We suggest, based on the dictionary definitions, that a tidy garden might have several or all of these features:
• plants that are neatly arranged
• shrubs that have been clipped and pruned
• a lawn that is neatly edged and has uniform sections in height
• conveys a sense of being designed
• everything seems to be in its place, with no objects just left lying around
• garden structures appear to be in good condition, such as fences not leaning or broken, garden buildings and
paths well maintained
• an apparent lack of 'weeds'
• good plant health
• has straight or regularly curved lines and/or symmetry to garden features such as ponds, paths and borders.
From this list we suggest gardens 2, 3 and 6 would be high on the tidy scale.
In contrast, an ‘untidy garden’ is likely to be:
• one which appears to have been abandoned or left untended and unkempt
• where plants have become overgrown, rank or disorderly
• where many of the plants are recognised as ‘weeds’
• where objects are left lying around
• where there is little sense of clear design
• where garden structures are looking battered, broken and tired
• which has an air of scruffiness.
Gardens 1, 4 and 5 would seem to fit these descriptions well.
We’ve excluded from the definition features such as seedheads left on plants, which can look very attractive in some situations or in some types of plants, but in others can look scruffy. We have also excluded dead plant material on the ground - which sounds like it should look messy but in the case of mulches can increase the sense of tidiness.
So, if these definitions are correct, does the tidiness of a garden automatically reduce the biodiversity of a garden? In a study called “What determines how we see nature? Perceptions of naturalness in designed urban green spaces”2, the results showed that people think that a less tidy garden has more biodiversity (and vice versa), but is this actually the case?
One key piece of evidence that we have is the seminal work by Jennifer Owen
, ‘Wildlife of a garden. A Thirty-year Study’
. In it, she details the 2,673 species of plants and animals she recorded in her suburban Leicester garden during 1972–2001. Clearly her garden was very biodiverse, yet she describes her garden as “neat, attractive and productive”, indeed she wanted it to be representative of typical private gardens.
During the Biodiversity in Urban Gardens in Sheffield (BUGS) study3,4, a ‘management intensity’ index was devised to gives an approximate measure for tidiness. The owners of 61 gardens were asked to rate themselves according to their intensity of weeding, pruning, watering, dead-heading, collecting fallen leaves in autumn, use of fertiliser, use of herbicides and use of pesticides. Whilst not covering all of the areas in our definition of a tidy garden, we can assume that someone who intensively weeds, prunes, dead-heads and collects up leaves is likely to have what we might think of as a tidy garden.
When analysis was done with 22 groups of invertebrates, BUGS found no consistent relationship, either positive or negative, between wildlife and their index of management intensity.
For further evidence of the impact of tidiness of gardens, an informal study began in 2015 in a garden in West Sussex5. At the start, the garden met all of the above definitions for being ‘untidy’ (part of this is shown in Garden 4), but the gardener’s aim is to create a much more attractive and tidy garden while also improving its wildlife-friendliness. By 2019, after five full seasons of gardening, populations of almost all the intensely studied groups of wildlife (birds, butterflies, reptiles, bats, dragonflies, damselflies and stag beetles) had increased markedly. One exception was the common frog whose numbers had increased and then fallen, quite possibly due to predation from an increasing population of grass snakes.