Creating a Biodiverse and Productive Garden

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Honeyberry fruits

This morning I woke to a thick hoar frost, the sort that stirs child-like awe. Indeed, I was just as fascinated by the crusted, white grass and the frosty swirls on the car windscreens as my three-year-old daughter. And on the way to nursery she wasn’t the only one taking great pleasure in crunching footprints into the grass! I guess the beauty of snow and ice can turn even earnest adults into wide-eyed children.

The frost may be beautiful to look at – and crisp, cloudless days are undoubtedly perfect for life-affirming winter walks – but it doesn’t much help if you’re itching to get out into the garden. Days like this do, however, offer thinking time to get ahead with making plans for the gardening year ahead. So while you may not be able to break ground outside, you can at least lay the groundwork for when the soil becomes workable and planting begins apace.

Sweet peas, marigolds and lavender growing in an allotment

Biodiverse Planting in Your Garden

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that a biodiverse garden is a healthy and productive garden. Not only will a garden brimming with many different types of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, trees and shrubs nourish body and soul, it will encourage a much greater variety of wildlife too. And more wildlife means a healthier garden.

Whether planning a new garden or rethinking an existing one, it’s important to consider the more permanent plantings first. Trees, shrubs and hedges radically transform the look and feel of a garden, creating areas of light and shade, filtering strong winds and providing nesting sites for birds plus food and shelter for all manner of creatures. These are the most important plants to get right, because they’ll potentially be in the ground for decades. Think about the area of shade they will cast and consider the direction of prevailing winds. Ideally shrubs will help to filter winds without casting too much shade, though in hotter climates additional shade may be an advantage.

Look for species that provide food for both man and beast. Fruits such as the incredibly hardy honeyberry tick both boxes, providing nectar for insects and yielding sweet berries with a blueberry-raspberry flavour. Lots more edible shrub and hedging ideas can be found in my recent article on the subject. Include at least some evergreen species to provide wildlife with year-round protection from inclement weather.

Witch hazel flowers crusted with snow

Grow Flowers All Year Round

It’s hard to know where to start with flowers, but a good rule of thumb is to include a variety of flowering plants so there’s always something in bloom, even in the depths of winter. Many shrubs flower in winter – the likes of winter sweet, witch hazel and winter-flowering honeysuckle, which waft their sweet fragrance far and wide to attract out-of-season pollinators. Many bulbs will also flower in winter or early spring, with crocus, daffodil and snowdrop joining the numerous winter-flowering shrubs.

Ornamental beds stuffed to the gunnels with perennials look great, but don’t forget to include flowers in and around the edible parts of your garden too. Ann Marie’s article on companion planting hints at the powerful advantages that flowers such as marigold, alyssum and poached egg plant can bring to the productive garden. Dot flowering plants in between vegetables, along the edges of beds or beneath fruit trees to attract pollinators, draw in pest predators and generally improve the diversity of wildlife in the garden. Ultimately this means you can lean on natural ecosystems to keep pests in check rather than intervening with harmful artificial means.

Our Garden Planner has been further improved for 2017 to include many scientifically proven companion planting combinations. If you haven’t given the Garden Planner a go, you can try it out for free, so don’t be shy – have a play around and discover its powerful planning capabilities.

Raised beds with mixed flowers and vegetables

Choosing a Diverse Range of Edibles

Vegetables and herbs allow the greatest scope for a complete seasonal overhaul, as most of these crops are annuals and provide an ever-changing edible landscape. The biggest advantage we have as gardeners is our ability to mix things up, rather than growing too much of one thing in great monoculture slabs! A tapestry of leaf shapes and sizes, trailing and climbing crops, fragrances and flowers will all help to bring about the thriving environment we’re after.

Heirloom (or heritage) vegetables and herbs offer the opportunity to save some of your own seeds while preserving characterful varieties that have been grown and loved by generations of gardeners. On the other hand, modern F1 hybrid varieties promise improved yields and better resistance to pests and diseases, making them a great choice for organic gardeners. A mix of both – selecting tried and tested heritage varieties alongside promising F1 hybrids – seems like a good compromise.

So during the winter lull, relish the chance to take a fresh look at what you are growing. The take home message? When it comes to the diversity of ornamental and edible plants in your garden, more is most certainly better!

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"I want to make a garden in my back yard and the size of my garden is going to be 20 feet by 30 feet. "
Charli Smith on Tuesday 4 February 2020

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