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Each garden needs a different approach if you’re hoping to bring back nature. In a small new-build with a lawn and patio, the steps to follow will be very different from a large Victorian house with a formal garden. But the same underlying principles apply in either case – the 3 D’s.

The thing to remember is that you need to maximise 3 dimensions to make a garden biodiverse – these are diversity, dispersal and disturbance. Each one of these dimensions is linked to the others, so improving one will tend to have a positive, knock-on effect.

In this article, we’ll cover what each of these dimensions mean, and how you can use this understanding to restore nature in your garden. For a deeper dive into the 3 D’s there’s also a standalone guide to the science, a podcast and a lecture available.

The 3 D's in Your Garden

Diversity

Take a look at the appearance of your garden.

Diversity is a measure of how varied this space is – the variation in:

  • Genetics (e.g. local ‘weeds’, British-grown plants, imported plants)
  • Species (e.g. house sparrow, daffodil, cherry laurel, silver birch)
  • Function (e.g. seed-eating bird, spring bulb, hedgerow shrub, large tree)
  • Vegetation height and structure (e.g. lawn, scrub, underwood, canopy)
  • Habitat type (pond, woodland, grassland, hedgerow)


Diverse gardens tend to look a bit ‘messy’, rather than being arranged in a formal structure – the edges of borders and hedgerows ‘bleed out’ into the surroundings. Plant diversity is high, so, rather than neat blocks of the same species, you’ll get a muddle of different colours. In garden design, the closest thing we have to wild gardens (apart from wildlife gardens!) is the prairie style, like Hauser & Wirth Somerset, though this usually involves planting non-native grasses and wildflowers.

Native species of plant have co-evolved with our native animals, fungi, bacteria etc. Over many generations, they’ve developed a close relationship, which means that native plants tend to be best for biodiversity. These relationships play out across every aspect of life, from nesting to hunting, shelter to foraging. Some non-native (introduced) species may invade a habitat as they’re missing these relationships, so they have no natural ‘pests’ – like Rhododendron, with its toxic leaves.

The 3 D's
The 3 D's are a simple way of thinking about nature recovery, which apply to both larger projects and smaller gardens.

Disturbance

Have a think about what you do in the garden.

Disturbance is a measure of how much your garden changes over time due to animal activity. Most of that animal activity is your own – mowing lawns, cutting hedges, digging flowerbeds etc, because you probably don’t have a pet cow or a pig. In the wild, even in Britain’s past, most of the changes to an ecosystem came from large animals like beaver, bison (probably), aurochs (primitive cattle), ponies and wild boar.

But some wild disturbance comes from natural forces, like wind, water, disease and time. Large trees in particular are often resilient to damage from animals, and it takes strong winds, flooding and disease to fell them. In the garden, it’s unlikely that flooding is an issue, and we tend to shape trees or chop them before they are taken by the wind. Yet deadwood and dying trees are an important part of a wild ecosystem. Dead animals, too.

Some disturbance today comes from unnatural sources, like spraying of weedkiller, dogs fertilising lawns, regular mowing and paving-over of large areas. In a wild landscape these activities might be found at a low level – bears do defecate in the woods, after all. But at unnaturally-high levels, these pressures shape an ecosystem in a strangely warped way which tends to have a knock-on effect on diversity.

Dark woodland floor
High levels of deer activity can remove the 'underwood' - the middle layer of scrub that sits below the canopy in a healthy woodland.

Dispersal

Take a look at your garden on Google Maps.

Dispersal measures how connected this ecosystem is to the wider landscape:

  • How far away is the nearest semi-wild place (e.g. nature reserve, park, woodland)
  • Is the garden surrounded by other gardens and parkland, or buildings and roads?
  • Are there many impenetrable boundaries – fences, walls etc between you and other semi-wild spaces?
  • Are there many busy roads between you and these spaces?
  • Does your garden look green from above – attractive to wildlife?
  • Are ponds and trees – wildlife magnets – visible from above?


In a wild landscape, there are few boundaries except rivers and streams. These may be passable during the dry season, or in shallow areas. Cliffs are about as close as we get in nature to a wall or fence, yet we have far more walls in our country than cliffs. These artificial boundaries – including roads, large paved areas and huge exposed lawns – slow or stop the movement of animals from A to B. Plant seeds also disperse across the land, whether by wind or with the help of animals – in their guts, attached to their fur, hooves or paws. So, blocking animal movement can block or slow the flow of plant seeds.

