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Ask garden designers about water features and they tend to come over all starry-eyed and start talking about the spouts, statuary and stainless steel involved in show gardens. I’m more interested in the other end of the spectrum – full of frogs and wildflowers.
The antithesis of the Chelsea garden designer is Hugh, our local slew driver (that’s to say, digger) in Somerset. He used to think water features were drains. Ponds? He was worried about mosquitoes and children. Yet mosquitoes are good news for the colony of Pipistrelle bats in our garage, which has wiped them out, and for children, wildlife ponds can be fascinating. Their shallow depths and gently shelving margins make them relatively safe – although kids do need to be able to swim and, even then, they should be accompanied around water of any depth.
The larger-scale wildlife pond and wetland areas that, at Habitat Aid, we help people create are aesthetically and ecologically appealing. They provide Hugh with some interesting bio-engineering work. He’s now a convert.
“Wetland” means different things to different people. The dense, waterlogged swamps of the Mississippi Gulf are a far cry from the fens of eastern England. Wherever they are in the world, however, wetlands are the most biodiverse habitat in existence, as well as one of the most fragile and threatened.
To an ecologist, there is only a wafer of difference between wetland and pond. A pond doesn’t need fish or fountains; it just needs to be bigger than Raleigh’s cloak and covered by water for at least four months in a year. The charity Pond Conservation reckons the UK has lost 30 per cent of its ponds since the second world war, and most of the rest are polluted. So those cloak-sized ponds in back gardens are a vital resource.
I was moved to build our own wildlife pond by a less altruistic motive than conservation – my own enjoyment of the flora and fauna. Marginals are among the most attractive wildflowers there are. You may know Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), but look out for Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus), and the unpromising sounding Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), which were both stunning surprises when they came into flower here.
Native flora brings insects, which in turn attract creatures higher up the food chain. Not only are these some of the most endangered animals, they are also some of the most attractive and intriguing. As well as the species usually associated with water (dragonflies, amphibians, reptiles), wetlands and ponds draw bees, butterflies, bats and birds.
As Chris Baines, in his excellent How To Make a Wildlife Garden, says: “A wildlife garden without a pond is like a theatre without a stage.”
There are some good online resources to look at, too, none better than The Garden Pond Blog. Written by Jeremy Biggs, the director of Pond Conservation, it reinforces some hard and fast rules. I resisted the temptation to fill ours up with tap water, for example, as it contains too many nutrients. Or with fish – they eat everything.
At the other end of the wetland scale are wet meadow areas, which provide spectacular colour and biodiversity. Sedges, rushes and grasses are augmented by beautiful wildflowers. Personal favourites are Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis), Brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) and nectar-rich Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). In the US, lovely-looking natives include Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) and Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). In marshier areas, plant Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) for late summer colour, Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and the delicate, increasingly rare Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi).
Generic or bespoke mixes of wildflowers are available from a small number of good-quality specialist suppliers as seed for larger areas, or as plugs for smaller sites and the impatient.
One way to manage wet areas involves introducing a series of swales (shallow ditches) with or without berms (small banks). This looks not unlike a medieval ridge-and-furrow field system and offers exciting construction opportunities for enthusiastic slew operators.
Phil Brown, a local landscape designer, introduced me to swales and incorporates them in his designs as a substitute for more expensive, less eco-friendly solutions: “They are a simple way of dealing with the increasing problem of storm-water run-off, while offering the opportunity to create an attractive and distinct planting feature and a mini-wetland habitat at the same time.”
Another local designer I work with, Andrew George, also uses them as part of his amazing butterfly landscapes. He points out the attraction of west-facing banks for butterflies to catch the warming rays of the early evening sun and, like Brown, values the diversity of plants that this kind of micro-landscaping allows him to use.
Instead of using hard landscaping, you can more efficiently manage river and pond banks with large planted coir rolls or living willow, which will enhance the attractiveness and biodiversity value of any scheme. Water-tolerant trees and shrubs – such as willows, alders and birches, guelder-rose, dogwood and their many cultivars – can also control erosion and channel storm water run-off.
For humans, the willow is for burning and basket-making, screening and sculpture. But it is also, after the oak, the tree in the UK with the second-highest dependent number of animal species.
Even if you don’t want to manage willow beds, a selection of ornamental varieties will give you year-round interest: catkins in the spring, unusual leaf colours through the summer and autumn, and colourful buds and rods in the winter.
Hugh the Slew shouldn’t fret – I’ll have plenty of work for him next year.
Robin Lane Fox is away. His latest television programme, ‘Greek Myths: Tales of Travelling Heroes’, will air on BBC4 on Monday November 15 at 9pm
Salix Bio-engineering solutions (www.salixrw.com)
Phil Brown Design Landscape design (www.philbrowndesign.com)
The Landscape Agency Landscape design (www.landscapeagency.co.uk)
Andrew George Landscape design for butterflies, environments for people, pond projects (www.environmentsforpeople.co.uk)
Plants West Wales Willows: Sells a variety of willows (www.westwaleswillows.co.uk)
Habitat Aid, the company set up by Nick Mann, sells native wetland and marginal plants and seeds, and creates landscapes (www.habitataid.co.uk)