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Encouraging Biodiversity in the Garden

By Ellen Casey, Sustainability Administrator for Eversheds Sutherland Ireland & member of Green Team Network's "Knowledge & Content" Working Group.

A graduate of Environmental Science from Trinity College, Ellen has a keen interest in environmental sustainability with a particular interest in sustainable practices and environmental restoration.

What is biodiversity and why should you encourage it in your garden?

Biodiversity can be described as the variety of all life on Earth. The greater the biodiversity that we have, the greater the stability of our ecosystems. Stable ecosystems are important as they provide us with a multitude of services that are essential to human life such as providing us with clean water, increasing our food supply, reducing greenhouse gases, and providing us with recreational green spaces that alleviate stress and promote healthy wellbeing. The importance that nature and biodiversity hold over human life cannot be overstated with the European Investment Bank estimating that the combined value of ecosystem services provided by nature is between $125 - $140 trillion per year.

Unfortunately, as urbanisation continues to grow globally, the natural environment has been reduced leaving little space for biodiversity. However, there is something that we can do to combat these losses. Private gardens collectively comprise some of the largest green spaces in most cities and as such give homeowners a great opportunity to conserve local biodiversity through the utilisation of one’s garden for the benefit of local wildlife.

I have put together some tips below on how you can encourage biodiversity in a way that will leave a lasting impact on local wildlife.

1. Get to know the current state of your garden’s biodiversity – the more species the better!

Take note of the current species diversity in your garden. This means counting and recording the number of individual plant and animal species that occur there naturally throughout the year. The National Biodiversity Centre is running a Backyard Biodiversity project aimed at individuals who are new to biodiversity recording.

The project hopes to identify 20 species that can be found in garden settings. By recording the species found in your garden and uploading it to The National Biodiversity Centre, you are helping them to capture Ireland’s biodiversity data that can then be used to assist the protection of Ireland’s biodiversity. Without individuals taking part in these initiatives there would be a serious gap in the data relating to the wildlife that we see in privately owned gardens.

This will also help you to get a better understanding of your local wildlife while also being able to track it year on year as you make improvements to your garden that aid biodiversity. If this is something you are interested in, they are also running several other monitoring programmes that can be found here.

2. Use your garden to attract and sustain local wildlife.

There are lots of simple things that you can do to make your garden sustainable and attractive to wildlife such as:

Try to have at least 3-5 flowering plants in your garden at any one time.

The more variety the better. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan have put together a seasonal list of recommended plant species that benefit our native pollinators that can be found here.

Allow native Irish wildflowers to occur naturally by reducing mowing and allowing the grass to grow. Even using a strip of grass to allow for native wildflowers to grow can be hugely beneficial to our pollinators. About 75% of the world’s food crops are reliant on pollinators so providing food and shelter for them massively impacts their populations and thus our own food production.

If you have the space and capacity, consider building a pond in your garden. Having a pond in your garden acts as a reservoir for local wildlife such as birds, amphibians, and insects. Go one step further and plant some native plant species around the pond to act as a food source for those that visit your pond. The Wildlife Trust have provided a guide on how you can build your own wildlife pond, see here for more details.

Build your own insect hotel to attract and conserve local insects.

Be careful though – some commercial insect hotels on the market are not as effective as they say they are. Bord Bia have put together a guide on how you can build your own, details can be found here.

If you have the space, plant some native trees and hedges. These will attract wildlife as they provide food and shelter.

They also mitigate climate change as they capture and store greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into their roots.

Utilize your compost for nature. Home composting can improve your soil health drastically while also providing many insect and worm species with food and shelter.

An Taisce have put together a guide on home composting that can be found here.

3. The don’ts of gardening for biodiversity

Don’t worry if you don’t have the capacity to change your garden around to promote biodiversity. Instead, there are loads of things you shouldn’t do that will also encourage wildlife such as:

  • Do not use pesticides as they can be very harmful to insect communities, this includes insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides.

  • If you are considering artificial grass, reconsider. Artificial grass offers very little to biodiversity and negatively affects the species that are already in your garden. Artificial grass also lacks the natural cooling effects of natural grass which means at summertime, coupled with the increasing effects of climate change your artificial grass will hold extra heat and, in some cases, can smell like a burning tyre!

  • Don’t use wildflower seed packs or bombs. It may seem like a convenient biodiversity win however; they often contain non-native species that offer very little to local pollinators. Instead reduce your mowing and native Irish wildflowers will occur naturally over time. These flowers have co-evolved with our pollinators throughout evolutionary time and provide a much better, more sustainable food source. They also require less maintenance, which makes them an easy, biodiverse, garden piece.

4. What if you don’t have a garden?

If you do not have access to a garden, try incorporating hanging baskets and plant pots with some of the pollinator friendly plants listed by the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan to provide food and shelter. Herb gardens on the window ledge can also act as a reservoir for local pollinators, pollinator friendly herbs include mint, oregano, rosemary, and thyme.

If this isn’t enough to satisfy your green thumb, there are great initiatives happening around the country at the moment that you can get involved with. A great starting point is getting in touch with your local Tidy Towns committee.

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