Review: RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines

wildlife gardening

It seems hard to imagine a time when gardeners didn’t encourage wildlife into their gardens. Most that I meet welcome the benefits of bees, birds and bug-eating insects to help with pollination and pest control. Yet it wasn’t always so and the republication of Chris Baines’ classic on wildlife gardening is a timely reminder that still more could be done.

First published in 1985 as How to Make a Wildlife Garden, The RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening has been revised, updated and re-illustrated for a new generation of gardeners.

Baines first brought the subject to public attention with a wildlife friendly show garden at Chelsea in 1985, a venture that he describes as “brave” in the days when “most of the gardening advice . . .was about how to get rid of wildlife in your garden.”

wildlife gardening
The ‘pictorial meadow’ at RHS Wisley. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Despite, it now being a mainstream issue, he paints a gloomy picture of the fate of our natural landscape, pointing out that 98 per cent of wildflower meadows have been destroyed and half of the ancient lowland woods.

As a result, domestic gardens are more important than ever, covering more than 400,000 hectares – bigger than the combined area of the country’s nature reserves.

“Wildlife gardening can make a massive contribution to creative nature conservation,” he says and goes on to outline a blueprint of action to take from providing the right habitat to supplying food.

wildlife gardening
Wildflowers mix with grasses in a meadow. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Chapters cover a range of terrains that will suit different species from woodland and hedgerows to water and wildflower meadows. Their importance is explained and the steps needed to recreate something similar in a domestic setting.

Mixed in with the call to arms – Baines is passionate in his appeal, urging letter-writing and membership of local environmental groups – there is a great deal of practical advice ranging from how to dig and line a pond to sowing wildflower seed.

There are sections on which plants to use – and those to avoid: some, such as sycamore, are deemed of little use to wildlife; others are invasive, including herb Robert; a few, including Ludwigia (water primrose) are dangerous when they escape into the wild.

wildlife gardening
Wild poppies are a beautiful summer sight. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Prevention is better than cure and vegetable growers are encouraged to net crops and employ companion planting to avoid the need to spray. Choosing the right varieties can also prevent problems: copper-leaved lettuce seems unattractive to birds, we’re told, while climbing French beans are better protected against slugs than their dwarf cousins.

As befits a serious subject, this is not a lightweight book: the text to picture ratio errs towards the copy and, despite the revisions, there is still a whiff of the 1980s about the layout with large slabs of text. However, the chatty tone helps to prevent it becoming dry.

We may not all embrace wildlife to quite the same extent as Baines, who is “thrilled” when he finds leaf cutter bees have cut circles on his rose leaves; I admit to being less than thrilled by visits from our local badger. Even so, there is still plenty that can be done to join his “green revolution”.

The RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £25 RRP. Buy now (If  you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

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