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The 2018 Chelsea Show and its wildlife relevance

Jan Miller-Klein

Gardening in the Goldilocks Zone.

If you read my review of the Chelsea show last year you may remember I was awoken very early in the morning by numerous foxes romping about my mother-in-law’s garden. The point was that too much wildlife can make life hell for some people and we have to find a balance – not too little, not too much, but just right – for us and our family.

What may be delightful for some people maybe horrible for others. We shouldn’t have to suffer in our own garden what we don’t enjoy because we think it is ‘the right thing to do’. You don’t have to have stinging nettles to help butterflies- only 4 of our 56 native species feed on nettles, and they are some of our most common species anyway. You don’t have to put up with mice and rats visiting your house because you put lots of bird food out. But how to get the balance right?

This year to my surprise the foxes had left my mother-in-law’s garden altogether because she had the shed they were breeding under removed. Which just goes to prove what conservationists always say about species loss – it’s mainly about habitat loss.

So what have the designers and plant breeders of the big shows like Chelsea got to say about that? I know some of you think they are irrelevant to this issue, but those designers and fashionistas have a huge influence over what the media tells the public, so we need to try and get them on board with our saving wildlife message. And last year I was pleasantly surprised at just how much attention had been paid to including wildflowers and attracting pollinators. But not a lot of other wildlife was included.

People seem to mix up pets and farm animals with wildlife- I don’t. I am not talking about sentimental remembrance gardens for war horses, nor does it signify a wildlife garden if it includes a real cow pat. The romantic country garden is as popular as ever, and I am seduced as much as anyone by a pretty stage set. But I am trying to look behind that to what ideas may be copied to encourage biodiversity to live and breed in our gardens – that, together with farmland, parkland and big estates, is the only thing that might help stem the frightening tide of extinctions in the natural world.

I was very interested in the M&G garden designed by Sarah Price (above). It looked like the sort of courtyard you might find behind a house in the Mediterranean or Morocco – lots of red and ochre natural mud walls and desert patches with tapestries of ground-hugging scented herbs and red clover and sedums punctuated by drought-tolerant sub-shrubs like wild rose, and taller, wispy flowers, like the yellow, airy dye-plant woad and grasses. Many of these plants are good for pollinators- and also very good for re-vamping a brownfield area or ‘wasteland’ instead of flower-bombing it with unsuitable garden flowers that won’t put up with the conditions. The bare sandy patches are also what is needed for basking ‘cold-blooded’ invertebrates and burrowing bees in our cool climate.
By far the most inventive and charming garden there was The Pearl Fisher Garden designed by Karen Welman (www.pearlfishergarden.com ).   I have struggled to find a reason to include this in a piece strictly about WILDLIFE gardening, but I am going to somehow.  I loved it so much!  Its whole focus was on saving the seas from plastic waste, which we all want to do. As a habitat in a small town garden, plus a fabulous place for kids to explore, as well as adults at night-lit parties it would be relatively easy to copy and have great impact in the tiniest alleyway.

O.K. -it did have 3 floor-to-head height cylindrical aquaria filled with colourful tropical fish in it – BUT, you could just have an ordinary aquarium in it on an eye-level shelf on a back wall and the plants nestled around it. AND in the Aquarium you don’t have to have tropical fish – you can have a cold-water tank with native tadpoles, dragonfly larvae, newts etc. dipped from a wildlife pond. A rather fascinating temporary project for all the family! 

The cleverest thing was the use of houseplants like Mother-in-law’s-tongue Sansevieria trifasciata, cacti, succulents and air-plants to mimic an underwater scene or  coral reef.   Spanish moss hung down from the metal frames overhead; sedums stuck between stones on the floor. Great fun for kids to create, and they could learn about the underwater environment while doing it. You could even make it in a corner of the conservatory or a classroom. And the flowers of many sedums are great for pollinators!


The Seedlip garden was interesting- all about growing more of the Fabiaceae (pea) family – which are pollinated by insects and include many of our garden flowers like Lupins, Broom and Sweetpeas, as well as many of our vegetables.

Members of this family can often grow in the most infertile places because they can fix their own nitrogen from the air via root nodules. This means they can grow in near desert or conversely in waterlogged situations – like the two species of Bird’s foot Trefoil.  the lesser (Lotus corniculatus)  grows on dry, bare brownfield sites and road verges and the greater (Lotus pedunculatus) grows in bogs and damp patches, suppressing even horsetail growth in my field!

These are important butterfly and bee plants, having a higher protein content in their pollen than many other flowers, and being the larval foodplant of the Common Blue and other blues, Green Hairstreak and Dingy Skipper butterflies and several moths.

Below: the Gold Medal winning designer,  Dr. Catherine MacDonald, and support

Above:  Seedlip garden -Lupins – always great for bees and available in many different colours.

There was also a Honeycomb Meadow Bee Garden by the River of Flowers Project in the marquee that had a good idea for a living wall including suitable bee plants.
As last year, Chelsea had got the ‘flavour-of-the-month’ about pollinators again, and many gardens included nectar plants for them and tube-homes for Osmia type bees. But the show designers do not seem to have progressed to including garden planting and features to make habitat for example, for burrowing bees in sandy soil, larval foodplants for butterflies, fruit and seed-producing plants that many birds need, nor nesting sites for them.

There is still a lot to be done in getting the gardening world turned on to sharing out habitats with wildlife, because, as I said at the beginning, it’s all about habitat loss!

Jan Miller-Klein is a writer on wildlife gardening, environmental and conservation issues.  Her books include ‘A country Diary for North Wales’, ‘Gardening for Butterflies Bees and other beneficial insects’.  website www.7wells.co.uk © Jan Miller-Klein  Jan@7wells.org