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Rewilding is old news for wildlife gardeners, says Bunny Guinness

A front garden sown with an annual seed mix from Pictorial Meadows including Linaria Maroccana, Papaver rhoeas and Anthemis arvensis. On the house Rosa 'Felicite et Perpetue'.
Allowing nature into your garden doesn't mean it has to take over Credit: GAP Photos

Listening to a recent Radio 4 programme about rewilding your garden made my ears prick up. I am fascinated by the rewilding at Knepp Castle, which is eloquently described by 
its chatelaine Isabella Tree 
in her remarkable book. Letting marginal farmland 
go back to nature with minimal intervention makes sense to many. But letting gardens go wild is surely counterproductive – wouldn’t they all end up as sycamore thickets and not much else?

As the programme went on, I realised that the experts were advocating managing these gardens: adding ponds, mowing paths and so on. They were, in essence, expounding the benefits of wildlife gardens, as vividly described by wildlife champion Chris Baines in his bestselling book How to Make a Wildlife Garden, written in 1985.

I wondered what Chris thought of the rebranding of wildlife gardens. “Gardening is basically managing,” he pointed out. “The intensity and the variety of gardens is their strength. Gardens have become the most biodiverse bit of the British landscape so it would be a travesty to lose them to sycamore, alkanet and the other few species that quickly dominate unless you garden.” The real success of this approach is seeing how one garden can plug into a wider network, of big street trees, canals, parks and fields.

Prof Dave Goulson is the author of The Garden Jungle: or Gardening to Save the Planet and has spent 20 years studying bumblebees. (Watch his fascinating videos on YouTube.) He is in no way purist about native species and values many exotic plants with great insect (and human) pulling power such as lavender and phacelia.

He reminded me that in gardens, the more flowers there are, regardless of origin, the greater the abundance of pollinating insects. And don’t forget, he said, there are half a million hectares of gardens in the UK – a larger area than all the nature reserves.

Isabella Tree is now planning to rewild the two-acre walled garden at Knepp Castle. This may, she thinks, involve wilder borders around the edges, allowing some bindweed and other pernicious weeds but removing others by hand.

When rewilding, the smaller the area the more human intervention is needed; in a garden we humans basically mimic what livestock does over many acres: grazing (mowing and pruning), rooting through the soil (digging) and so on.

Overgrown gardens can create friction with neighbours Credit: Manor Photography / Alamy

Radio 4 also highlighted The Blue Campaign (bluecampaignhub.com), a rewilding initiative that is gathering momentum. This involves putting up a blue heart symbol to explain that you are rewilding your garden, park or verge so viewers realise that long grass (for example) is intentional – and heading off accusations 
of neglect (Rewilding trend for ‘mini meadows’ is damaging property prices, Telegraph, Oct 28).

I filmed with Chris Packham in his garden a few years ago. It was perhaps the nearest I have seen to a rewilded garden. It was fairly dense woodland with brambles. That suited him perfectly, as he used it mainly for observing wildlife. But would it suit us all?

In my opinion one of the biggest ecological effects a garden can have is to keep us off the streets and reduce our fuel consumption and shopping, which helps to reduce our carbon footprint. Productive gardens where we can grow food, family gardens where we can entertain children and adults with games, sociable gardens with room for entertaining, and wildlife areas with flowers and vegetation are all managed spaces which have undoubted environmental benefits.

The term “rewilding” may now be the zeitgeist, but in terms of gardening does it mean anything more than a rebranded wildlife garden?

Whatever we choose to call it, the more the merrier.