Written by Sean Wensley.
Northern Ireland is in an extended period of lockdown as I write, 3 weeks beyond the rest of the UK. For a further three weeks, I toggle between my work desk, garden and 8-month-old baby, buying shopping to last as long as possible and clapping for NHS staff and other key workers on Thursdays.
A garden project
The garden is “medium-sized” and was an overgrown tangle when we moved in. In autumn 2018, my wife and I were able to get it rejuvenated and replanted with wildlife in mind, and have been learning about gardening since.
The first year was spent wondering what would grow. The lawn, from seed, would it take? Various perennials, would they establish and flower? Some seed-grown annuals, would they germinate? I had done some wildlife gardening when I was young, so knew the principles of selecting bushes, trees and plants for nesting places, berries, nectar and so on. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) plant-finder tool was great for identifying types that could favour our soil-type and aspect, and the “Plants for Pollinators” filter within it was particularly helpful. We also had to learn about flowering times, aiming for the desirable “successional flowering”; enjoyable for us, and feeding bees and other insects for as long as possible.
A slower pace
Nothing was too exotic (wildlife favours native plants, after all) and with some TLC, things mostly worked. We had beautiful cosmos, coreopsis, hardy geraniums and “Bishop’s Children” dahlias (grown from a free packet of seeds, from a magazine) buzzing with insects all summer. Much as I itched to know what was going to happen next, I had to submit to a slower pace, set by the steadily advancing seasons.
What about this year? More questions abounded. Had the plants survived one of the wettest recorded winters, in our clay? What about the dahlias, specifically? I’d read many articles about the risks of leaving them in the ground. We’re coastal, not prone to hard frosts, so I had mulched them generously and hoped.
Spring during lockdown has allowed me to see the garden daily, and gradually have my questions answered. The delphiniums were fast out of the blocks, along with phlox “David” and geranium “Rozanne”; they’d obviously set down good roots. I pulled out emerging coreopsis “Zagreb” with my hands, thinking it was the ubiquitous Mare’s Tail weed, before realising my error; tiny, new bright green fronds say it’s forgiven me. In the second week of May, the first lush dahlia leaves appeared; they’d made it. Whether a little obsessional or a healthy attention to detail, I saw the winter-weathered soil start rising around the bare crowns before the leaves pushed through from beneath.
Winds last year had taught me about the importance of staking, so plant supports are now in place. They look hopeful above largely bare soil, but are favoured perches for young house sparrows who have fledged from our eaves. Meanwhile, a pair of great tits shuttle to and from a nest box. It was erected for starlings, but they are very welcome. Starlings aren’t particularly common in our garden, but having not mown where snowdrops and crocuses are planted in the lawn means that the bulbs have been well fed for next year by photosynthesis, while the longer grass is home for insects that are attracting foraging starlings.
Each day begins and ends with the blackbird singing on next door’s roof; his chicks are in the hedge. As many have commented, the birdsong seems so loud and pure without the background hum of traffic and planes.
A healthier future
I join, passionately and emphatically, all those who want our post-Covid 19 regeneration to be undertaken with biodiversity and a greened economy at its heart.
We are fortunate to have a garden, our patch of Earth, to tend for our wellbeing and the animals who share it with us. Fortunate to have had access to such a space during these weeks of lockdown and the good health and opportunity to have been able to do so. I join, passionately and emphatically, all those who want our post-Covid 19 regeneration to be undertaken with biodiversity and a greened economy at its heart. I recognise that recent gains for the natural world have come at intolerable costs for human lives and livelihoods, which could in no way be characterised as sustainable.
So, for the time being, we continue to find solace in nature, play our part through social distancing, have heart-felt gratitude for key workers and when the time’s right, act however we can to help society prioritise “One Health” – the health and wellbeing of people, animals and our shared, life-giving environment.
Written by Sean Wensley.