All things wild and wonderful

How to have a wild and beautiful garden that both you and the wildlife can enjoy, with advice from Garden Designer Jo Thompson and RHS Senior Wildlife Specialist Helen Bostock

When it comes to our gardens, we all have very different needs, styles and desires but if you are tending an outside space you are essentially gardening; you are a gardener. How you chose to garden that space is entirely up to you, there are no rules and regulations, no-one is going to turn up on your doorstep and say “That’s not a garden.”

But, in a world where our wildlife is in tragic decline, we all have a responsibility to consider how we can help in any small way we can and there is so much we can do by starting in our own backyards.

Taking a sensitive approach

RHS Senior Wildlife Specialist Helen Bostock says that even if we can’t recreate exact natural habitats in our gardens, we can adopt a more nature-sensitive, sympathetic approach to gardening, which accounts for it being a shared space, one in which many organisms interact in complex and beautiful ways – what we rightly refer to as the garden ecosystem. 

In my opinion ‘beautiful but wild’ doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like an untidy aesthetic, or limit yourself to native-only planting or have a hands-off approach to garden management.

Helen Bostock

Elements of natural systems definitely have a place here, and can work even on a small scale. Hedges and shrub borders, for example, provide conditions similar to a woodland edge habitat, offering nesting opportunities for blackbirds and robins, and safe connective cover between gardens for small mammals. The ‘wild’ in this context would refer to allowing the hedge to grow full enough to provide decent cover, and adopting a pruning regime to maximise flowering/berrying while minimising disturbance to nesting birds.

The Wildlife Trusts: Wilder Spaces. Designed by Jamie Langlands. RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2023. 

What can we do to help nature

  • Let it grow - leave some areas unmown for all, or part, of the year

  • Design your space with wildlife in mind - create different habitats in your garden

  • To weed or not to weed - is it necessary or can you leave as a habitat?

Let it grow

One simple thing you can try is to not garden a small area. This could mean leaving grass to grow tall against a wall or fence, around trees or shrubs, or around a pond.  This provides opportunities for invertebrates to complete their life cycles on the grasses and flowers as well as providing safe cover for them to move between areas. Extending leaving long grass areas to late June or beyond is better for pollinators than cutting at the end of May, and also saves you precious time.

  • 97% wildflower meadows lost in UK in last century
  • Long grass better at flood mitigation, cooling, pollution capture, resisting drought than short grass
  • Long grass reduces some of the 80,000 tCO2/yr emitted by petrol lawnmowers

But having a ‘wild’ lawn can also mean short grass that is managed without weedkillers, mosskillers or synthetic fertilisers to allow a rich mix of low-growing plants to flower (e.g. lawn daisies, dandelions, selfheal, speedwell) and provide for pollinators and nesting opportunities for ground-nesting bees.

The RHS Wild About Gardens lawn theme in 2023 highlighted how short grass, if well managed, can benefit biodiversity just as much as long grass.

Grow plants around a pond to give creatures places to hide
Leave longer grass at the edges of your garden

The idea of ‘No Mow May’, an initiative by Plantlife, has grown to encompass the months around this key growing month. You could start mowing paths through longer grass from as early as your grass starts to grow,  and children in particular love to be able to follow a path, so have some fun with this, giving them a destination to reach or a circular route to run.

Mown paths at Denman’s Garden in West Sussex, an RHS Partner Garden

Design your space with wildlife in mind

As plants start their growth in spring, decide where you need to be able to walk, sit and play. This will help ‘design’ your space by showing where you need paths, where you need room for kids and animals to play freely, and where you like to sit at various times of the day. You are essentially designing your garden.

Add a small pond or water feature

Think about the wildlife you share your garden with and the habitats they need. Can you add a small pond? By encouraging a variety of creatures into our gardens we provide food for others in the food cycle, maintaining a healthy balance.  Slugs hoover up garden detritus, frogs munch the slugs. Each has their own vital role to play in the natural world.

Provide habitats for frogs and toads 
Having water in your garden is essential for attracting wildlife

Try to find an area tucked away, maybe behind a shed, where you can leave some wood to decompose and make a happy home for a wealth of creatures, maybe even build a hedgehog home.  Leave a corner where you let the thistles grow, excellent plants for pollinators.  Encourage children to start their lifelong adventure in gardening by giving them a plot to tend, teaching them how to grow plants and how that feeds both us and the wildlife, they develop an understanding and respect for our planet that is right there at their fingertips.

Encourage children to grow and learn about their food
Create wildlife habitats in your garden

To weed or not to weed

Next, think about the plants you already have, be that planted or inherited. There is so much confusion around weeds and how we should tackle them but we need to change our mind-set if we are to maintain a balance.

The key to using this thought in your garden is to decide if a plant is in the right place, regardless of whether you planted it there or not. If you love the pretty herb robert in the walls with its dainty pink flowers leave it be; the Mexican daisy Erigeron karvinskianus is the most prolific seeder, happily throwing itself into every nook and cranny but if you love its happy white and pink petals, enjoy it, removing the

seedlings where not wanted.

Geranium robertianum (Herb Robert)
Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican fleabane)


Garden Designer Jo Thompson gives her expert advice on how to have a little bit of ‘wild’ in your garden

“A wild garden doesn’t need to be an untidy garden, nor does it mean that you should abandon a placeand leave it; weeds will definitely come if you allow them to do so and whilst many of them are gentle beauties, there are some which will most definitely colonise your garden. I really don’t want my garden taken over by brambles and bindweed.

I look instead at the flower forms: the long, then naked stems of Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’, for example, are only a hop and a skip away from the native form. The essential shape of the plant is still there, the wildlife will still thank you but the garden feels relaxed, not too manicured and, importantly, not begging you to maintain it every day. Laid-back is both the approach and the atmosphere.”

My designs are known for their gentle intervention rather than a heavy stamp of design, with the idea that by introducing a variety of species, increasing biodiversity, we are helping Nature along.

Jo Thompson

The key to achieving a beautiful but slightly wild space is deciding when to garden and when to leave nature to its own devices. We lead busy lives and sometimes people are put off gardening because of the time they feel it needs but by letting go of the reins a little you can allow the creatures to enjoy the woolly edges while you maintain the areas you use on a daily basis. 

Remember, you don’t need to compromise, your garden can be both wild and wonderful.

Let’s get planet-friendly gardening

RHS Planet-Friendly Gardening Campaign as part of the RHS Sustainability Strategy.

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Suggested plants to achieve a ‘wild’ look

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