird box were taking using the MyNaturewatch Camera, but the truth is that it’s been sitting idle in my office since 2020. As a prompt, a thing to get us going, it was brilliant. It was the nudge we needed to change our behaviour, learn new things, and try them out.

But as with so much in the digital age, if success was somehow measured by tracking usage of the device, updates on the software, number of pictures downloaded, it would be judged as a failure. You need to set yourself up to measure the real effects, rather than orientating around the convenient data points. Number of cameras ordered, built, used, updated… I don’t think any of these stats would help you work out whether the project is a success or not. It feels like finding ways to make Citizen Science an active part of continual delivery against Biodiversity Net Gain would be appropriate.

ii) Planning collective efforts

Our garden is just one across the whole development. Other people have done things in their gardens, some haven’t. But they are so infrequently talked about by people in the collective context. Yes, you might well talk to your closest neighbours, but there’s no provision in the planning on emergent communities that might collaborative efforts easier. Imagine if every spring for three years whilst the development was filling up with new families, the housing developer had run a ‘planting plan’ weekend. Turn up with a few hundred whips for hedges, a few hundred bedding plants, and a leaflet on how to attract nature to your garden. What’s more, you would start to draw together people and families interested in making a difference at the point where they can rapidly accelerate regeneration of the natural environment.

iii) Regulation and incentives matter

A different example from our doorstep of the impact which regulation and incentives have. We live on the side of the estate which was completed around Christmas 2015. Each house has solar panels installed, as it came before the government slashed solar panel subsidies for house builders. I can look across right now to the other side of the development, where every house was built without solar panels. Even now, after the energy crisis, only a few houses have had them installed. It is maddening, and wholly predictable.

But it does show how quickly housing developers will react to changes in what they’re expected to deliver. Now imagine that building new houses in the UK came with a mix of regulations and incentives that prioritised not just the broad but set out some specific mixes of ways this could be achieved.

From our experience, then, here’s an initial list of things that would have made a difference when we started:

  • Let nature in, and stop fully sealed brick enclosures around gardens
  • Mandatory borders, ready for planting
  • Only pre-plant native species in gardens for handover
  • Locally specific nature guides to quickly restore areas
  • Ensure soil quality by removing all builders rubbish

Having watched a new build site emerge over the last seven years, and thinking about the challenges ahead in protecting biodiversity in the UK, I feel strongly that much more can be done, and it isn’t actually that hard to do.

(Also, if you want to talk more about any of this, and are in a position to make some changes that help, then do contact us, happy to chat.)