Jen Bourne writes about Stephen James's visit to Royal Paddocks Allotments to lead a discussion on wildlife gardening:

What Has Gardening for Wildlife Ever Done for Me?

Forum led by Stephen James


 Stephen James, from the Environment Trust led an informal forum organised by Ruth Walker about sustainable and wildlife friendly methods of plot management.   Stephen is the Community Gardener at the Marble Hill Kitchen Garden, a project about the history of market gardens.  After clearing scrub a community garden was created that has a woodland garden feel.  It is run by volunteers with mini allotments and spaces for local day nurseries to grow plants.  Stephen said that there are lots of different views and ideas about growing methods (sounds familiar!) with a wildlife conservation strand as an important element and the inevitable tensions - how to promote bio-diversity, encourage insects, bees, butterflies and grow cabbages successfully!

 Our discussion focused on soil health, water conservation, managing pest control and diseases by reducing toxic chemicals, attracting pollinators, biodiversity, cutting down on plastics and land use with some interesting contributions.  Start with the soil - a healthy, vital soil full of beneficial microbes and organisms will promote healthy crops less susceptible to pest damage – feed, mulch and cover!   The ‘do dig’ method pioneered by Charles Dowding was mentioned.  One plotholder is going to put in a pond for wildlife and another said that she doesn’t water at all, adhering to a no-water method.  She digs plenty of compost in beneath the soil and seeds’ roots go down to the moisture.  There is a method used in Italy where plants are given an initial deep drenching and then not watered again throughout the growing season.

 The ever-prescient topic of slugs was quickly raised!  DEFRA has banned metaldehyde slug pellets from Spring 2020. (… "metaldehyde poses an unacceptable risk to birds and mammals.")  Slug pellets made from ferric sulphate was recommended, although they need to be reapplied after rain.  A plotholder said that there is a method of making nematodes by harvesting slug eggs.   Wildlife friendly pest control methods ranged from covering broad beans with Enviromesh to fleece barriers around carrots high enough to deter the low flying carrot fly.  Tagetes grown alongside carrots may act as a deterrent to carrot fly and companion planting was discussed - pot marigolds etc.  

 Provide flowers and plants to attract pollinating insects - bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths and wasps to your plot.  Single petal flowers (daisies) tubular (salvia, nepeta, lavender) and umbelliferous (achillea, carrot) will bring in pollinators and plant in drifts to maximise forage opportunities.  Flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs provide more forage than a wildflower meadow!

 Someone asked about ants and how to dispose of them.  Ants tend to prefer light, sandy soil so apply lots of manure and compost to enrich the soil.  If disturbed a colony will quickly pick up their eggs and relocate.  Stephen was asked if Marble House garden has rats in connection with the two foxes on our site that died last year, possibly as a result of someone on site using rat poison.  Ruth says that sweet potato peelings are said to deter rats, similarly she has successfully used rhubarb leaves around her gooseberries to deter sawflies.

 Stephen highlighted the problem of discarded plastic and the use of plastic trays and pots – we generally agreed that most of us recycle our pots.  Netting made of string is more sustainable than plastic netting – although the initial cost is higher it lasts longer and is easier to drape over fruit cages.

 Saving and swapping seeds is a sustainable way of reducing and recycling and allotments have been important sources for heritage seed conservation.  It was pointed out that older, historic varieties have often been replaced by newer ones, because of improved cropping rates and taste!  Exceptions such as ‘Kew Blue’ climbing beans were mentioned, used at the Marble Hill kitchen garden.

 Stephen highlighted climate change and how this may affect biodiversity and how we garden, referencing plant and wildlife species that are having an impact on native species.  Some species, such as Spanish bluebell and harlequin ladybirds seem to be less of a threat than something like xylella fastidiosa that is devastating olive and other Mediterranean crops.

 How we can implement minimising the use of toxic chemicals as a policy for our allotments was a question.  It was felt that a large proportion of plotholders would be interested in changing culture by reducing toxic chemicals and managing their plots with biodiversity, sustainability and wildlife in mind.