This wildlife-friendly woodland walk not only provides habitat for a range of insects, birds and small mammals, its vibrant winter colours are also an invitation to engage with the garden in the colder months.
Just off to the left of the meadow, a narrow path disappears under a canopy of white birches. In the heat of summer, this is the shaded route around the garden, its gentle curve teasing you on through lush woodland planting while also encouraging you to slow down and enjoy the journey.
A few months earlier, as winter turned into spring, ferns and hellebores, along with other evergreen perennials, which do most of the hard work in the colder months, were joined by fresh foliage on the dogwood and hydrangea. Soon they will be followed by astrantias, hostas, and foxgloves.
Just a few years ago, this part of the garden, on the northern edge of a small orchard, was a strip of rough grass interspersed with occasional shrubs along the boundary wall. Now it is a place with a new-found purpose, functionally connecting the front and back of the garden, and designed to be sustainable, to support biodiversity, and to be low-maintenance.
It’s also a place to enjoy year round, and perhaps especially in the winter, when the red and yellow dogwood have shed their leaves and their stems shine bright in the low light. The bronze-tinted foliage of the oak-leaf hydrangea are still holding on, in the company of hydrangea arborescens seedheads. The smell of sweet box fills the air, and before long the delicate blooms of the daphnes will awaken our senses.
Autumn packs in the colours too. The dogwood foliage turns a rich crimson and the birches golden yellow. But autumn is also a time when days are getting shorter. Local red squirrels are busy stocking up, birds are flitting about in search of a sheltered nook for winter, and the resident hedgehogs can be spotted – first, heard – rustling through fallen leaves for a cosy corner away from the main drag.
Autumn marks a turning point in the garden. One where wildlife is looking for safe places where it can overwinter undisturbed. This was also part of the brief. Although this garden is in a protective rural setting, was there anything specific that could be done for wildlife and that would be generally more sustainable?
There are owls, badgers and deer in the forest just beyond the boundary walls. In the summer, foxes are occasionally spotted feeding on fallen cherries, and at nightfall, pipistrelle bats dash about against the twilight sky. Woodpeckers, jays, blue and coal tits, wagtails and blackbirds incessantly criss-cross the airspace above the orchard. In the summer, swallows and house martins. Could all these animals still positively be made to feel welcome?
When designing for sustainability and wildlife, minimal interference is a good place to start. The design intention is still there, perhaps with an aesthetic approach tuned to a particular mode, but balanced against the long-term needs of local wildlife. Here’s what was done here:
- Plant densely: This provides habitat for animals of all sizes, from ground-active invertebrates to wood or field mice, small birds to hedgehogs and toads.
- Mulch: A thick mulch on the ground means there will be less of a requirement for watering and weeding, minimising the need for a gardener to physically interfere in the garden.
- Recycled material: We used a bark-chip mulch made from trees felled elsewhere in the garden or in nearby properties. The mulch was used on the ‘beds’ (a concept perhaps not quite fitting for a woodland garden) and for the path.
- Natural habitat: the main branches of these same felled trees were turned into logs to provide habitat for insects, small mammals and reptiles. These will be left undisturbed. Fallen branches will be gathered into piles against the boundary wall, and logs will be allowed to decay naturally, and ‘topped up’ when the need arises.
- Organic matter: Manure was initially brought in from a local farm and dug into the soil over the first autumn to provide the original layer of organic matter. Over time, fallen leaves and decaying stems and logs will keep the cycle going.
Two years on from the original planting, the woodland walk has grown into a special place in the garden. So special that it’s become a destination spot for the teenage glamping crowd.
- Betula utilis
- Cornus ‘Baton Rouge’
- Cornus flaviramea
- Hydrangea quercifolia
- Sarcococca confusa
- Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’
- Astrantia major
- Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’
- Digitalis purpurea
- Helleborus argutifolius
- Helleborus foetidus
- Hosta siebolbiana
- Luzula nivea
- Polystichum setiferum
- Polystichum aculeatum
- Dryopteris wallichiana
BEFORE AND AFTER
Project status: completed, with regular adjustments