Growbag Blog

Is re-wilding your garden a good idea?


Oh crikey, everyone’s getting a bit hot under the collar about re-wilding aren’t they! Even the great and the good of the gardening world, Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh have waded in ….. So this week we’d thought we’d add our two-pennies’-worth to the debate; Laura is deeply troubled by the whole concept, Elaine has some practical solutions whilst Caroline thinks it’s a great excuse for lazy gardeners.


Laura – I always give a little shudder when people announce that they are going to ‘re-wild’ their garden as it implies a completely hands-off approach to let nature find a happy balance on its own. As any trained ecologist will tell you, relinquishing control of your patch to nature sets in train a well-evidenced and relentless process called ‘ecological succession’.

The first phase of this process will see your garden overrun by ‘ruderal’ plants such as thistles, nettles, docks and mayweed who are adapted to colonise newly available habitats. For a while you might be delighted with the caterpillars and bees that flock to your little nature reserve and indeed it can be a lovely sight (as in our feature picture today).

Thistles are opportunist species hard-wired with a prodigious ability to flood any area they are allowed a foothold in with copious wind-borne seeds.

But the pretty thistle stage moves quite quickly over the next two or three years into the next phase which almost invariably involves brambles and scrub species typical of your area such as elder, hawthorn, blackthorn and willow.

It’s true that bramble bushes provide nectar and fruit but are so forceful this is generally at the exclusion of everything else.

The bramble/scrub phase can last a good 20 years, whilst somewhere in this tangle of undergrowth some oak or pine saplings will start to stir and push their way steadily through to start to eventually dominate and establish what is the final natural ‘climax community’ of 95% of the British Isles – woodland.

Oak sapling
Eventually little oaks will push through the undergrowth to become the dominant keystone species of a woodland ecosystem

Now it’s true that ancient woodland is a valuable habitat which we need more of in the right locations, and after about 400 years of non-intervention you will have a pocket of mature woodland in your back garden that might support a tawny owl or two and maybe a fox earth. But along the way you will have depleted so much of the precious wildlife that has adapted over millennia to live alongside us in our wonderfully diverse old fashioned garden habitats, with their ponds and their rockeries, their lawns and their borders, their veg patches and fruit trees.

The average garden contains a wealth of different micro habitats

For the fact is that some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the UK are ‘plagio-climax’ communities, habitats that have been held back from reaching the ultimate woodland climax community by human management such as grazing, cutting, harvesting and, in my humble opinion, gardening. These include treasured places such as hay meadows, chalk grassland, lowland heath, coppiced woodland and …. proper gardens, each with their own specialised range of flora and fauna.

Image of Elaine

Laura, you are taking your doom-mongering to impressively Olympian levels this week!  Time for me to add a bit of perspective. You really don’t need to abandon your whole garden to ‘scrub species’ in order to make it more wildlife-friendly.  So don’t.

There are four easy ways to do it:

  1. Don’t use any of the chemical herbicides and fungicides so beloved of gardeners in the 60’s and 70’s.  If you kill all the tiny insects, where are the next species up the food chain going to find their food? And you have no idea what else you are harming by using poison. I was talking to someone yesterday whose friend’s dog died from eating slug pellets.  Don’t even mention the poor hedgehogs.  Let’s learn to live with some aphids and blackspot etc. around the garden (or only use natural pest controls).
Abandon the poisons, and help the hedgehogs

2. Have some water in the garden.  Anything from a tiny tub with a miniature water-lily to a lake full of swans attracts a whole new raft (see what I did there) of wildlife.  By creating different habitats, the range of wild creatures that you are supporting is vastly increased.

Even small ponds bring loads of water-loving wildlife into your garden

3. Be aware of plants that are fabulous for pollinators – they don’t have to be thistles and brambles, you know.  Poppies, cornflowers, daisies, foxgloves, lavender, single roses, catmint, salvias, verbena…… truly a huge number of popular garden plants are always swarming with happy insects and butterflies.  If you have a corner for a few nettles, great.  But you don’t have to.

Cornflowers are hugely attractive to insects, as are heaps of other plants

4. Have somewhere for wildlife to live and hide – trees, bushes, hedges, long grass…anything like that.  The wild things love being in our gardens, they just don’t want to be seen all the time. 

See.  No need to worry about the difference between climaxes and plagio-climaxes, just do your gardening with a little more care for the critters.


