Front Gardens for Wild Londoners

The space in front of your house could be a home for 1000s of Wild Londoners. The more diverse the plants and environments in your front garden, the greater the number you would find living there. However, when concrete takes over, all this life disappears. Our Living Places Awards aim to show how your front garden can serve your needs, while at the same time being a thriving and connected living space.

Our gardens are crazy biodiverse places. They contain a huge range of plants from all around the world jostling for dominance. There is no natural habitat in the world with such a densely situated diversity of plants. In fact, in one survey of species, Jennifer Owen calculated that there can be up to 3500 species of plant per hectare in a UK garden, 25 times more than the 135 species per hectare in an African rain-forest!

A snail on teasel in a garden.The Wildlife Gardening Forum reporting on the BUGS project note that the species diversity grows with area and even average size gardens can quickly overtake the plant diversity of natural habitats.

So why is this?

Diversity multiplies - Since plants are the basis of food for wildlife, and most plant eaters prefer to nibble on a range of plants, A food web - a thrush eating a snail.high diversity of plants in a garden leads to high animal diversity. And with that animal diversity comes a layering effect: A “food web” where a plant supports an animal, which in turn is eaten by another animal that is hunted by another. Ken Thompson provides the example of aphids being eaten by ladybird larvae, themselves hunted by those alien-looking ichneumon wasps. But aphids also exude a honeydew which becomes the food for others. And at the top of this complex web sit all our favourites: such as garden birds and hedgehogs.

Change attracts – Gardens are regularly disturbed, shifted around, and dug over with new plants arriving and leaving. This constant small change is attractive to many species, and ensures that our gardens do not regress into a monoculture where just one plant grows and only its specific residents can survive. 

Edges are social - Then there is the mix of environments in a garden; the transitions from shade to light, from dry to wet, from short and tidy to long and scruffy. Such edge zones provide homes for species that want to live on either side of the divide in effect “doubling up” and providing a home to two different groups who seemingly intermingle and socialize!

For more on this fascinating topic, we recommend this very interesting piece on the biodiversity of gardens by Ken Thompson and Steve Head of the Wildlife Gardening Forum. The book “No Nettles Required” by Ken Thompson is another good read on this topic.

Front gardens are part of the matrix 

The impact of concreting over a front garden is not only restricted to that home. 

Front gardens are part of the matrix of green space within our city. You may even call them a London-wide nature reserve.

A frog amongst the daisies.Breaching the matrix - Many studies [2] have found the negative impact of sealed surfaces such as concrete and paving on the richness of native species, but studies have also found [3] that continuity of greenery in the surrounding area is critical to the diversity within one particular garden. When concrete moves into a front garden, it introduces a breach into that matrix, leaving Wild Londoners isolated on gradually reducing islands of green. Each island becoming less and less attractive to life.

It’s not just the paving - When front gardens are paved, then boundary hedges and climbing plants are usually removed at the same time. Out in the street, to make room for pavement cross-overs grass verges may be reduced and street trees removed. This results in even bigger reductions in space for Wild Londoners, including birds such as the iconic 'Cockney' Sparrow who want to use those climbing plants and hedges, and would now find themselves homeless.

While a planted front garden would likely support less wildlife than the more connected and varied back garden, there is nothing to stop there being several hundred different species living in such a garden. Studies [2] have demonstrated that the garden doesn’t even have to be that packed full of plant species. The simple provision of soil and plants, shelter, and of connections with neighbouring gardens and green spaces appear to be just as important.

The added extras - A front garden pond and bug hotel would help attract even more life. A small tree would make even more difference. In such a front garden Wild Londoners would be found everywhere: amongst the plants, on the edges and in the cracks, living their quiet but busy lives and bringing a welcome buzz to the home and street beyond.

Next Time: The value of Front Gardens to Londoners.

The average front garden plot size in London is estimated to be 56 square metres, though that varies greatly depending on the borough: from 30 square metres in City of Westminster to 180 square metres in Bromley [1]

[1] GiGL “London: Garden City?”

[2] Butterflies (Blair and Launer 1997; Hardy and Dennis 1999); birds in urban parks (Jokimaki 1999); lizards in residential areas (Germaine and Wakeling 2001); Ground beetles in urban London (Davis 1978)

[3] Urban domestic gardens (VI): environmental correlates of invertebrate species richness Richard M. Smith, Philip H. Warren, Ken Thompson and Kevin J. Gaston.

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