Beth Chatto Symposium speakers agree that in rewilding the mind every space can play a part

Beth Chatto gardens.

COLCHESTER, UK: We can all make a difference and help tackle our biodiversity crisis by working together and introducing subtle, ecological practices that can transform any outdoor space into a haven for wildlife. This was the resounding message to come out of the thought-provoking Rewilding the Mind: The Beth Chatto Symposium 2022, which took place on September 1 and 2 at the University of Essex’s Colchester campus.

The event raised funds for The Beth Chatto Education Trust by bringing together more than 500 attendees from the green space sector. Set up by the late Beth Chatto OBE (1923-2018) in 2015 (when she was 91), the charity offers a wide range of horticulture education opportunities to people of all ages. As Chatto said: “I wish to set up an Education Trust in my name to carry forward my passion for plants and ecological approach to all.”

With nearly half (41 per cent) of the UK’s species in decline*, the Symposium’s high-profile line-up of speakers examined how the popular concept of rewilding interfaces with horticulture in urban and/or smaller settings.

Rewilding specialist Professor Alastair Driver explained that Rewilding Britain’s projects have successfully restored areas of land greater than 250 acres and aided the return of vulnerable species such as turtle doves and nightingales, and purple emperor and brown hairstreak butterflies.

But Driver noted that every outdoor space – no matter how small – could help support nature recovery and boost biodiversity.

He asked: “If we as individuals seek to maximise the wildlife in our gardens [and outdoor spaces], but also try and go a step further and help others move forward – gradually build up that connectivity – who’s to say that one day we can’t have 250 acres of wildlife-rich garden in our community? That’s quite possible.”

Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, noted that there are some 22 million private gardens in the UK. “Just imagine if most of those were wildlife friendly?” he asked, adding: “Gardens can support an extraordinary diversity of creatures if we just manage them in the right way.”

Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter – the East Sussex home of the late gardener and friend of Beth, Christopher Lloyd OBE (1921-2006) – opined that gardens are the “the perfect storm.” He said this is because they serve as today’s “woodland edge;” namely, the biodiverse ecotone of woodland merging into grassland that, over the years, has been tidied up and lost.

He asserted: “Small gardens can add up to be very significant and so can urban spaces, rooftops, parks, pavements, cracks, walls. Every space can play a part.”

The Symposium’s speakers agreed that nature would be given a much better chance of recovery if everyone – including private individuals, gardeners, architects, builders, councils, ecologists, farmers, garden designers, growers, landscapers, landscape architects, politicians, town planners, and volunteer groups – worked together to create a national nature network.

Town planner and urban designer Dr Wei Yang – a leader in the promotion and implementation of garden cities – explained that the 21st-century garden city movement could help achieve this aim as it aspires to create towns that incorporate nature-based solutions that “provide resilience and bring the beauty of nature into our communities.”

The speakers also emphasised the importance of upskilling and supporting the horticulture sector to maintain sustainable and nature-friendly landscapes, as was the need to ensure the continued and vital help of local volunteers.

Urban rewilding – top tips

Some of the ways in which nature can be invited into urban surroundings were highlighted by speakers at Rewilding the Mind: The Beth Chatto Symposium 2022. Their top tips included:

  • Work with nature to find the right plants for the right place.

The late Beth Chatto, the founder of the Grade II-listed Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens in Elmstead Market near Colchester, Essex (UK), famously applied the “right plant, right place” principle to her gardens.

As she insightfully said in her Garden Notebook Foreword (1989): “If you choose plants that are appropriate for their conditions they will repay you by flourishing, harmonising with each other and requiring little attention, because they are in their appropriate environment.”

Chatto’s philosophy has inspired many, including landscape designer Giacomo Guzzon. He revealed that, for his urban landscape designs, he purposely chooses plants such as drought-tolerant species that are more robust in our changing climate and challenging urban conditions.

  • Water is life

The dragonflies hovering around the Water Garden at Beth Chatto’s Plants & Gardens show us that ponds are a haven for wildlife. Professor Alastair Driver hinted that a pond is a great starting point on a gardener’s urban rewilding journey – noting that he has one in his own garden.

  • Invite nature into every nook and cranny

Brownfield gardener John Little of the Essex-based Grass Roof Company asserted there is an opportunity to invite nature into every “niche and space” – from adding living roofs to bin and bike shelters to drilling nesting holes in wooden posts for solitary bees.

  • Plant ivy on walls and fences

Little also asserted that ivy-covered walls are far easier to plant and maintain than trendy “living walls.”

  • Build deadwood and compost piles

Little noted that these piles, loved by insects, “should be everywhere.” Meanwhile, Fergus Garrett said that one of the ecological practices he has introduced at Great Dixter is a “no burn policy” – creating deadwood piles instead of simply burning unwanted wood.

  • Create a long season of pollen- and nectar-rich plants

Many of the speakers, including Garrett and designers Tom Stuart-Smith and Sarah Price, highlighted that they purposely create gardens with a long season of a wide range of insect-attracting pollen- and nectar-rich plants.

Prof Goulson pointed out that some of the best plants for attracting pollinators include Origanum vulgare – marjoram, Echium vulgare – viper’s bugloss, and Centaurea scabiosa – greater knapweed.

  • Construct complex landscapes that mimic brownfield sites

Little highlighted that just as intricate shipwrecks attract ocean wildlife, brownfield sites – with their old buildings, uneven surfaces, and poor-quality soils – are a surprising biodiversity hub.

So, rather than creating the same old flat landscapes covered in topsoil, new landscape and garden designs should incorporate different heights, structures such as gabion (steel) baskets that invite insect and mammal nesting, and sustainable substrate materials (such as brick waste and crushed ceramics) sourced from local waste streams.

  • Reimagine weeds as wildflowers

Whilst sustainable gardens still require maintenance, Prof Goulson opined that “tidiness is the enemy of biodiversity” – and asked whether we can learn to respect and love all nature, including weeds. He noted that weeds such as ragwort, thistles, and dandelions are native plants that each attract native insects.


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