It’s possible that you don’t think a wild garden is beautiful, but it can be a good compromise between a rewilded rainforest and a sterile desert. This will not only look great but also provide a sanctuary for wildlife. It is particularly important to do this in the UK, where 97% of semi-natural grassland was destroyed during the last 80 years.
I am an ecologist who specializes in this type of habitat, and I want to make the most of it. You can compromise by delaying the first time you use your lawnmower each year. The conservation charity Plantlife has launched a campaign called NoMowMay to encourage people to wait until June to cut their lawns. This will give grasses time to bloom and herbs to set seeds.
Here are some tips on how to keep your lawn wildlife-friendly all year long without letting it become overgrown.
Some mowing is necessary to find the right balance. This stops the ecological processes that would otherwise turn a lawn into a forest over time. You can create different conditions for different species by varying how high you cut your yard, and how often.
Cut-off areas will encourage daisies to flower profusely, providing nectar for bees and butterflies. Unkempt areas that are left uncut over a period of a year will attract a wide variety of flowers and insects.
A white-footed fly has been attracted to flowers in the long grass. Nick Upton/Alamy Stock Image
Charles Darwin observed that in experiments in his garden in Kent he did not mow the turf for long enough, resulting in fewer species.
The more vigorous plants slowly kill the less vigorous… so out of 20 different species that were growing on a small plot of turf (3 feet by 4 feet), nine of them died, while the others were allowed to grow freely.
The level of nutrients that the lawn receives is also important. If you’ve never bought lawn feeds that are heavily advertised in garden centers, the reactive Nitrogen carried by the wind will still provide enough fertilizer for your lawn.
In a natural grassland, the purpose of mowing is to simulate animal grazing. To do this, you must remove the clippings, or else the nutrients will be absorbed back into the soil.
Mycorrhizal networks in soil help bacteria and fungi decompose the dead plant matter and return nutrients to plants. The regular mowing of grass cuttings, which overloads the soil with nutrients and devalues the currency that fungi provide in nitrogen and phosphorus, is a major factor in breaking this cycle. can also cover up small seedlings .
When soil nutrients are unnaturally high (common on lawns that are mowed and the clippings added regularly), a few fast-growing weedy plants dominate the vegetation. Darwin discovered that this prevented a diverse community of wildflowers. A soil with low levels of nutrients is more favourable to not only more species but also healthy food webs.
Scientists have been studying the effects of annual haycutting at the Rothamsted Park Grass field experiment since 1860. This is the oldest field trial in the world. The number of plant species decreased from 40 to less than five when fertilizer was applied evenly to some plots.
Grass clippings can flood soils with nutrients that are more than the plants need. Ekaterina Pankina/Shutterstock
Consider the season. In summer, mow sparingly to encourage diverse insect and plant communities. The most varied flowers will grow on a lawn that is left uncut till late July. This mimics a traditional hay meadow. Cut it back in the autumn to encourage mushrooms to fruit as the year ends.
Nature conservation has a terrible tendency to ignore soil organisms and the hidden life they live. The grassland macrofungi are often overlooked because they can be seen with the naked eye. The brightly colored waxcaps are my favorites. These stars of the fungi world can only be found in undisturbed grasslands with low soil nutrients.
These fungi are found in abundance on the British Isles, but habitat loss is a threat. Experts from around the world rated 11 UK species as vulnerable, the same risk of extinction faced by snow leopards and pandas.