That’s all very well but between slugs, snails, a wasp byke, plagues of midges and a hornets’ nest (this afternoon), wildlife has already got pretty much the upper hand in my Highland garden, without a single bespoke pond or rotting timber pile being specially commissioned.

Most of us don’t actually have time to manicure all of our gardens in any case. Without wanting to compete with David Attenborough I’ve noticed my cultivated flowers largely attract bumble bees and butterflies (in a wonderfully Instagrammable way), while the bits I’ve basically given up on – the dishevelled nettles, docks and cow parsley – well it’s a more motley crew in there – hover flies , horsefly type jobs and other undateables of the insect world. 

Classy looking bees on my Alstromeria ‘Indian Summer’, and elsewhere in the garden (right), the undateables are also have a high old time among my docks and nettles. Result all-round!

This all seems fine ecologically and the only thing left for me to do to be in with a shout for ‘Gardener of the Year’, is mow a couple of paths through my scrubland – signalling that this mess should be considered fully intentional and possibly hand-sown, then top it off with a highly visible sign saying ‘Pollinators welcome 🐝’. See what I’m doing here? Follow me for more gardening tips.

PS I notice Sarah Raven is currently selling cow parsley seedlings at around £2 each. Our grannie must be turning in her grave. There’s money in them there ‘weeds’!

We’d love to hear how you feel about this topic – do write in and join the debate.

We’ve just taken delivery of the perennial spades we’ve been looking forward to for ages. You hardly ever see Monty or Adam without theirs, and Laura has made a short video about using one. We are thrilled to say that we now have them in our online shop – do have a look…

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

20 replies on “Is re-wilding your garden a good idea?”

I decided to leave the dandelions in my lawn for the bees and o my goodness they are now everywhere in all the flower and vegetable areas. they’ve certainly taken over the whole garden. So definitely no more dandelions will be allowed in my garden although they are very pretty.

Hello Marjorie, it’s a real
conundrum isn’t it, we like the dandelions in moderation, but they’re programmed to disperse like wildfire if they see the opportunity! They’re another of those coloniser plants and have great tenacity once they get dug in with that deep taproot… As you say – it’s tempting to leave them in your lawn but you’d need to be quick to winkle them out in other beds best wishes Laura

Just keep inspecting the flowers on your daily walk round the garden and deadhead the dandelions when they’re past their best!

Love the article this week ladies. My contribution to rewilding this year has been to not strim under the trees 😂.
I already had a pile off wood at the bottom of his garden but only because the logs were too big for the log burner and we we too lazy to chop them up… guess it is a mix of conscious effort and laziness as you point out.

You’ve got it exactly Marion! If you can’t be bothered to chop the logs then just label them a habitat pile. I think we’re all learning that a little bit of messiness can be quickly turned into a badge of honour. Glad you enjoyed the blog this morning, we love writing it – best wishes Laura

Thanks all, that’s a fine cross-section of opinion. Perhaps my philosophy is maintaining a healthy balance; a touch of control, a touch of leave some of the ‘weeds’ and black-spot etc., too many trees will completely shade my ‘modest-size’ garden, so, the bottom line is to enjoy and appreciate everything and be constantly surprised.

Hello Scott, yes a nice balance of everything seems to be best way to keep us and the garden wildlife happy, you don’t need to go overboard either way. The important thing is to keep enjoying it and learning from those surprises when they happen. Best wishes

We can plant beautiful flowers and let the bugs enjoy them along with the odd weed. We don’t need to allow Triffids to take over to have a nature friendly space. Relax everyone!

Great comment Eileen, we all need to chill out a bit don’t we! Thank you for being such a great supporter of our blog for so long, we really appreciate it. Best wishes Laura

Morning friends! Great to read such interesting opinions today. My tiny plot has been allowed to rewild itself gently over the last few years as my mobility hasn’t been good . A new hip has meant I’m now in charge but I like the way the garden looks softer and greener. Lots of new treasures have arrived,wild carrot, purple tall flower, long legged yellow dandyflower and creeping blue minty flower amongst many! The mini beasts are happy with the butterfly bush and evening primrose and a seedling rowan is now a metre high. I didn’t plant any of them! They all chose to live here as have three hedgehogs . If I had one niggle it’s the Bindweed but if it gets ahead of me I call it morning glory. And my son in law tackles the brambles!

