Premium

How one Instagram star transformed a bare patch of land into a wildlife haven 

Arthur Parkinson working on his reclaimed plot
Arthur Parkinson working on his reclaimed plot Credit: A. Parkinson

Beautifying barren patches in urban or countryside settings by encouraging grasses and wild flowers to grow is nothing new and we’re all aware of the urgent need to provide habitat for wildlife. For some, it’s about colonising a few square feet with bulbs and flowers or allowing native plants to multiply on banks and verges. But for gardener and author Arthur Parkinson, a similar project opposite his mum’s terraced house in Nottinghamshire began in a far more dramatic fashion.

Over one summer in 2016 the demolition of old buildings in the town and the development of the land transformed the property’s outlook: trees were felled, new roads built and, as with so many similar developments, a bare patch of ground was left in the builders’ wake – an area “about 30ft long and in the middle 14ft wide. It’s the shape of a long oval egg,” says Parkinson. “Our little cottage that had been all hidden and secluded was suddenly exposed. It was awful,” he remembers.

The roadside garden

“They chopped down a huge, beautiful copper beech tree and the birds disappeared. I knew we had to do something.”

His plan was to create a wild orchard with fruiting trees for the birds and a thriving wildlife meadow beneath. The first thing he did was to go out and coppice hazel to make a low “hobbit” fence so that the area looked managed – and, since then, there has never been any issue with the council and their mowers and strimmers that regularly come to cut the surrounding grass into submission.

For Parkinson, who already has an intensively cultivated cutting and container garden (well-documented on Instagram @arthurparkinson_), it was important to create a space that wouldn’t need too much attention or constant maintenance. Over the first winter he planted bareroot crabapple trees – Malus ‘Laura’ and ‘Royalty’ – and Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’, all of which would provide beautiful spring blossom and winter berries for the birds. Bareroot roses, including ‘Summer Song’, ‘Duchess of Cornwall’ and ‘Tuscany’ went in at the same time.

Allium 'Violet Beauty' growing through Phacelia tanacetifolia on Arthur Parkinson's reclaimed patch Credit: Arthur Parkinson

“They are all vigorous roses that I knew would do well in the conditions,” says Parkinson, who was inspired by Ursula Cholmeley’s roses planted in a meadow setting at Easton Walled Gardens in Leicestershire. “There, the roses are arranged in groups and they become something else entirely when they are planted wild – they look so much more beautiful.”

He then added pheasant’s tail grass, Buddleja davidii ‘Black Knight’, cardoons and a succession of bulbs, kicking off with pheasant’s eye and ‘Geranium’ daffodils, followed by richly coloured tulips (‘Abu Hassan’, ‘Slawa’ and ‘Sarah Raven’), then Allium ‘Pink Jewel’ and ‘Mercurius’ as well as Allium atropurpureum and A. cristophii.

By midsummer, Gladiolus ‘Plum Tart’, ‘Espresso’ and ‘Magma’ take over in the ever-evolving tapestry. Because it’s all so densely planted nothing here needs support – even the gladioli with their large flowers just lean on to other plants.

“It’s nice to look at a pretty picture and not think that there are a million things to do or that I need to go and stake things or pinch things out,” says Parkinson of this area.

Gladiolus Credit: Arthur Parkinson

“I go in about twice a year; when the alliums go over I will take those out (they are dried for Christmas decorations) and sometimes add some extra gladioli bulbs at the same time. If it’s a hot summer I will rake frazzled plants into piles and leave them where they are; the mounds are great for the insects. I am really treating it like a meadow.” In the winter he will mulch and add more bulbs.

But he’s also constantly looking for ways to boost the habitat. This month he’s sowing ­annual red millet to attract finches to the garden in the ­autumn and biennial teasels for next summer. Clumps of nettles are allowed to ­remain so that they attract butterflies – red admirals, tortoiseshells and ­peacocks – which will all lay their eggs in the nettle’s ­foliage. This then becomes the caterpillars’ foodplant once they hatch a few weeks later. But the nettles are carefully managed and reined in during the autumn so that they don’t run.

Crab apples and spindle berries add value for birds Credit: A. Parkinson

“I wouldn’t have them in a smaller garden but here there is space for them and they’re invaluable for the butterflies. I am growing lots of nectar-rich plants here, but it’s no good doing that if there are no host plants for caterpillars.”

He also has plans to add a pink rowan (which has great blossom for the bees in spring and beautiful bubblegum pink berries for the birds in autumn), some oriental poppies that would also thrive in the conditions and, after an Instagram shout-out to meadow ­master Professor Nigel Dunnett for advice, some orange Geum ‘Mai Tai’ and ‘Totally ­Tangerine’ as an aesthetic flourish.

“And, if this was actually my land, I would plant a hawthorn hedge around it all which would give more cover for birds,” adds Parkinson.

Investment buys 

The most expensive plants were the bareroot roses and the five crabapple trees. The space needed some instant impact, and these were 2.5m tall when they went in and cost around £60 each. But all of these plants are an investment that will give returns over decades if they are allowed to stay in situ. Most of the bulbs, especially the alliums and gladioli, are cheap enough to use as annuals although so far they are returning each year.

“I think the biggest challenge has been letting the area find its own rhythm,” says Parkinson, who has had to adopt a watch and wait approach to see how seeds like phacelia and cerinthe perform. “I’m longing for swathes of rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) and buddleia mint (Mentha longifolia), which haven’t started to romp away yet. And my uncle gave me seedlings of cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium). I hope that in time I can get lots of these huge biennials established.”

The plot looks good all year round Credit: A. Parkinson

Needless to say Parkinson’s mum – and the neighbours who get to enjoy the view too – are pleased with the way this little wildlife haven has turned out. The most satisfying thing is that the birds have returned. “They’ve got some cover again and the trees are already fruiting well in their second season. I can’t stand plastic bird feeders so this is really a way to encourage the birds into the garden with the trees and plants that act as a living bird table.

“It’s exactly what I want this little patch to be, full of colour and insects to nurture both my eyes and the birds, butterflies and bees.”