About rewilding the city

A buff-tailed bumblee (Bombus terrestris) feeding on a opium poppy (Papveraceae somniferum) growing in the street, June 2020.

Bees buzz in my London street once more. Foxgloves line our road in May – for the first time since the 1840s when this part of the city was still a network of fields between Kentish and Camden Town.

It’s taken three years to understand what rewilding can mean in the city – meadows not lawns, aim for zero-waste, minimal watering, maximum wildlife, feed the soil not plant and forage plants from friends.

It all started when I had a sudden supply of plants. My parents had lived in Cumbria for 37 years but, after the death of my father, my mother had decided to sell their house and move to be close to her family in London.

My parents’ garden in the Lake District, in 2015, on which I worked for 37 years.

It was on the very last day that I thought of taking some of the plants with us. I only had a tiny garden so what was I to do with them?

The solution seemed obvious. What about putting the plants in the tree pits – that is the area in the pavement into which a street tree is planted – of the six Amelanchier trees on our side of the street.

At that time, the tree pits were a mess. with people dumping rubbish and dogs fouling them. It’s a tough environment for plants.

The trees suck up every drop of moisture in the soil over the summer. If it does rain, rarely enough falls through the leaves to the ground below unless it is a thunderstorm.

The tree pits are a pretty inhospitable environment for plants.

The soil itself is often brought in by contractors from elsewhere to fill the hole, soon losing any organic matter it might once have had.

The plants also have to survive the passersby with their scooters and shopping. And, sadly, some vandalism.

The very first two tree pits, filled with plants from my parents’ garden in the Lake District, August 2016.

I started by planting in the two tree pits closest to our front door with red bistort (Persicaria amplexicaulis), perennial geranium, daisies, fennel and granny bonnets.

I filled any gaps with a tray of lobelias, bought from a local nursery. Almost immediately, the plants flourished, and the litter and the dog fouling reduced.

I extended my guerilla gardening from two to six tree pits the following year.

I quickly expanded the guerilla gardens in the tree pits from the original three to six, August 2017.

But there was always something nagging at the back of my mind as I poured water in to what are in fact cracks in the pavement.

  • Are these the right plants to be growing if they need so much water?
  • What can I do with the soil so that it better retains the moisture?
  • Are annuals bought from nurseries worth the cost of single-use and recyclable plastic pots?
Foxgloves flower in our street in London, probably for the first time since the area was once open fields in the 1840s.

It’s taken me a couple of years to discover the answers to some of those questions. But, in doing so, I’ve come to an approach that I describe as rewilding the city.

The organisation Rewilding Britain has four principles for rewilding.

People, communities and livelihoods are key

Rewilding is a choice of land management. It relies on people deciding to explore an alternative future for the land and people.”

What this means in the city…

  • Motivate family, friends, neighbours and the wider community to volunteer their time and effort to support rewilding the city.

Work at nature’s scale

“Rewilding needs sufficient scale so that nature can reinstate natural processes and create ecologically coherent units.”

What this means in the city…

  • Create wildlife corridors along the streets by planting tree pits with plants that attract pollinators and require little management.

Natural processes drive outcomes

“Rewilding is not geared to reach any human-defined optimal point or end state. It goes where nature takes it. “

What this means in the city…

  • Aim for minimal interference focusing on what wants to grow and not what I want to grow.
  • Be as proud of a bee, a funghi or a worm cast as the perfect flower or foliage.

Benefits are for the long term

“Rewilding is an opportunity to leave a positive legacy for future generations. It should be secured for the long term. “

What this means in the city…

  • Plants foraged from friends with gardens nearby or from tree pits (after asking permission) in nearby streets and grown from seeds or cuttings.
  • Avoid buying plants from nurseries, many of which have been raised in carbon-intensive greenhouses, sprayed with chemicals, come in single-use plastic and are utterly unsuitable to most locations let alone a tree pit.
  • Spend the winter feeding the soil – not the plants – by mulching with whatever is available – while also avoiding carbon-intensive deliveries or the plastic bags mulch arrives in – such as rotted manure from the local city farm, leaf fall from the streets in autumn, débris from scarifying the meadow.
One of the original two tree pits in its fourth year. I water increasingly little each year.

AND FINALLY

Of course, I do not have the herds of bison or ponies to help the process of natural regeneration as Isabella Tree writes about so brilliantly in Wilding.

But, on a summer’s evening, you can see bees buzzing in guerilla gardens in the tree pits and as you plant bulbs in the winter, you can see worms in the soil.