How to Rewild Your Garden
A step-by-step, science-based guide to rewilding your garden.
Just like regular gardening, rewilding requires a bit of work. But the results can be spectacular, with wonderful animals and beautiful native plants to enjoy throughout the year.
What’s The Basic Idea Behind Rewilding?
You might have heard that rewilding is just ‘leaving land to go wild’. But abandoned gardens aren’t always great for wildlife, as they need the right (native) plants, the right mix of habitats and the right conditions to give an ecosystem a fighting chance.
A little bit of hands-on management is important as your garden is probably missing herbivores like beavers, bison, deer and/or elephants!
A Simple Way to Understand Rewilding
We find that rewilding is much easier when you understand the basic science behind it (‘the 3 D’s). A healthy ecosystem has high levels of these ‘D’s!
More diversity means more wild species in your garden – the more species, the more connections there will be across the food web. You can improve diversity by planting native wildflowers, shrubs and trees.
When animals and plant seeds can move around your neighbourhood easily, along wildlife corridors like hedges, trees, or through gaps in fences and walls, they will have bigger, healthier populations.
Natural environments don’t look the same every year – they change over time. These changes – like trees dying, ponds appearing, soil being exposed by animals – create new habitats which many species rely on.
7 Simple Steps to Rewild Your Garden
If you’re looking for a quick fix, here are some simple things you can do to apply the 3 D’s in your garden:
- Buy native plants and trees that you see in local nature reserves (use the iNaturalist app to ID)
- Put in a pond
- Create a gap in your garden fence/wall to allow animals through
- Stop using weedkillers and fertilisers
- Leave fallen branches and dead leaves to rot down in the garden
- Mow your lawn on a higher setting, less often in summer
- Create a mix of different plant heights, from meadow to trees
What Does a Rewilded Garden Look Like?
Your garden is your sanctuary. The point of rewilding is to create a landscape which benefits both nature and people. Don’t feel that this process is about ‘giving up’ land for wildlife – you can use the 3 D’s any way you choose. A single native tree is better than none at all!
The ideal habitat to choose for your garden depends on your local landscape. Remember ‘dispersal‘? You’ll get more diversity if you plant local species of trees and plants, as wildlife from the area will quickly move into your garden.
If you live next to a heathland, then heather and birch woodland might be a good scheme. If you’re on a floodplain, then a pond and willows would be more suitable. Match the local ecosystems and you’ll get more wildlife more quickly because it’s already in the area, and, as a bonus, you’ll be creating a stepping stone habitat for them.
Visit a local nature reserve to get inspiration and buy native plants from our new website Buy Native (use the iNaturalist app to identify plants and trees). You can also legally gather seed from wild plants, so long as it’s for personal use.
How to Rewild Your Lawn
If you’re keen on rewilding your lawn, turn it into a wildflower meadow – it’s a great way to disturb the monoculture of grass and add diversity.
Buy fresh Yellow Rattle seed and scatter it on a ‘scarified’ lawn (rake 50% of the grass off). This semi-parasitic plant sucks some of the nutrients from grass roots, allowing a wildflower seed mix planted after it to take hold.
Grassland ecosystems like wildflower meadows can store a huge amount of carbon in the soil, which is less likely to be released than the carbon stored in tree trunks. However, using fertilisers and herbicides (like ‘Weed ‘n’ Feed’) to create a perfect lawn destroys this fragile ecosystem, and the nutrient overload runs through the soil, polluting streams and rivers. This is one fact that I, as a proud English person, find rather hard to deal with. But even I have abandoned my dreams of a lush, dense lawn in recent years.
If you want to turn a regular lawn into more of a feature without going full-Wildflower Meadow, consider seeding it with Clover and Birds Foot Trefoil. These native species are great for bees, while growing low in height with pretty flowers – able to survive the occasional mowing.
Good Fences Make Dead Hedgehogs
You might have heard the expression ‘good fences make good neighbours’. Well, they’re also good at keeping animals like hedgehogs, badgers and foxes from passing freely through your neighbourhood (dispersal). That means their habitat gets broken up (‘fragmented’) to the point where they can’t find enough food to survive.
