Your churchyard or garden no matter what size, can be a potential haven for wildlife and a show-case for unusual varieties of cultivated plants. Many modern inner-city areas are extremely hostile to wildlife (both animals and plants),so anything that you can do to make the grounds of your church and other buildings more attractive to wildlife can be of enormous help to the environment. Even churches in villages may be less than welcoming by having too much concrete.
There are several national organisations that can help you to improve your churchyard or garden and contact details of some of these are given below. In addition, some local authorities run local schemes to improve wildlife habitats and offer prizes each year for the best gardens.
Biodiversity is the term used to describe the range of species found within a particular environment. A garden lawn that consists only of grass is said to exhibit poor biodiversity. You can check the health of your lawn by marking out a small area, say 1 square yard, and counting the number of species present. A garden that provides cover for wildlife is good for the environment. It is not necessary to let your garden grow wild and turn into a jungle for it to be an attractive and welcoming habitat. Here are a few suggestions for optimising biodiversity and making your yard or garden attractive to human visitors:
• Plant trees and shrubs wherever the site is suitable, ensuring that the roots of trees will not cause problems with buildings (ash trees need to be well away from foundations). Avoid planting conifers unless encouraged to do so by your local Wildlife Trust as almost all species are alien to Britain and all cause damage to the soil. Shrubs and dwarf trees such as miniature maples provide excellent cover for birds and small mammals. Some also yield useful crops (the Ribes genus is a good example) as well as being easy to prune. Ground-cover plants such as creeping jenny (Lysimachia mummularia) offer an excellent habitat for insects and spiders as well as being evergreen and providing colour in the summer. Plants such as these can also be used to choke out weeds.
• Bees are currently under threat, especially in rural areas dominated by intensive farming. Choose plants whose flowers specifically attract pollinating insects to support the bee and butterfly populations. The common purple buddleia is now ubiquitous but there are some other varieties available, including dwarf forms. One genus of tree that attracts bees by the hundred with its white or pink blossom is Eucryphia, a native of South America and its erstwhile neighbour Australia. Eucryphia glutinosa, a South American species, grows as a medium-sized tree in Britain and has white blossom.
• To minimise maintenance, concentrate on planting perennials (plants that come up each year after storing their energy supply in roots known as bulbs, corms or tubers). After the plants have died down in the autumn, it is easy to remove weeds from the same area.
• Choose a range of plants that offer colour from leaves, flowers and fruit at different times of the year, so that the garden never looks too dull. Examples of climbing plants that provide colour in the autumn are Virginia creeper (various cultivars of Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Actinidia kolimikta, a relative of the Chinese gooseberry. Roses can also provide autumn colour in the form of hips.
• Improve soil quality by growing leguminous plants in a different area each year. Species that have decorative and scented flowers include sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) and broad beans (Vicia faba). The latter are more resistant to blackfly if germinated in the autumn.
• Roses are an excellent staple in almost any garden and the climbing forms can safely decorate walls and fences. A good source of rare varieties, and some unusual species of briar from around the world, is David Austin Roses. Briars can be used to decorate fences or to fill spaces in large areas of uncultivated land, where they will provide good cover for birds and mammals once established.
• The more species that you have in your garden the better, and those that belong to the same genus may hybridise, providing some novel specimens over the years. You can create your own hybrids from different varieties of the same species or from two (or ultimately more) species of the same genus. A good example is Aquilegia vulgaris. The wild type is known as Columbine but many fancy cultvars are now available. Another species now sold in the UK is A. caerulea. These two will cross easily if planted next to each other but if you want to give nature a helping hand, transfer pollen from one plant to another with an artist's brush or a cat's tail (the cat won't mind but short-haired types work better). Similarly, the hollyhock (Althea/Alcea rosea) can be crossed with the marshmallow (A. officinalis).
• Many of our rare varieties of fruit tree are now classed as endangered. You can find out more from the National Trust. Some charities offer free saplings to charities for the establishment of orchards. As well as the more obvious species such as apples and pears, closely related species such as quinces (the Cydonia genus, of which there are tree and shrub forms) and medlars are also welcome in orchards as their pollen will fertilise pears. Medlars (Mespicus germanicus), along with the mulberry family (Morus) are among very few types of fruit tree that local authorities will protect with a Tree Preservation Order. The black mulberry is the one that silk moths prefer.
• If your yard of garden is plagued by slugs and snails but is well fenced, you may be able to adopt some hedgehogs to put in charge of pest control. Your local Wildlife Trust or animal sanctuary can advise you. Another good addition to a walled garden is the slow-worm (Anguis fragilis). Again, ask the Wildlife Trust for advice on acquiring a pair but ensure that the young are protected from cats as they will eat them like spaghetti.
• Minimise the amount of concrete in your grounds. It is hostile to wildlife and impedes drainage. If you are forced to concrete or tarmac over an area, consider releasing a similar area back to the wild.
• Wildlife ponds are in short supply at present, so if you have room in a suitable spot to create one, go ahead. Both the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and local Wildlife Trusts can offer advice and Groundwork may be able to help out with the digging process. Amphibian spawn can be transferred from overcrowded pond by licensed wildlife officers.
David Austin Roses
Groundwork (practical support for outdoor conservation projects)
National Trust (National Trust for Scotland: www.nts.org.uk)
Royal Horticultural Society
Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (runs national campaign to make gardens more attractive to wildlife)
Suffolk Herbs & Kings Seeds (suppliers of a wide range of herbs and garden vegetables, including many rare species and varieties)
Wildlife Trusts (national federation of county-wide Wildlife Trusts)
Buildings Advisory Group/ZB/2016