Dispersal keeps animal and plant populations healthy, by allowing organisms to move in and out of ecosystems, to breed, forage and hunt. Each animal and plant carries with it a unique collection of genes – a healthy population has a diverse gene pool, but when it is cut off, inbreeding may happen. This can lead to genetic abnormalities, and isolated populations are easily wiped out as they can’t be restored by new individuals moving in from elsewhere.

Sparrow on fence
Getting over a fence may be much easier than getting under it, so airborne visitors will be more likely than those on foot.

Restoring the 3 D's

Species & Genetic Diversity - What to Plant

Take a look in the back of Britain’s Butterflies – the best butterfly guide book – and you’ll find a number of pages dedicated to foodplants. Because plants are the foundation of most of our food webs. But rewilders tend to focus on reintroducing animals, because they have a bigger impact on the ecosystem, and, to put it bluntly, they’re just a bit more exciting.

Yet in the garden, reintroducing a bison or a beaver is not the best approach, and could lead to complaints from the neighbours. So why not start with the bottom of the food web, rather than the middle or the top? Reintroducing native plants is a great way to restore the garden ecosystem.

What plants should you buy, though? That depends on a few different factors:

  • Soil type – clay, loam, sand
  • Soil pH – acid, neutral, calcareous
  • Climate – average temperature, rainfall
  • Aspect – sloping towards/away from the sun, or flat
  • Drainage – waterlogged, moist, free-draining, dry
  • Nutrient level – pushed up artificially by fertilisers, ‘weed & feed’, compost, manure


This is a lot to consider – you can use the filters on Buy Native to find plants that will match your garden on many of these factors as a starting point. But perhaps the easiest way to approach this complicated problem is to work out what is already growing in your area on the same soils as your garden. This second step might not be as obvious, but if you, like me, live on flat land at the bottom of a limestone hillside, then popping up to the local woods won’t be much help. My garden is on nutrient-rich, neutral alluvial valley soils, but the woods, just minutes away, grow on nutrient-poor, calcareous limestone soils. So identifying plants up there isn’t any guarantee that they’ll thrive down here.

I’ve found this England and Wales Soil Types Map to be a useful jumping-off point (though it isn’t perfect, and a soil test is even better). Use it to work out which areas near you have the same soil type as your garden, and then pinpoint a nature reserve within this zone. Visit that nature reserve to see what’s growing. It’s worth using a Plant ID app when you get there (I tend to use iNaturalist), as you’ll be able to identify more species. Then, you can order them online – search on Buy Native; search ‘buy [plant scientific name]’ in Google; or search the scientific name on eBay to find sellers.

You can find most British native tree species in the tree list, browse them by fruit and timber production, abundance and see descriptions of many species.

In fact, better even than buying online is collecting a few seeds from the wild plant – in most cases, this is legal, but take care to avoid damaging the plant and its habitat (only collect a small proportion of seed from a few plants; avoid rare species and SSSIs; check the law in your area). You’ll be preserving local genetic diversity, and spreading it across the area (dispersal!). Check before you plant, that this is a native species, not something non-native (which could be invasive). You can do this by searching its scientific name on NBN Atlas and checking the native status at the top of the plant’s profile page.

Remember those butterfly foodplants? As our native species of animal have evolved alongside native plants, that means they may be dependent on one, or a few species of them. So, by reintroducing these plants to your garden, you’re more likely to attract butterflies, bees and other insects. The abundant insects will then attract insect-eating birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Some non-native plants can be useful, though they tend to be more valuable for pollination than for larval food. Examples of useful non-natives are Lavender, Apple and Borage. Buddleia is risky, as it spreads rapidly beyond the garden, is distasteful or toxic to herbivores and dominates many ecosystems, while outcompeting native flowers.

When it comes to diversity, three species are better than one. Every time you add in another type of plant, you’re creating another niche in your ecosystem. Plants vary across all kinds of factors – try and get a good mix of these when planting out your garden:

  • Evergreen/Deciduous – leafy food/cover all through the year / creates rich leaf litter
  • Thorny/Thornless – better cover for nesting / easy to move through
  • Tall/Short – a refuge from predators / creates ground cover
  • Fruiting Season – valuable source of food, especially in winter
  • Flowering Season – valuable source of nectar
  • Plant Type – flowers, grasses, bushes, trees, pond plants, bog plants etc


It’s always best to have more than one plant from a species in your garden – ideally 3 or more. This improves genetic diversity as they can cross-fertilise and produce diverse seeds, which are then carried off across your neighbourhood (and garden). If all your plants are clones, they will have genetically-identical offspring, so it’s worth growing them from seed, or buying them from multiple sources if you can – often, trees and plants at one supplier will all be grown as clones from cuttings.

