Your Wildlife Gardening Gateway

The Knowledge Shop: Gardens and Wildlife Science

...bringing nature closer to home

This is the heart of our website, where we bring you an introduction to the ecology of gardens, how they work. Understanding the science behind gardening will help you understand how your management affects your plants and your wildlife, and we hope will awaken your interest in what is going on out there, day and night and throughout the year.

How different are gardens as habitats from those in the countryside? The answer is much less than many people would think. The fundamental factors of geology, climate and weather are much the same - or sometimes rather easier. Because gardens are maintained for variety of structure as well as plants, they can be more receptive for species than many uniform areas of farmland. There are special problems for gardens as well, and the subject is analysed in the page Garden Physical Environment.

Plants and animals in gardens are no different from those in "natural" habitats. They process energy and materials through their bodies, are eaten in turn by other creatures, and ultimately are decomposed and recycled back into living organisms. Click on Food Webs and feeding roles to explore this aspect of garden ecology.

Gardeners interfere with this natural cycle by harvesting food, discouraging plants and creatures we don't like and by adding nutrients and other materials from outside. Nevertheless, the garden ecosystem is extremely resilient and supports an astonishing range of species, which on a species-per-unit-area is higher than any actively conserved British habitat. We have excellent evidence that an ordinary garden can hold more than 4,000 species of insects alone. There are many reasons we can suggest for why gardens hold so much wildlife. They are very productive, often carry an almost unnatural number of plant species, and classic garden elements like hedges mimic open countryside habitats.  Click the link Gardens and Biodiversity to find out much more about the remarkable number of species we find in our gardens, and why gardens are so diverse.  There is still much we have to learn about garden ecology and biodiversity, and some of the more important gaps in our knowledge are described in the page What we don't yet know More details about garden research - and how you could help - are in the Research Projects section of the Knowledge Shop.

But how big is the garden resource available to help wildlife? Most gardens after all are quite small, averaging 190 m2. However, adjacent gardens add up to large areas, and the total UK cover is surprisingly large, over 4,300 square kilometres, or more than a million acres. That's a lot less than the total area of protected nature sites, but still bigger than the Exmoor, Dartmoor and Lake District National Parks and the Norfolk Broads put together. This garden area holds 28 million trees, and about 3.5 million ponds - more than 8 times the number of ponds left in the countryside. When we factor in how many species live or feed in gardens, we can begin to see just how important they are. Find out more about these numbers on the page Gardens as a Resource.

Conservationists sometimes disparage gardens as purely modern, artificial and therefore unnatural and unimportant habitats. Surprisingly, they are older than classic conservation habitats like chalk grassland and managed coppice woodland - both of them artificial too - and date back to the Neolithic period in Britain. Gardening started in the Middle East just after the ice age, when Britain was still attached to Europe. Learn more about the history of gardens, and how many familiar, naturalised (and conserved) plants today arrived through garden cultivation in the page History of Gardens and Wildlife.

We all know that climate change is coming, and that our weather is already becoming more violent and changeable than it used to be. How could this affect gardens and gardeners? Changes are already visible, with plants and animals setting leaf and breeding earlier in the year, while some species like the comma butterfly are extending their range northwards, while others, such as the garden tiger moth are now scarce in the south. The page Gardens and Climate Change has a lot of information, not just on the changes we are likely to see, but excitingly, how gardens can help plants and animals adapt and survive.
In 1966 Charles Elton, one of the first ecologists, wrote "the domestic habitats are in the direction of biological deserts". We now know that he was completely wrong  about gardens, simply because nobody had ever looked at them scientifically!  The question remains - how important are gardens for biodiversity conservation?  We know that a few species, common frogs, house sparrows and stag beetles, seem now to be more common in gardens than the countryside. Gardens however don't seem capable of supporting the really rare specialist species like spoonbills or ladies slipper orchids that get conservationists excited.  It may be that because they change hands so often, domestic gardens can't be very helpful for rare plants.  In a deteriorating countryside though, gardeners are like nature wardens and can keep their own plot welcoming for wildlife. The page Gardens and Conservation puts the role of gardens in preserving biodiversity into perspective.