In a world where mowed lawns are the norm, biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate. So too is the mental health of people around the world as they react to one crisis after another. We take a look at the positive impacts you can have on the environment and yourself if you decide to rewild your garden.
The garden has been an extension of the house with equally proud ownership for centuries. It is a portal of solitude to the natural world, where one can work and play, entertain guests, or just sit and breathe in the privacy of their own space. During the pandemic, the value of gardens was realised; people worldwide were forced to find solace in fresh air without leaving their front doors. It is easy to think of the garden as our own little sanctuary, and so easy to forget that while we may call it home, so too do an abundance of thriving communities. To a vast array of trees, grasses, bushes, fungi, insects, arachnids, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, we are like-minded guests inhabiting a shared land. The garden, however, has long been a way for people to tap into a more favourable immersion in nature. Walking on a freshly mowed lawn is far more satisfying than wading through long grass. The breeze drifting past your skin is soothing without bugs touching you. Thus, many have sought to rid the garden of its biodiversity. With the boom in garden owners in the 20th century and modern advancements in gardening, the decimation of wildlife has only increased.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, one million acres of wildlife habitats are lost to suburban development every year. Insect populations have declined significantly; the days of wiping bugs off the car windscreen are long gone. Scientists are declaring that we are in the sixth mass extinction event, with 40% of insect species in decline and one-third classified as endangered.
Gardens could play a role in helping species make a comeback, but what is needed is a shift in perspective on what the garden is and can be. Are you ready to rewild your garden?
The History of Gardens
The beginnings of gardening and the ownership of an outdoor space could be considered the foundational pillar in the dawn of modern civilisation – the birth of agriculture. For a long time, these spaces had a purely practical purpose: to provide an abundance of food that could be consumed or traded for other goods. When civilisation arrived and hierarchies were established, outdoor spaces would start being used in an ornamental fashion. Gardens were a privilege found only in the homes of royals and nobles, and their rarity gave rise to a new form of art which showcased natural beauty mixed with great affluence and national pride.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – a garden described by ancient Greek and Roman scholars as a platformed structure, each level holding a multitude of plants and trees, to create a mountain of green. Although the existence of the gardens is still unconfirmed, the cultural significance of aesthetic gardening cannot be understated.
Popular journalist and author, Bill Bryson, describes a boom in gardening in England during the 17th and 18th centuries and the establishment of the first modern gardens. This is attributed to the first garden tourist attractions, the encouragement of women in gardening, and an adoption of picturesque outdoor spaces by the upper class. In fact, this era marks a pivotal shift in the perspective of outdoor spaces. In his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bryson notes that before this, “houses weren’t built to enjoy the view. They were the view.”
For stately homeowners, devotion to nature had emerged, but not without a little human intervention. Trees were torn down and lakes and winding paths were built to form a kind of domesticated wilderness. With the rise in overseas exploration, the number of plants available to English gardeners soared from around 1,000 in 1750 to over 20,000 just a century later. Some aristocrats went as far as to uproot entire villages in search of the perfect scene from their bedroom window. Like the inside of a house, garden owners desired a neat and regularly maintained outdoor space. The task of cutting grass was available only to those who could afford it, and a strenuous one for those labourers who would stroll around slicing at it with a scythe. That is until 1830, when the first lawnmower was invented by Edwin Budding in Gloucestershire, and the advancements of gardening hit a milestone.
Only in the last couple hundred years have gardens become a feature for the masses. By the late 19th and early 20th century, suburbs began to form as more accessible transport into cities via roads and rail was established. This rise also coincides with the emergence of the middle class, who preferred to take residence outside of the increasingly busy cities. Being in more rural areas, these new suburbs offered more space and opportunity for people to own gardens. As gardening became more widespread, so did the large variety of possibilities to personalise your garden.
In modern-day, garden owners have more options than ever before – conservatories, decking, patios, furniture, swimming pools, barbecues, sheds, fire-pits, swings, and trampolines – to name a few. A garden can be decorated with plants and trees originating in every nook and cranny of the world. Whether it be a children’s playground, a soiree spot, or even an outdoor office, most gardens are adapted to provide an intrinsically human experience. But with each new amenity, the quality of life for the roaming animals and insects decreases – and at a much more significant rate in the past century.
Reversing Species Decline
There is one clear juxtaposition in the realm of gardening that separates it from the natural world: while humans are champions of the clean and tidy, nature is messy. Walk through a forest and you will find trees and plants angled in all positions as they compete for the most light, leaves littering the ground, and murky, moss-covered ponds. Wildlife thrives in these more chaotic conditions as it gives more opportunity for creatures to hide from predators and explore new areas.
Consider this when thinking about a modern garden. The surge in decking, patios, and mowed grass leaves less for insects and small animals. The massacre of daisies and dandelions and the rise in decorative, non-native plant species leaves less for the pollinators to explore. The herbicides used on weeds and grasses are a source of air contamination and could be causing direct mortality to many creatures. Some have taken it one step further with the rise in astroturf, negating the need for regular maintenance and creating an entirely artificial environment where no life can grow. These practices have a hugely detrimental effect on the local ecosystem. In a changing climate, the eradication of unwanted plants and trees also means less carbon is being picked up from the atmosphere.
