How I Brought Nature Back to my Urban Garden

I am so proud to say that the birds are back! We currently have a jolly little resident robin and a pair of inquisitive blue tits, who although have yet to move in; have been exploring our homemade bird boxes and feeding in our food-draped tree for a while now. Starlings and blackbirds battle for space at the feeders and the ever-rare sparrow, perches cautiously at the fence as though mustering the courage to descend and enjoy an afternoon treat. This hasn’t been an overnight success, it’s taken around five years to get to the point where wildlife is finding us as well as us finding it. I live for nature and although my garden is a modest, postage-stamp, urban space, I have managed to create an environment where even the freest of birds are happy making their homes here and here’s how it happened.

Years 1-3

We bought our home in 2009 through a new-build home scheme. We were impressed by the sound eco-standards (Bonus – cheaper bills!) and although the outdoor space was small, it was infinitely better than our previous London dwelling where the ‘garden’ was a concrete slab by the communal bin store. Although by London standards, we felt pretty lucky even then! When we finally moved into our new home the front garden had been turfed and was bordered by a bee-friendly hedge which was good, so we turned our attention to the back garden – and goodness did it need some attention!

My eldest at aged 2, helping to weed the mud flat!

My eldest at aged 2, helping to weed the mud flat!

So we got to work improving our little slice of England and set about de-weeding the barren mud flat we had inherited. The soil quality was so bad and when we explored under the earth later on, we found tonnes of rubble and concrete left by unscrupulous builders. This in addition to a typical Kentish clay soil left us with a compacted, solid and unorganic piece of land from which we were hoping to create our very own piece of outdoor heaven. It was going to be a tough road! We began by using the neighbour’s rotivator (Tip: Beg, borrow and steal!) to turn the compacted land and then ordered a truck-load of organic soil from a local company, which helped to enrich the ground before laying turf. As a wildlife lover, I’m not a huge fan of masses of pristine lawn, but in order to create a space where our daughter could play, camp, kick a ball, it was necessary for us at the time. As you’d probably expect, our lawn has now shrunk quite considerably in order to make room for lush borders and a couple of raised vegetable beds.

A lawn to kick a ball around on.

A lawn to kick a ball around on.

The next job was planting an ornamental tree for rich spring blossoms and I went for the Cheal’s Weeping Cherry, which gives an early pink/white show of flowers in March (Usually just in time for my birthday!) before sweeping branches drip with lush dark green leaves in Summer. The leaves turn a beautiful deep red colour in Autumn before dropping in Winter and providing the ground below with a rich leaf-mould. This was no mean feat as when we began to dig the planting hole we discovered the soil depth was only about four inches – less than the depth of the spade we were using. Several telephone complaints, lots of organic matter and one determined hubby later, we finally got the tree in the ground – and going by the land it was planted in, it’s nothing short of a miracle that it’s still thriving! I had hoped that by installing a tree, its roots would help to break up the compaction that still existed under the soil. If you are doing the same in your garden – make sure you do your research and choose a tree with the appropriate final growing size! A fruiting cherry tree would have swamped our tiny garden – and house! A mistake no-less, made by our neighbours who had to hastily remove their new tree a year after planting on realising their error (Cue large sighs of relief from neighbours either side!)

The marshmallow pink of the 'Prunus Kiku Shidare blossom.

The marshmallow pink of the ‘Prunus Kiku Shidare blossom.

We then began to mark out and dig our borders and this is where the magic of time shows the most amazing results. For the the first few years I needed to build up a lush backdrop and began by planting flowering evergreen shrubs such as Choisya and Hebe and then began to experiment with wildlife-encouraging perennials. Lots of these failed of course and as an amatuer gardener I was learning along the way, but still each year some plants would come back and I was inspired by this and simply kept up a routine of filling the spaces with more flowering perennials each year, hoping to create a burst of bee-attracting colour and scent in the warmer months.

An early scabious proving endless joy for a little explorer.

An early scabious proving endless joy for a little explorer.

