We are a group of Merrow neighbours trying to get momentum going to improve biodiversity in local residential gardens. We would like to see more wild-life friendly gardens and a reduction in pesticide use.

I will start by telling you about our change of heart, from being meticulously tidy with short grass and strimmed edges gardening, to a far more relaxed approach, and how we became pesticide-free with long grass in our front and back gardens all summer long all of 7 years ago…

I was watching our cat eating our grass, and shortly after I saw him staggering, like he was drunk. He had been poisoned. I wondered if weed treatment on grass could be the cause, and that was it. I canceled the lawn treatments.

That autumn I planted bulbs in a spiral pattern in the back lawn. Bulb leaves need to to turn yellow as the sap returns to the bulb to give it energy to flower again the following year. I asked that the grass around the bulbs not be cut down until at least June.

Well, by June the grass had grown nice and tall, and, unbeknownst to us, there were a few different varieties of grasses growing, and they all produced different seed heads. We were smitten. The grasses waving in the wind looked magical.

The following year we left a bigger patch of long grass, and this time didn’t cut back until much later. This is when we noticed that the base of the long grass remained moist and cool, even when it was very hot. We also noticed that the little froglets from our wildlife pond, and also newts, were camping out in the long grass. We had to be very careful to scare the little creatures away by raking the grass before strimming it.  

At the time, we dumped the cut grass straightaway into our compost bin. We now know not to do this. We strim the long grass in sections, and lay it down for at least a day to ensure all critters escape. The cut grass can be used to cover bare soil, keep moisture in.

No-mow May has been in the spotlight for a while now, with more and more councils and  private gardens participating. However, it saddens me that people can’t wait to cut down the long grass after that one month. In our garden we don’t strim the grass until September. The reason for this is because lots of insects, butterflies and moths, lay their eggs during the summer on the grass stems, and they hatch over the summer. So no-mow-May is a bit rubbish; it should be no-mow-summer to give insects a chance to hatch, to increase their numbers. 

A recent study measured the temperature on a hot summer’s day in various garden situations, and found that the temperature at the base of long grass is much lower than that of exposed soil. In long grass it’s shady, cool and moist, and the temperature is around 19 degrees C. It provides perfect hiding places from predators for little frogs, newts and insects. 

If you keep your lawn short, the temperature would be around 24 degrees centigrade, and if soil is exposed to the full sun, it could be as hot as 40 degrees, making it hard for wildlife. The temperature under fake lawn can get as hot as 60 degrees, making it impossible for anything to live underneath it.

We have a major biodiversity crisis, and we all need to pull out all stops to help our wildlife. Surrey is the county with the worst biodiversity record.

A recent initiative by Guildford Environmental Forum and Zero Carbon Guildford has resulted in the establishment of a movement called Merrow Pollinator Reserves. The aim is to reconnect Surrey’s habitats by creating biodiversity corridors across Surrey’s urban areas with wildlife-friendly areas in residential gardens.

At the first meeting in the St John’s Centre in May, around 40 Merrow (and other) neighbours turned up to learn more about the plight of our pollinators, and what everyone could do to help improve biodiversity in our gardens. It is hoped that neighbours will eventually have linked-up wildlife-friendly gardens across Merrow, and beyond. Hedgehog Street is a campaign to encourage gardeners to make 13 cm by 13 cm holes underneath fencing to allow hedgehogs, and other animals, access to gardens they wouldn’t be able to visit otherwise. It would be great if all neigbourhoods help to improve the lot of our insects and wildlife.

We need to help our pollinators. There has been an Armageddon in the insect world, with an 80% reduction in insect numbers! It means less food available all round for all wildlife, and it might be that not all our produce will get pollinated. 

We’re driving a change in gardening. Instead of having stripey lawns, chemically treated, killing all life in that lawn, we need a drastic departure from the ‘my’ garden approach to ‘what can I do to help all wildlife in my garden’ approach.  

If you let your grass grow, you are helping biodiversity in Surrey. If you plant plugs of native wildflowers in your lawn in the autumn, they will be flowering at the right time of year for local insects. If you also plant bulbs in your grass in the autumn, you will be awarded with a spectacular meadow the following year, helping precious pollinators. Plant varieties of plants best for pollinators. Studies have found a mix of deep and shallow rooted plants is a crucial buffer against drought and boosting soil health.

Do not be too tidy in your garden, don’t do meticulous weeding and tidying up.  If you leave it, you might just be very surprised to see how many pollinators the flowers of wild plants attract; we love the RHS announcement made at the recent Chelsea Flower Show that there are no such things as weeds, only the perfect place for the right plants.

Ideally, a good wildlife garden should have a number of niche spaces, a mosaic of habitats. 

  • A pond is a great way to help all wildlife, ideally planted up to provide egg-laying sites for water insects. A pond can make a huge difference to a garden’s biodiversity. Putting a deck around a pond provides hiding places for frogs and newts underneath it.
  • Having a dense flowering hedge is a great way to help a wide variety of wildlife. Replacing fences with hedging allow hedgehogs access to gardens, and it’ll also be a rich source of food for a huge variety of birds, insects and small mammals. Autumn is the perfect time to buy and plant bare-root hedging.
  • Leaving a pile of logs in a forgotten place in the bottom of the garden is very helpful to a range of beetles whose larvae live in dead wood. One of our most spectacular beetles, the stag beetle, only emerges after 7 years of being in larval form in dead wood.
  • Having a compost heap not only eventually provides nourishment for garden plants, it also provides a haven for hedgehogs, slow worms, and reptiles.
  • Leaving a pile of stones or rubble in a sunny spot is another nice wildlife space, suited to spiders, lizards, and slugs…. 

Now, slugs and snails are the enemies of anyone trying to grow veggies organically. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough predators of these creatures, and most pesticide-free  gardens become a haven for them. Having a body of water with lots of frogs prowling around is a great help. You could also use applications of nematodes, but it can be quite expensive… an online search for best biological control of our slimy friends turned up a nice surprise. Ducks! 

Now that is another story!

Annelize Kidd