Black Poplar
It's very unlikely that you'll be able to reintroduce an endangered mammal in your garden, but threatened trees like Black Poplar are available to buy online.

Structural Diversity - 'Attracting Birds to Your Feeder'

We’ve all seen it – the hopeful bird feeder, filled to the brim with tasty treats and dripping with expensive delicacies. It slowly rots away in the middle of the lawn, occasionally pecked at by a seagull, or a pigeon. What’s going wrong here? Small birds are an indicator for how healthy your garden ecosystem is – this section is designed to help you improve your garden’s structural diversity and get more birds on your feeder.

Think about this from a bird’s perspective. A large lawn or patio is a terrifying, exposed expanse, with unknown predators just waiting to swoop in for the kill. Tightly-clipped hedges are a sheer wall – impossible to fly directly into as an escape. Houses are huge obstacles, so birds will mostly stick to a route through connected gardens. In a wild ecosystem, small birds move through scrub and trees, foraging for insects, fruit and seeds as they go. We can encourage them onto our feeders by creating a similar habitat in our garden (and encouraging our neighbours to do the same!).

Edges are crucial when creating a wildlife-rich garden – it’s here where you’ll get the most variability in species and structure over a small area. That creates lots of niches, which in turn are home to abundant insects, supporting birds, mammals etc. So a wildlife-rich garden typically has wavy margins to the hedges and borders – by wiggling an edge you can create pointy headlands and sheltered bays. These will be great for wildlife and also lovely places to soak up the sun on a windy spring day.

You can create ‘structural diversity’ in other ways, too – beyond breaking up the formal shapes, you can also add in new layers to the garden. The lowest layer is bare earth, water and grass – above that are long grasses and flowering plants; next up are scrub and hedgerows; then small trees like apple, hawthorn and cherry. The top layer is what you’ll typically get only in mature gardens – large trees over 6m in height, with a canopy which is visible from a distance, acting like a magnet for birds from the neighbourhood.

Not every garden will have space for every one of these layers, but the more layers you can add-in, the more birds you’ll see. And bird feeders should be placed within 1-2m of medium height vegetation – scrub or a small tree. You can actually fake this by sticking a dead tree into the ground, and create the same effect – birds will still appreciate the structure. A Christmas tree out of season may also be a useful bit of cover. But even if you’ve got a very structurally-diverse garden, it may not be enough if you live in the centre of a highly-developed area. That’s why dispersal is also crucial.

Blue tits near feeder
This dead shrub stuck in the ground was just enough structural diversity to encourage a wealth of small birds onto an exposed lawn area.

Dispersal - Attracting Wildlife to Your Garden

Even if you’re in a biodiverse and bioabundant neighbourhood, you may find it difficult to attract wildlife, if your garden isn’t set up properly for dispersal. A garden which scores highly for this dimension can be described as two things:

Magnetic – it attracts wildlife from a distance due to the sight, sound or smell of habitats and plants on your property.

Porous – the boundaries allow easy movement of wildlife in and out of your property, even at ground level.

Ponds are a magnetic feature – they not only reflect light, but also polarise it, which attracts aquatic insects on the wing. They’re on the lookout for a breeding habitat – most pond-dwelling invertebrates have a flying stage in their lifecycle. Birds can also see pond waters when flying over, and may use larger ponds as a stopover point for drinking or hunting. Likewise, frogs use the scent of algae to guide them to breeding ponds. This makes installing a pond, or even multiple ponds, perhaps the most obvious choice in improving dispersal into your garden.

Large trees are a magnetic feature, as they are used as a stepping stone for crossing inhospitable habitats by a huge number of different species. Everything from owls to woodpeckers, bats to jays will fly from large tree to large tree across an urban neighbourhood. The trunks will become nesting habitat and the branches can be used to hang bird feeders. Dense foliage creates abundant forage for insects, which in turn provide food for small birds that attract sparrowhawks – an entire food web in one plant!

Fruiting shrubs, trees and climbers can be an effective magnet in season, and take less time to get established than a large tree. Native plants in particular are very effective at bringing in insects and birds. A garden with Hawthorn, Wild Cherry, Bird Cherry, Elder, and Ivy will produce abundant fruit, attracting wildlife through most of the seasons, while looking beautiful, too.

Wildlife doesn’t just arrive on the wing, and boundaries like fences and walls, as we know, can prevent their movement. So it’s worthwhile partnering with your neighbours to create ‘porous’ borders – ‘hedgehog holes’ in your fences and walls that will allow animals through. My sister and uncle have removed the fencing at the end of their gardens, where privacy isn’t much of an issue. In my own garden, there is a visiting badger, which arrives through a huge hole at the base of the fence. But beyond this, I also have frogs, slow worms, foxes, hedgehogs, mice and (unfortunately) the occasional rat – you may also get newts and toads in your garden. Consider the size of these species when designing your hedgehog hole and bear in mind that rats, cats and dogs may also use it.