An easy way to solve this is to put a hedgehog-sized hole in the bottom of your fence (with your neighbour’s permission!). I have a badger-sized hole in the bottom of my old fence. I live in the suburbs – not a rural location at all – but we have a resident badger that has clawed a hole through the rotten old fence and occasionally visits to forage for food. You’ll be surprised what might visit your garden if you give it a chance!
Remember, if you create a garden wall, that a tiny hedgehog-sized archway is not only great for dispersal, but also an absolutely charming feature.
Rewilded Ponds are Valuable Stepping Stones
You might not think of ponds as being ‘wildlife corridors’, but, just like hedgerows and large trees, these habitats help wildlife to spread through a neighbourhood (dispersal). Even a tiny pond can act as a stepping stone between two bigger pools, allowing species to spread more easily from one place to the next. Larger populations are less likely to get wiped out by natural events (drought, fire, flood), predators or habitat loss, so you can help protect nature by putting in a pond.
Ponds are also great disturbance – by changing the topology (rise and fall of the landscape), you’re doing wonders for nature. They’re a valuable source of drinking and bathing water for birds and mammals, especially during the summer. They help reduce local flooding by soaking up stormwater (this is even more effective if you route a drainpipe into it). Evaporation from the surface cools the local air temperature – perfect for hot gardens in the summer.
Given that they change the local humidity, temperature, topology and drainage, you can see how they might affect diversity, even beyond the water’s edge. Then consider the beautiful creatures they attract – dragonflies and damselflies, frogs and newts – and the wonderful native species which could be planted there – Bulrushes, Waterlilies, Cotton Grass, Water Mint, Marsh Marigold. So why not get a pond?
How to Turn Back Time
Wild landscapes are messy places with unplanned planting, fallen branches, dead leaves, overgrown patches and dense thickets. They also have areas of short, grazed grassland (‘lawns’) where herbivores like horses, geese or bison live. But the edges of these lawns aren’t high hedges – there’s a gradual slope or ‘ecotone’ between low and high vegetation.
These ‘ecotones’ are hotspots for diversity. Ecotones also form at the edge of water or when land is disturbed and then allowed to recover – this process is like a flickering timelapse, where many species come in, take over, then get replaced by others over time. Bare patches of soil are colonised by Thistles, then Foxgloves, Grasses, then Brambles, Blackthorn then Elder, Ash, then Oak. And then the Oak is ripped out by a winter storm and the whole process resets.
It’s quite magical really – if only we had the ability to sit there and watch it. Except that we do. We can recreate the same type of pattern in our own gardens by disturbing the soil every so often with a spade or chopping down/coppicing a small tree. We can reset the clock to zero and allow the ecotone to develop all over again.
In smaller ecosystems, like a garden, it’s better to disturb the habitat more frequently, to avoid the ground level getting shaded out and losing all that valuable wildflower diversity. What you’ll want is a patchwork or ‘mosaic’ with areas of high and low vegetation. That way, you will maximise the diversity in this small space.
A Simple Way to Understand Rewilding
I’ve been rewilding my own back garden for 5 years now, turning a giant slab of concrete into a native woodland edge. It’s taken some adjusting to get into the rewilding mindset in the garden, but we’ve seen a vast amount of wildlife taking hold here, in this relatively small space.
From Slow Worms to Foxes, Frogs, Brimstone and Sticklebacks to rare Red Cage Fungus and a pond abuzz with Dragonflies and Damselflies every summer, it’s been worth every minute spent hanging on to a jackhammer for dear life during the demolition phase (all the concrete was upcycled for drainage).
I’ve done very little here, just selecting native seeds, bulbs and trees, then hacking them back in places occasionally to open up the foliage and let light through to the woodland floor. The lawn, once established, was slowly converted to a wildflower meadow using the strategy laid out above.
My garden was such a success that it inspired me to buy a field – discover how I’m rewilding a field, and how you can too!
Read more about rewilding...