The award-winning garden designer is challenging us to change how we garden. Our natural inclination for vast and weed-free lawns along with colourful flower beds, helped by intense feeding, are things we need to move away from, he says.
‘The Irish climate means we can grow plants that originate from across the globe. But we’re now beginning to realise the cost which that type of intensive gardening has on the environment. We also have to challenge the notion of having everything very neat and tidy; having big areas given over to lawns instead of pollinating plants and also having an uber-colourful spaces which usually comes from using lots of nitrates,’ he says.
In terms of the coming winter and looking ahead to next year, here are some of Diarmuid’s tips for an environmentally-friendly garden:
Build a habitat
We like our gardens neat and tidy but nature doesn’t work like this. Habitats as simple as a few paving stones piled up to create a miniature dry stone wall, or logs and twigs will provide cover for beneficial insects such as beetles who feed on aphids and small caterpillars. If you don’t have a lot of room, even a small pile of dead leaves will make a home for these insects. Children will love this project as it’s very likely that they’ve learnt about the importance of looking after our wildlife in school.
Ladybirds have an unsurpassed appetite for aphids such as greenfly, munching up to 50 of the critters a day or up to 5,000 in their short life spans. And greenfly and their mates do enormous damage to some beautiful plants such as roses, which we love to grow. So, let’s encourage ladybirds who also munch on mites, thrips, scale insects and whiteflies. They need places to hibernate in winter. They naturally overwinter in crevices of bark on trees and in piles of leaf litter. You can create your own ladybird house by using a simple wooden box and adding bits of bark and leaf litter. Or construct a wildlife wall – this is made from layers of brick or tile and wood against a wall with some corrugated cardboard included in the layers for ladybirds to lay eggs. Make a log pile using a few branches, logs and twigs in an out-of-the-way area where they won’t be disturbed. Even just leaving an area un-mown or perennials not cut down for the winter is a good hideaway for insects. It’s also a great excuse as to why your garden isn’t perfectly neat!
Spread some flutters of joy through the garden or at least plan to attract swarms of butterflies to your summer plots. Butterflies epitomise nature and all that is good and healthy in our eco-systems. Ideally you need to keep them well fed from March through November, but what plants do they love? The butterfly bush, buddleia, would definitely be their favourite dish. They also like lavender, escallonia, caryopteris, hawthorn, blackberries, heathers and hebes. But you don’t need to have heaps of space either – the balcony gardener or courtyard dweller can plant perennials and colourful annuals that will tickle their taste buds.
There are many scrumptious flowers such as cornflowers, single flowered dahlias, heliotrope, verbena, solidago, alyssum, echinacea, sedums, aubretias, calendulas, asters, zinnias and dianthus that will provide nectar. Native flowers such as loosestrife, valerian, dandelions, buttercups, angelica, teasel and clover will signal your garden as a wildlife-friendly zone.
Help the birds
Bird feeders are generally constructed in one of two ways. The first is the feeder that hangs from a tree, usually with wire mesh that birds can peck through. The second is a platform feeder, a tray that rests on a pole stuck in the ground. Steel poles are good as they are difficult for cats to climb. The feeder should be situated in an area that acts as a good lookout post for the birds for potential predators. Near your kitchen window is ideal so you can enjoy the show yourself. And if you don’t have a garden, a windowsill is as good spot as any for scattering some bird seed.
It is very easy to make your own feeder and it’s a fun project to do with your kids. Just get an old plastic bottle or milk carton, wash it out and cut a hole in the side which will give access to the seeds. Pierce a few drainage holes in the bottom, fill with bird seed and hang with wire or string from a tree branch. You can buy seed mixtures and bird cakes or make your own using sunflower seeds, peanut granules (not roasted or salted), flaked maize, uncooked porridge oats, grated cheese and soft fruit. What you mustn’t give is dessicated coconut as this can swell up inside the birds, cooking fats or margarines, milk or salt. And always leave out some water as this can be particularly difficult for birds to source when ponds are frozen over.
Put up a nesting box for birds next spring – for tits, sparrows and starlings these should be sited 2 to 4m up a tree or wall. Robins and wrens prefer boxes below 2m, well disguised with vegetation such as ivy. Or how about a bat roosting box? These creatures are very important for biodiversity. Plants such as evening primrose that attract nocturnal pollinators like moths will provide food for the bats.
Make a bee motel
Solitary bees like to lay their eggs in hollow tunnels and this is not always easy for them to find. To help them, find a small wooden box. Next find plants with hollow plant stems such as reeds, bamboos or paper straws. You can also drill holes into pieces of wood. Assemble these tightly together in the box and fix to a wall in a south facing sunny spot – about a metre or so off the ground.