I live near a small green space which acts as a refuge for dispersing wild animals, and a short walk from a woodland which helps to keep this green space resupplied. Dispersal is all about these connections from the rural landscape into suburban and urban neighbourhoods. So it’s worth looking beyond your garden, too – working with, and/or funding community projects to improve biodiversity in local streets, parks, schools etc. Beyond this, you may be interested in pushing the council towards progress on biodiversity, and taking part in existing movements like Rewild My Street and London National Park City.

Froglet in pond
Frogs are attracted to your garden by the smell of a pond, while invertebrates may be attracted by polarised light reflecting from its surface.

Disturbance - Garden Design & Ongoing Activities

Of course, gardens aren’t just a place for nature, but a place for people to enjoy, too. And getting the right balance of people and nature is key at the design stage. Failing to consider people will tend to mean biodiverse areas get ripped up in the future. Most gardens will need at least a few of these features:

  • Access (footpath, driveway)
  • Bin storage (recycling boxes, wheelie bin)
  • Bike storage (bicycle, motorbike, scooter, pushchair)
  • Tool storage (lawnmower, hedge trimmer, rake)
  • Seasonal storage (patio table, BBQ, Christmas decorations)
  • Greenhouse (food or plant cultivation)
  • Workshop (for use of tools)
  • Garage/Parking
  • Lawn (football, outdoor seating, play area, sunbathing)
  • Patio/Decking (indoor/outdoor surface)
  • Table & chairs/BBQ (outdoor dining)
  • Washing line
  • Vegetable garden
  • Pergola/Awning/Shade Sail (UV protection)
  • Fence/Hedge/Wall (privacy and security)


Once all of these features are considered, it’s remarkable that gardens have any room left for wildlife. But many of these features can be designed with wildlife in mind, like adding green roofs and trellises to storage areas, replacing pergolas with trees, installing permeable paving on driveways, cultivating wildflowers in lawns, and native plants in hedgerows.

Whenever you’re in the garden, you’re creating disturbance. This may be at a low level – a ‘predator shadow’ which scares off birds and mammals; or at a high level – digging a pond that provides new habitat. Each time you leave the house, it’s a chance to create an opportunity for nature:

  • Turn over a small patch of turf with a spade like a Wild Boar
  • Coppice a mature shrub to the ground like a Beaver
  • Root around in your flowerbed like a Badger
  • Create a pond like a Bison


In the Actions section of this site, we’re compiling a list of activities which will boost biodiversity in your garden. Some of these may not be suitable for your space, but some may be ideal. We’ll update these as the seasons go by, and add new ones to keep the list fresh. 

By regularly disturbing your garden and making new habitat, you can keep creating opportunities for new diversity to appear. Just be sure that you’ve also addressed the common issues affecting dispersal and diversity, as these will hold back the ecosystem’s ability to recover from regular disturbance.

Glossary
A diverse garden, with a rich structure of native and ornamental plants, and a regular programme of disturbance, can be a joy to visit and maintain.

The Magic Fix

Nature restoration is either quick and expensive, or slow and cheap. We’ve visited ecosystems that recovered in health from bare earth in just a few years, when hundreds of thousands were spent on their recovery, or seen case studies of landscapes which took decades to recover when little was spent on them. Gardens are ideal for nature recovery, as many people are willing to spend enough on them, that restoration can happen relatively quickly. Yet there is no magic fix – it takes time to build an ecosystem from the ground up, attracting wildlife from the local area and allowing plants, ponds and grasslands to become established. Try to have realistic expectations, and focus on the small wins, small plants and small creatures – enjoy the process.

As we’ve established, you can’t get a healthy ecosystem in a degraded British landscape without restoring a diverse plant community. Technically you could do that over many years by collecting seeds, but most people would prefer to do it by buying plants. It’s always fun to have something green arrive in the post, and as a nation, we love browsing the local garden centre or nursery – sometimes they’ll have elusive native species in stock. Some specialist native nurseries are even open to the public, like Celtic Wildflowers in South Wales and Natural Surroundings in Norfolk. I highly recommend visiting these if you’re at all interested in wildflowers, and keeping a budget in mind (we came home with four trees).

If you’d rather browse native plants online, Buy Native is our free public service for this, or you can start your journey with the interactive Tree List, which has many more native trees.

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