Letting go of Control - the wildlife garden

Judy Birkbeck
Friday, 18th September 2020

Judy shares the tale of the wildlife-friendly garden, with bees, insects and birds galore.

The honeybees in my last home were mean. Woe betide any bumblebee that dared to land on a borage flower. The borage was the honeybees’ private property, and they would dive-bomb any poor unsuspecting bumblebee that happened to arrive first, quite unnecessarily as there was plenty for all.

Hypocritical of me, perhaps, to condemn the greed and selfishness, when I caged the blueberries, threw netting over the blackcurrants and whitecurrants and dangled CDs by the plum tree. I wanted all the fruit for myself and my family. Not that the blackbird minded when she found herself trapped inside a net. She would happily stay and feast and seemed to resent being released, waiting nearby for a repeat opportunity.

In the current garden there is a bounty of borage, but in August the water mint is the thing. It’s like one of those Renaissance paintings of the Garden of Eden where lions and deer and birds and mice will sit peaceably side by side with no enmity or selfishness. The water mint is loved and shared by all manner of bumblebees, honeybees, hoverflies, even bluebottles. Any creature approaching a flower and finding it already occupied simply moves sideways and recalibrates its direction. What a picture of life as it should be! What a lesson to those of us in the so-called developed world, who ransacked the south and maintain our stranglehold with debt. You owe us, we say. We did this for you, we did that.

But no one owns the borage, the water mint. Of course from a human perspective it’s a different matter when slugs munch the runner beans down to stumps or honey fungus spreads its tentacles to your favourite James Grieve apple tree. Slugs and fungi also have needs.

In an ideal world I would not feed the birds. They would find plenty of food in the garden. But a 20 x 30ft garden, though abundant in insects, berries, worms and seeds after only four and a half years, starting from nothing but gravel, is not enough if surrounded by typical suburban gardens where native trees and wild flowers are rejected and cultivated varieties are the bees’ knees, though not the bees’ banquet. At first I offered sunflower seed kernels and suet balls. They turned up their noses. Then homemade suet blocks with seed and oats. Still no. Then, following my neighbours’ example, popular with a dozen species including the numerous sparrows which nested under the eaves of houses at the back, I offered bread. They came. They rejected my home-made fat blocks and wolfed down the worst factory-made white pap, which I admittedly bought for my delight in bird-watching rather than for their nutritional benefit. Result! However, soon five wood pigeons and seven magpies were in constant attendance, shooing off all cheeky comers. So: not bread. Back to sunflower seed and fat blocks out of magpies’ reach, which worked this time. But – there is always a but – the five marauding wood pigeons stayed and were joined by eleven even more marauding feral pigeons which lived on the roof opposite and for three and a half years had not noticed this feast on their doorstep. Between them they trampled all plants beneath the feeder, at every relocation, and no water pistol or handclaps or scary daughter kept them away for more than a few minutes. Finally I erected the pole in the middle of the bed crammed with two-foot-high plants. They stopped coming. But now the ground is littered with the small birds’ spillage. Pigeons, come back, we welcome you.

Back to the bees. A rock painted with the words 'Bee & Bee' sits by the pavement, and my daughter has learned to appreciate them. In fact, I think she loves them really, because the frequency of their wingbeats is the same as that of Formula One racing which she adores. Win-win.

Useful links

Watch: Bees not Lawns

Grow trees for bees