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Lost, one EU bet; won, a virtual reality garden

Friday 03 June 2005

Countryside commentator John Sheard celebrates losing a bet by feasting on a virtual reality country garden designed with wildlife in mind

I AM not what you would call a betting man. Normally, my annual outlay on wagers runs to a couple of pounds each way on the Grand National. But this week, I lost a fiver - and rejoiced.

As I said last week, I was convinced despite the opinion polls that the French would lose their nerve at the last minute and succumb to a supine Oui vote on the proposed EU constitution. I bet £5 on this with a friend - and never in my life have I handed over a fiver with more pleasure.

Then the Dutch put the boot further into the bloated bureaucrats of Brussels and my joy was complete. It allowed me to concentrate on something really important like gardening - and in particular, gardening in a way that encourages wildlife to thrive.

Lost, one EU bet; won, a virtual reality garden

For through my door dropped an absolute gem from English Nature - sadly, soon to be subsumed into the super-quango Natural England - a CD-Rom called Gardening with wildlife in mind.

Written by the gardening author Chris Baines - who created the first ever wildlife garden at the Chelsea Flower show exactly 20 years ago - it is a mine of information about do's and don's in the garden.

It is aimed at people who want lovely plants, plump vegetables - and the opportunity to forget both and sit back, as I did this week, and watch a peacock butterfly sunning itself on the earth of my (sadly) now largely empty asparagus bed.

The English country garden is at the very heart of this nation's psyche. Most adult people want one, particular townies, as the plethora of TV gardening shows amply proves. Unfortunately, the time demands on modern folk make the long hours of physical effort required to create such an environment a virtual impossibility.

This has led in recent years to a surge in demand for technology and chemistry which take a lot of the hard work out of gardening. But, if not properly used, they can also take a huge toll on the wild creatures and plants which share out gardens with us and make them an even greater pleasure to enjoy.

Slug pellets, everyone should know by now, kill birds, hedgehogs and even frogs and toads, if you are lucky enough to have them in a garden pond. Devices like strimmers can also injure hedgehogs, Mother Nature's natural slug and snail killers, and destroy the habitats of field mice and other small mammals.

Few amateur gardeners understand just how powerful are modern weedkillers. Some years ago, a neighbour of mine new to gardening spent a small fortune having a large lawn luxuriously turfed. Then he sprayed a row of nettles at the bottom of the garden and walked back to the house over the new lawn. Two days later, there was a path of black footprints across his lawn - turf killed stone dead by the traces of spray on his wellies!

Pesticides have in the past done enormous harm to welcome insects like bees, which pollinate our crops, and others which prey on pests like aphids: lady birds, some solitary species of wasps, and even the beautiful lace wing.

My sunbathing peacock butterfly was a joy to behold because I have seen so few in recent years - in fact, at one time, I thought they were extinct in my neighbourhood. Are they making a comeback?

And hopefully, my former neighbour who killed of his expensive lawn no longer sprays his nettle bed: that's where equally gorgeous red admiral butterflies lay their eggs.

The joys of our gardens include not just flowers and veg but the animals that live there. We can derive equal pride from encouraging them as we can from nurturing out plants. By producing their CD, English Nature have done thinking gardeners proud. I hope their successors keep up the good work.

For more details and how to obtain copies of Gardening with wildlife in mind, see www.plantpress.com or email john@plantpress.com

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