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Love Among the Ruins: Recycled Gardens and Biodiversity

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Love Among the Ruins: Recycled Gardens and Biodiversity

June 29, 2023

The idea that an old, clapped-out garden can have beauty is sometimes lost on enthusiastic homeowners, keen to sweep everything away and make their mark. Yet increasingly for garden thinkers as well as designers, extant topography and remnants have value. Using what you’ve got is part of the “closed loop” approach to gardening—in which low-nutrient soil stays that way, and broken concrete and bricks are not only re-used as hardscape but displayed unapologetically as part of the design. For atmosphere, there is nothing like a rediscovered path, or the rehabilitation of layers that give clues to former inhabitants.

One of the gardens at Chelsea this year, the final show garden of Cleve West (he says), was a heart-rending evocation of a ruined house and garden, intended to draw attention to the plight of homelessness among young people (and the charity Centrepoint). It was also about redemption through beauty, and one idea that rang out was the connection between looking out for people and giving support to other ecosystems. Like ruins, a relaxed and unfussed-over garden has huge appeal for smaller creatures, and therefore makes stewarding that space far more rewarding.

Photography by Jim Powell.

Above: The derelict garden around a broken-down, Victorian townhouse was the imagined setting for designer Cleve West’s emotionally-engaging show garden at Chelsea this year. The planting here combines wildflowers/weeds such as Welsh poppy and common comfrey, with higher-end umbels of Orlaya grandiflora.

A “wildlife garden” is not just about putting up boxes for bats and birds or planting nectar-rich flowers for pollinators—and then carrying on as normal. There is a lot more observation involved. Resisting the urge to turn gardening into outdoor housework, stand back and notice when the sandy substrate left over after moving pavers becomes an attractive destination for nesting bees, dust-bathing sparrows and other sun-basking creatures. Or when the old terracotta paving with edging that is not spic-and-span provides further shelter in its cracks and crevices. Or that native wildflowers/weeds provide nectar, too, something that we don’t always consider when browsing the “Perfect for Pollinators” racks at a garden center (and these plants are often pre-poisoned, ready for shelf life).

Above: Yes, this is a gold-medal winning show garden, viewed from the turf around its perimeter.

Piles of building leftovers make beautiful topography for insects, spiders, and other arthropods who seek out crevices and hollow objects, like the ceramic pipe in the foreground, shown here. “I liked the idea that the garden continued to explore the notion of ‘home’ for other life forms,” says West.

The Royal Horticulture Society has said of the designer: “If anyone deserves the keys to the Bull Ring Gate at Chelsea it’s Cleve West.” His last two gardens won Best in Show, one after the other. Unhappy with the wasteful nature of these events, Cleve had vowed only to return if it was for charity, and ideally with an installation that would not be financed through its fundraising. Project Giving Back is a foundation that sponsors designers, for charities like Centrepoint, to bring their causes into the generous spotlight of the Chelsea Flower Show.

Above: Rubble substrates are no longer an unusual sight at the Chelsea Flower Show. More likely to invoke a sharp intake of breath is the sight of dark, plumped up loam between plants.

Part of the charm of this garden is the evocation of historical gardening, the yuccas of the ’70s that people don’t plant anymore, the aspirational wisteria collapsed under its own, unpruned, weight. These are mixed with pioneer, successional species such as birch and buddleja, as the cultivated garden slowly morphs into woodland. Home gardeners: this is where you step in, creating a disturbance with a light touch, and stepping away again.

Above: Yucca elephantipes, clinging on through thick and thin by a bench made of repurposed stone and brick, and the kind of collapsed wisteria that birds, mammals and insects enjoy for its shelter.

A fallen tree is not a mess in a habitat-first garden; it’s important to leave them in situ as much as possible. According to British entomologist George McGavin, one third of Europe’s rarest insects live in decaying wood.