It sounds like you have the perfect arrangement Susan, some gentle interlopers (and I love the descriptive names you’ve given them all) and a helpful son in law to keep the thugs at bay. Glad the new hip is letting you take back control a bit, and your three hedgehogs rather proves my point that there is a whole range of wildlife that love to live in our gardens already, frogs, toads, robins, blackbirds, wrens, house sparrows (the clue is in the name) the list goes on …. best wishes Laura

Since moving to my new smaller garden in a lovely rural position, grass cutting had become difficult without brutally chopping off precious plants! My newly packed borders of hardy geraniums, dierama, verbena bonariensis, giant scabious, selenium wallichianum, alchemilla mollis, and whatever else has taken my fancy, were tumbling and falling across the lawn.
Something had to be done. It started with no mow May and I haven’t mowed since. Wild flowers including orchids have appeared. The grass is now in flower, the lovely varied flowerheads bleached and blending with the grasses in the borders, the clover is full of bees. I’m keeping a beady eye out for the thugs and have to say this is the honeymoon period. I am sure there will be some hard work ahead to keep this ‘managed chaos’ in check!! But it is great fun!!

Your garden sounds RIGHT UP MY STREET, Linda! Soft, pretty plants having a ball in a gentle, rural place falling over the uncut lawn full of bees… all sounds so idyllic. You’re right though, there might be some hard graft ahead to keep your hold on the situation. In my experience, it doesn’t take long for coarser grasses to muscle in on uncut grass areas, the odd little dock seedhead can drop a thousand seeds, the dandelion roots are soon very difficult to lever out…………vigilance will need to be your watchword. But in the meantime, enjoy the gorgeous garden you’ve created! Best wishes, Elaine

Hello Ladies, I really enjoyed your blog, my bit for rewilding is I started a cottage garden last year and a stumpery , sounds very posh but its just some wooden stepping stones i had left over and some old logs. I am very pleased with It, I have never had so many bees and hover flies in my garden, I keep my garden quite tidy, but the pollinators seem to love it, so must be doing something right.

Ooooh Laura created a stumpery too – she went on and on (and on) about it when she made it, but she’s gone a bit quiet about it since then. I wonder if she noticed an increase in bees and hoverflies like you did? You make a good point about tidy gardens – just because you like things to be neat, it absolutely doesn’t mean that yours is not a very wildlife-friendly garden – the insects that visit your flowers couldn’t care less whether they are growing in an immaculately-tended border, or in a chaos of colonising ‘weeds’. So glad you enjoyed our blog this week. All the best, Elaine

I’m reminded of the new vicar to the village complementing a parishioner’s garden, teeming with insects and flowers and suggesting they give thanks to the Lord for such magnificent abundance.
“That’s all very well,” said the gardener, “But you should have seen it when I first came to the village and God had had the garden to himself for the previous few years!”

Ah yes, William, we have to remember that before we thought of having gardens, there was just….Nature, wasn’t there! And since under 2% of the UK is actually designated as ‘garden’, there is an awful lot of ‘other space’ out there that we should be sharing with all those other species. Let’s hope that it’s not only gardeners that are making great strides in this direction. I wonder how far that garden had got down Laura’s route to the ‘climax community’ of British woodland?! Best wishes, Elaine

Yes, I’ve heard that before. It always makes me chuckle!
I became an organic gardener years ago through laziness. I never got round to spraying plants for pests. I stopped using slug pellets a few years ago because I wanted to adopt a hedgehog. I’ve got holes in my fences ready, but still no hedgehog! In spite of my sporadic efforts I still have mares tails and bindweed, more colourfully yellow and purple vetch, bugle and dog violets. I started no mow May last year and was rewarded with a bee orchid, carefully guarded from careless feet! I feed the birds and am rewarded with the antics of blue, great, coal and long tailed tits, wrens, robins, house and hedge sparrows, the occasional woodpecker and less happily grey squirrels, magpies, feral and wood pigeons. Lots of different insects, including grey dagger moths, benefit from my lack of spraying and love of garden flowers.

Sorry ladies but my vote is with Elaine. I’m not precious about weeds, manicured lawns and allowing self seeding but brambles and dandelions are a step too far. That’s the thing about gardens, we can suit ourselves, they are always evolving and our needs and preferences change over time.

Hello Linda, Laura here and yes Elaine has the right idea doesn’t she, but I think a lot of us were already making a good job of encouraging wildlife into our garden before Chelsea Flower started awarding Best Show Garden to a beaver dam in a wilderness setting implying that we need to let our patches go completely feral ….As you rightly point out it’s up to us how far down the road of re-wilding we think is appropriate for both us and our wildlife. The most important thing is to keep enjoying our gardens!

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