First published in Crann, Ireland's Tree Magazine, Summer 2010
Most of us like the idea of biodiversity, eco-friendliness and boosting the environment but for many that does not extend beyond buying fairtrade coffee or going to the garden centre for a few bedding plants. What many people fail to realize is that all of us as individuals can make a huge impact on biodiversity and the quality of our environment simply by using our own homes in a creative way.
For those who live in the country, land is not generally a problem – the average house might have half an acre of land, often much more. In such cases it’s easy enough to set aside land as a woodland, a wilderness or wildlife area. Other options could be specific areas of interest such as a native garden, Japanese garden, a rockery, vegetable garden, composting area or a pond, all of which encourage bird and insect life, and in the case of ponds – much needed places for frogs, newts and toads to live in.
All such areas are generally complemented by thoughtful selection and sighting of trees. It is of course possible (and helpful) to pick these based on the number of species that they might support in addition to their attractiveness of potential size. Unfortunately, as one drives through the Irish countryside, all too often houses are surrounded purely by large expanses of lawn with fences used to mark the boundary. Such sites fail to qualify as gardens to my mind, a grass monoculture is effectively useless to the environment, providing nothing for wildlife and producing only very low levels of oxygen.
Worse still is the neglect of country hedgerows and in some cases their replacement with either block walls or fences. The old fashioned stone ditches were walls in essence but allowed plants (if not deliberately planted) such as hawthorn, blackthorn, ash, gorse and fuchsia etc. to develop within them until they formed a hedge. In order to counteract this lack of awareness of the need for biodiversity and the lack of effort that goes with it, it is really up to individual householders to make efforts to reintroduce diversity into the landscape. There are a large number of books that offer excellent advice and ideas on developing such gardens which are widely available in bookshops and garden centres. Also courses, such as those offered by The Organic Centre, in Leitrim or maybe evening classes at your local school/college might be useful in collecting ideas and find the inspiration to get started.
For those that live in the city, a greater level of imagination and creativity is often required as generally space is at a premium. However, if you only have a roof terrace, yard, balconies or a very small garden it is still possible to make a valuable contribution to biodiversity. For instance, if there is no soil area it is possible to grow shrubs and small trees in containers such as the butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) which as the name suggests is frequented by butterflies. In the wild these can grow to about 15ft in height but in a large pot they will remain a manageable size. Even if you are only able to have a couple of trees in pots this still makes a valuable contribution to air quality and may also provide food for birds and insects. Small individual contributions add up to a large contribution if the whole street or whole neighbourhood join in!
Inventive use of space and taking into account shelter and where the sun travels in relation to the space available can enable the biodiversity enthusiast to grow a variety of plants in a small area. I personally have seen a small urban garden of just 20ft wide by 30ft long absolutely crammed with trees, plants and even a small pond that the local frogs took full advantage of. In a few short years this became a haven for all manner of insects as well as birds, frogs and hedgehogs. In addition to looking very attractive (which adds value to the house) and providing a habitat this garden traps carbon dioxide within the plants (trees especially) whilst also producing many times more oxygen than the lawn and gravel garden next door.
One does not need to be a creative genius or have to spend a fortune to make such a sylvan paradise a reality Again there are books that cater specifically for the small garden or urban dwelling and there is also plenty of useful information on the internet that will help one to make the best use of limited space. With major cutbacks in woodland and cuts in more general environmental funding, largely as a result of the banking crisis, it is now more vital than ever before that individuals and local communities who have an interest in biodiversity and sustaining the natural world get involved on a practical level. We cannot rely on government or semi-state bodies to ensure that suitable environments for endangered or diminishing species continue to exist. It really is necessary for us to take the initiative in protecting and preserving the rich mixture of native, naturalized and foreign plants and animals that inhabit this island if it is still going to be intact for future generations to enjoy.