Wildlife gardens in the city

A smart urban garden can be as tempting to the birds and the bees as the wildest of jungles
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Increasingly, Londoners want not only a contemporary outdoor space but a garden that brings in the birds, bees and butterflies, too. Is it possible to have wildlife co-existing with concrete? Absolutely, says garden designer Catherine Heatherington, who, in her north London plot, relaxes on the white, saw-cut limestone paving and watches the damselflies hatching in her pond.

Siting the pond horizontally makes the garden appear larger and - as long as the water is free of chemicals - will attract birds, bees and damselflies

“Wildlife doesn’t distinguish between a pond that is rectangular or curvy,” says Heatherington. “The important point is that there aren’t chemicals in the water. A wildlife garden doesn’t have to be wild and woolly, with nothing but wildflowers. What counts is to have plenty of plants at different levels, to create a diversity of habitats and feeding stations.”

When Heatherington took on her garden five years ago, it was a typical long, slim plot with a basic patio, side borders and large lawn. “I spent a long time at the computer, designing the space, as I do with any client. I wanted to show that you can have a well-designed and contemporary urban garden that attracts wildlife through planting, which in turn will give you more pleasure, right through the year.”

Linear archways are used to frame the views and add height

Creative spaces

The structure, as always, came first. “The lawn running down to the end of the garden made the space look smaller than it was. My aim was to move the eye around a lot, which is why the pond — a must for wildlife — is sited horizontally, across the garden, so you feel there is more width.”

The slate-grey, mild steel pergola — a series of linear archways — was designed, too, to stretch across the space, as well as frame the views through the garden, as if they are a series of paintings. “A one-dimensional space is boring, and I didn’t want the cost and effort of creating different levels: a pergola is an instant way of adding height.”

The patio of Purbeck limestone paving slabs extends to stepping stones across the pond. These are angled, as is the gravel path that cuts through the garden. “Turning the path and lawn on an axis makes the space appear larger and more interesting,” says Heatherington. Clipped yew hedging on either side of the gravel path makes a handsome green wall that is also a refuge for birds. Beyond it is a small, square lawn. “A lawn creates a horizontal plane within the masses of planting, creating an important balance. And besides, I love to lie on it.”

Leaving space for generous beds ensured that Heatherington had room for a diversity of plants to provide food and habitat through the seasons. “At ground level, pulmonarias provide essential early nectar, and so do hellebores. Low-growing hebes and geraniums, which flower for a long period, are great for insects, while ferns and epimediums offer all-year ground cover.

“The dark form of our native cow parsley, Anthriscus Ravenswing, and foxglove Digitalis ferruginea provide food for bees and butterflies while sedums and asters supply late-summer nectar. Pittosporums such as tenuifolium Tom Thumb make great ground cover. Insects love them.”

Banks of irises line a gravel path leading to the central lawn

Levels of vibrancy

At higher levels, a white wisteria and grapevine on the pergola provide shelter, nesting sites and nectar, while Heatherington chose two trees that deliver blossom and berries to delight both humans and wildlife: a multistemmed amelanchier, and Sorbus vilmorinii, the decorative rowan.

“The amelanchier is particularly beneficial because it flowers so early in the year, providing rare nectar for insects,” she says. Right now, flag irises make a striking picture. But are irises good for bringing in wildlife? “I planted them because I love their drama, and the way they start the summer season with a bang,” says Heatherington. “In a garden with a rich diversity of plants, not everything needs to be wildlife-friendly.”

Catherine Heatherington Designs (chdesigns.co.uk and designwild.co.uk), in partnership with landscape designer Alex Johnson, is a specialist in gardens for people as well as wildlife.

Pictures by Marianne Majerus

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