Rewilding your garden doesn’t mean you have to live amidst a forest, but rather, finding a position of compromise with the wildlife around you. If you want to rake up the leaves, perhaps leave them in a corner instead of throwing them away. If you want to mow the grass, leave a patch where it can grow for creatures to pass through. If you want to decorate, explore the abundance of native plant species that pollinators prefer.
Above all, in a world of films and books that have given ‘creepy-crawlies’ a villainous image, educate yourself on the fascinating variety of insects and the role they play in a vibrant ecosystem. Most garden visitors of the arthropod kind pose no threat, and their presence on your skin is purely exploratory. It is easy to believe that a domesticated garden would be better suited to the modern hustle and bustle lifestyle. However, with the mental toll that arises from an increasingly stressful world, a moment or two immersed in the wilderness is more attractive than you’d think.
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Experiencing the Impacts of Rewilding First-Hand
To see the positive impact rewilding can have, the founders of Going Green Media, Ben Brown and Ciara Doyle, recently visited Rewilding Europe’s project on the Bulgarian side of the Rhodope Mountains, a mountain range in Southeastern Europe, and the largest by area in Bulgaria, with over 83% of its area in the southern part of the country and the remainder in Greece.
The Rhodope Mountains are now one of the most biodiverse areas in all of Europe. The Rewilding Europe team has reintroduced bison, vultures, wild horses, and deer into the area to help rebalance the ecosystem. The main management principle is based on allowing nature to a high degree manage itself. By restoring this ecosystem, the team is benefiting the local economy and is turning the Rhodope Mountains into a nature-tourism destination by supporting local enterprises and promoting the landscape.
The Rhodope Mountains are one of Europe’s most biodiverse areas. Image by Wikimedia Commons.
“It really highlighted to me how simple it can be for all of us to have a huge positive impact in restoring green spaces,” said Brown speaking about his experience with Rewilding Europe. “If a small team can help restore an area that is almost 15,000 square kilometres in size, then surely all of us can learn ways to rewild our own gardens at home.”
“Whether it’s reintroducing native species of flora and fauna or providing naturally sheltered areas for local wildlife to reside, there are so many ways people can rewild their own gardens to help nature bounce back,” says Doyle. “Not only does Rewilding benefit the planet, but it also significantly benefits the individuals who are able to spend time in these natural areas, by boosting our overall wellbeing, air quality and economic opportunities.”
Health Is Wealth
A rewilded garden can come with a host of mental and physical health benefits. In the last decade, the number of studies considering the health aspects of immersion in nature has vastly increased. Studies have shown that being in nature can help lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, and reduce anxiety. It is no wonder that many computer desktops come with plenty of natural landscapes.
In fact, a groundbreaking study by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich found that hospital patients recovering from gallbladder surgery recovered quicker and required significantly less pain medication when provided a window in their room observing a natural setting as opposed to a brick wall. However, these results are fairly limited in that they do not provide results of a view observing an industrialised setting. A sounder conclusion from a study by Dr. Matthew White of the University of Exeter tested on 20,000 people in the UK found that just two hours a week in nature can have significant health benefits. The research showed positive results across all demographics and could be as simple as sitting on a bench in a natural setting. Interestingly, spending time in your own garden was not considered a suitable environment. White found that the richness in biodiversity was an important aspect of an individual’s results. He also noted that many people see their garden as a chore rather than a pleasure, something that rewilding could help alleviate.
While many have sought to unravel the causes of our beneficial ties to nature with little success, one thing is for certain: immersion in nature is beneficial to our overall health. Whether it be the feel of the grass under your fingers, the smell of an abundance of colourful flowers in bloom, or the startling sight of finding a hedgehog rustling past the hedges, our evolutionary connections with nature prove to be a continuing necessity for our happiness. And the more we share and connect with nature, the more rewarding the outcomes.
With the more noticeable effects of climate change in recent years, understanding our connection with nature and the practice of rewilding has become a much larger movement, and not just on an individual level. Governments and organisations around the world are considering methods of rewilding the land.
In the last month, the UK has pledged to turn 1000 bus shelter roofs into bee and butterfly gardens and has reintroduced bison into the wild for the first time in thousands of years. The Philippines recently passed a bill making it mandatory for students to plant ten trees before they graduate, in the hopes that 175 million new trees will be planted within a year.
At COP15, 190 countries have agreed to halt biodiversity loss by 2030. Whether or not governments stick to this promise, rewilding is and will continue to be a definitive term over this decade. Many historians point to the rise of agriculture and enclosed outdoor spaces as the beginnings of property and ownership, something that could ultimately contribute to our downfall. With uncertain times ahead, perhaps the adoption of a new way of thinking, where we learn to share the land rather than dominate it, is necessary not just for the survival of the animals around us, but also ourselves. Embrace a messy garden!
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