We began to use a compost bin to increase the nutrient content and bio-diversity of our garden and its soil and also installed a basic water butt to enable us to water our flourishing garden ecologically. It became a labour of love and soon I began to see a difference. The garden was beginning to feel like that little slice of outdoor heaven we were after.

Years 3-5

In the last two years we have expanded our borders and installed two raised vegetable beds. The small, round picnic lawn that remains is enough for us and our wide borders actually give the sense of more space, more depth. It’s funny how peering through thick green bushes at the back of borders, actually deepens this sense of space, this sense of mystery, it begs the question; ‘what’s behind there?‘ So even in the tiniest of gardens, don’t be drawn in to cutting perfectly straight, thin borders – go wild and create a deep, lush backdrop for your outside space. For really tiny gardens, bamboo canes work brilliantly for this; adding depth, height and texture, whilst taking up as little room as possible.

We built our vegetable beds from two basic raised bed kits bought for pennies from the local DIY store. Raised beds were a necessity for us as our soil was so bad, but they also help to contain your planting zone and help to structure and plan your planting. I usually operate a square-foot gardening technique rather than growing in traditional rows, and this is a great way to maximise variety in your useable space. Having them raised also brings them that bit closer to you when gardening (sore backs anyone?) and means you can easily target your soil, fertiliser and feed. I filled the first raised bed with homemade and shop bought compost and some left over top soil from when we cut our turf. The new bed was ready to use immediately and that was treat but it was also rather expensive to fill! We prepared the second bed a year before using it and in this bed we started by using as much ‘filler’ as we could, before topping with finer soil and compost. Into the void went; left over straw, some large pumpkin carcasses left over from Halloween – which had been two big for our little composter, some shredded paper, ‘rough’ compost from our own bin and some wicker strands which had come from a disintegrated old basket. It was only after the main volume had been filled that we topped this with soil and finer compost and then we covered it with tarp and left for a year, or perhaps longer, until when uncovered, a rich planting bed had been established. This way is so much cheaper than buying in a tonne of crumbly compost and is so much more friendly for the environment, increasing your own biodiversity as you do so.

Next to our vegetable beds we have a herb patch to die for, although it really does need sorting and investing in. At the moment we grow lavender, rosemary, marjoram, sage, mint and two varieties of thyme, as well as having some recent success with annuals such as dill. Moving forward, the herb patch is my next project, it needs expanding, organising and improving – any tips or inspiration from other small-garden growers? Might try barrels or pots next? Although it’s a productive patch its scruffy and the plants are definitely not at their best.

Our tree has really come into its own now and as well as solar-powered fairy lights, is strung up with all sorts of feeders for all sorts of birds. At it stands we have; peanuts, seeds, fat balls and a mealworm block. We also have two bird ‘houses’ for smaller, wild birds and of course, the seed heads left on in winter from all of my flowering plants. This ‘messy gardener’ method really works and makes you so much more time efficient! As the proverb advises with dogs, let the autumn leaves lie, and they will in turn give you a rich leaf mould to seep into your borders or to spread on your vegetable garden. As mentioned before, don’t snip and prune your summer plants at the end of their life – leave them be and their seeds will spread to double your stock next year and the birds will feast on them in the coldest of months, when abundant food is all but a sun-filled memory. Plus, hydrangea flower heads look beautiful on frosty mornings!

As well as the herb patch, I also have aspirations to grow more fruit; berries in particular and so this year I am going to try to find a spot for a burgeoning fruit cage; again if anyone has any tips for doing this on a small scale do let me know! I do have a new blackberry plant behind the veg plot now, which provides good cover for the birds and hopefully some yummy fruit this year for our jams and pies.

So, there you have it! A feast for man and beast alike in the smallest or urban gardens. I’d love a vast plot one day (wouldn’t we all!) but for now and at least the near future I have built my little slice of outdoor heaven and I hope this inspires other small-space gardens to do the same! Please share any question, comments tips or tricks below! I’d love to hear from you.

Jaime xx