Above: Crevice rooters such as Erigeron karvinskianus thrive in broken concrete and brick (or elegant old steps), while pockets of earth provide enough nutrients for red orach (Atriplex hortensis), mint and common valerian.
Above: An irresistible spot for birds and insects, with slowly rotting wood, native wildflowers (shown here: Jack by the Hedge or Aliaria petiola) and water with perching places. Anything can be used as a small pond, although water needs to be replenished frequently, or put in a place that catches regular drips.
Above: Fragments of wall make steps, or an idea of them.

Obviously this is an artistic vision of a ruined garden, and beauty is subjective. But there are takeaways that anyone can get behind. A variety of levels, volumes, and hard materials, some nicely crumbling, will attract more animal life. Substrates with topological variation over heterogeneity (to coin a phrase) create different habitat conditions as well as greater diversity among plants. In other words, a backyard can be an open mosaic habitat, the kind of thing that entomologists get very excited about, and we should too.

Above: A foxglove about to take off, pollinator-magnets comfrey and dandelion, and a rusty old grille that provides an easy shelter for invertebrates.

The British charity Buglife advocates for bug-rich landscapes, which also happen to be the most vulnerable, being undervalued (like invertebrates themselves). If you look at its work on brownfield sites, and transpose the term “brownfield” with “backyard,” it might help to make visual sense of an unconventional, bug-rich garden.

“Plant-eating invertebrates often live inside leaves, stems, flower heads, or seeds and overwinter in these places, under logs or stones, or in ground litter. For these species it is critical that their over-wintering sites are undisturbed,” Buglife explains. “The lack of interest most people show in brownfield sites is precisely what makes them so appealing for these invertebrates.”

Above: A rather beautiful old radiator, nestled between Valeriana pyrenaica, Atherium (lady fern) and Symphytum officinale (common comfrey).

And if we’re talking about art and gardens (see Is Gardening Art?), Cleve West is surely the greatest Chelsea artist of them all.

For more on this year’s gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, see:

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Frequently asked questions

What are recycled gardens?

Recycled gardens are created by repurposing discarded or unwanted materials, such as old furniture, tires, and pallets, into planters or garden features.

What is the benefit of recycling materials in garden design?

Recycling materials in garden design helps reduce waste and landfill contribution, promotes sustainability, and can add unique and creative elements to your garden.

How does recycling garden materials contribute to biodiversity?

Using recycled materials in your garden design can provide additional habitat opportunities for various wildlife, such as insects, birds, and small mammals, thus increasing biodiversity in your garden.

What types of recycled materials can be used in a garden?

Many different materials can be recycled and utilized in a garden, including old tires, wooden pallets, broken terracotta pots, discarded furniture, and even recycled glass for decorative purposes such as mulch or terrariums.

Are recycled gardens easy to maintain?

Recycled gardens can be as easy to maintain as traditional gardens. The maintenance level will depend on the type of plants you choose and your overall garden design.

Can I create a recycled garden on a small balcony or patio?

Yes, absolutely! Recycled gardens can be created in small spaces like balconies or patios. Utilize vertical gardening techniques and choose compact plants suitable for containers to maximize the space.

Where can I find inspiration for recycled garden designs?

There are various sources of inspiration for recycled garden designs. You can browse online platforms, such as Pinterest or gardening blogs, visit local community gardens, or consult with landscape designers experienced in sustainable and recycled gardening.

Are there any precautions I should take when using recycled materials in my garden?

When using recycled materials, make sure they are clean and free from toxic substances that could harm your plants. Avoid using materials that have been treated with chemicals or paints that can leach into the soil.

Can I incorporate recycled materials into my existing garden?

Yes, you can incorporate recycled materials into your existing garden. Consider adding recycled planters, garden art, or repurposed furniture to enhance the visual appeal and sustainability of your garden.

How can I start creating a recycled garden?

To start creating a recycled garden, assess your available space, gather recycled materials, plan your garden design, select appropriate plants, and begin implementing your ideas. Don't be afraid to get creative and experiment!

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