Jackie Isard: My wild patch. I've also bought seeds to sow this autumn. Can't wait until next year! via Facebook
The 31 January 2011 will always be a red-letter day for me, being the date that I not only officially became a home-owner but also unofficially became a gardener as well.
Having spent the previous decade ensconced in our urban flat, while fervently dreaming of both more space and a simpler living, my partner Christina and I were finally able to realise our much anticipated move to the country.
Jettisoning city living for country life, we had plumped for the rural idyl of a small village in the heart of the Chew Valley, some 9 miles to the south of the city of Bristol.
The house we had just purchased could at best be described as "unprepossessing". Empty for the best part of a year prior to us moving in, the unremarkable ex-council property certainly had limited kerb-appeal. But the drab pebbled-dashed semi located at the bottom of a quiet cul-de-sac was in fact obscuring a secret - that of the delightful garden to the rear.
Like both the interior and exterior of our new home, the outdoor space had a forlorn and abandoned look about it, but to a couple seeking to create their very own nature reserve in miniature, 1 thing the garden patently had in spades was potential.
While still a substantial size when compared to the often minimal green spaces surrounding many newly built houses these days, by no definition could our new garden be called huge.
Shaped like a pair of bell-bottom jeans, with the house at the hips and a delightful babbling brook where 2 platform shoes would have been, the entirety of the garden was no larger than the average village hall, or the equivalent of a tennis court and a half.
As all estate agents will tell you, the 3 most important factors when buying a house are location, location and location - and in my opinion this proclamation is equally applicable to gardens too.
With large rural gardens flanking on either side, our newly-acquired green real estate certainly looked well positioned to receive a whole variety of wild guests if we could release the shackles.
Being the bloke off the telly who espouses the value of nature on your own doorstep to anyone willing to listen, I was also very aware that I needed to be seen to be practising what I actually preached.
The other compelling reason of course for wanting to create a wildlife-friendly garden was that I had been commissioned to write a book about the project (entitled My Garden and Other Animals) and patently needed some content. So by conveniently ignoring the fact that our house was barely habitable, we set about turning the garden around with gusto.
During the course of that first spring we put busy bees to shame as we poured all our spare time, effort and money into making our garden the ultimate des res for a cornucopia of wildlife.
Jobs included digging a pond, constructing 2 huge herbaceous borders, building compost bins and bug hotels, planting fruit trees, erecting feeders and nest-boxes and the leaving aside of half a tennis court furthest from the house for the creation of a meadow.
Alongside our earnest toil in the garden we also charted everything that ran, walked, crawled or flew into our garden in order to measure the success of the work.
What became immediately obvious was how even apparently modest undertakings will make your garden vastly more attractive to wildlife. Our pond, for example, was only around 3 metres long by 1 metre across, but within 24 hours of filling it with water it had been discovered by pond skaters.
In fact the pond was such a hit that by the end of the summer we’d managed to record a grand total of 9 species of dragonflies and damselflies paying our garden a visit that would have otherwise given us a wide berth.
While the addition of water, nectar and pollen was highly likely to bring pretty instant and astonishing results, the meadow project by contrast was always going to be more of a marathon than a sprint.
The creation of a wildflower meadow is notoriously difficult, because in order to increase floral diversity of native plants you need to drive down the levels of nutrients in the soil so that the plants can (if you’ll pardon the pun) compete on a level playing field wth the opportunistic weeds and grasses.
However this often contrasts with other habitats in the garden, where the application of fertiliser and soil improvers is an essential prerequisite for many exotic flowers and shrubs to flourish.
One quick way to lower nutrient levels when constructing a meadow is to simply strip away the rich top-soil responsible for tipping the balance towards the botanical bully boys.
However this can be both a costly and time-consuming affair, so Christina and I decided to go initially for the non-interventionist route of observing what species were already present before then formulating our plan to increase diversity. As that first spring took hold and a whole suite of flowers took it in turns to move centre stage, we were, to say the least, delighted with what was already present.
Following quick on the heels of an early strong showing of snowdrops in February, the next flower to surprise us was lesser celandine. Emerging on mass, this hardly little herald of spring has green heart-shaped leaves and dazzling buttercup-yellow flowers. Showing best on fine spring mornings, their flowers look like mini-satellite dishes as they seemingly track the sun across the sky.
Peaking slightly later than the celandines, the sheer quantity of primroses which then made an appearance blew us away. With their pale yellow flowers emanating en masse from a host of shaggy clumps dotted across the meadow, from a distance it looked like large dollops of clotted cream had been spooned out around our garden.
If we were thrilled with the primroses then the appearance of a small patch of snake’s-head fritillaries was perhaps the biggest surprise of all. The expert jury is still out as to whether this is actually a native British plant or merely a very ancient introduction, but what is surely indisputable is that it is one of our most attractive and distinctive wildflowers.
With their purple-chequered blooms gently nodding in the breeze, the discovery of the fritillaries felt like the jewel in the crown of the marvellous spring meadow we had just inherited.
With the arrival of summer we discovered with a small measure of disappointment that the meadow had already peaked floristically, and as the spring blooms faded the grasses began to dominate.
However this green monoculture was not entirely without merit, as it was able to offer both a rich hunting ground for the newly acquired frogs from our pond and also provide plenty of suitable material on which the brown butterflies could lay their eggs.
Desperate to keep the meadow in good condition, each August I dust off my scythe in order to prepare it for the year ahead. The meadow’s short back and sides, combined with the removal of any cut material, is vital in order to allow the more desirable species to flourish while reducing the vigour of those bullying coarse grasses.
In fact last winter I went one step further in combatting the domineering plants by scarifying the meadow before then sowing the native annual wildflower yellow rattle. Yellow rattle is partly parasitic on grasses, so planting it should once again tip the battle in favour of the wildflowers, making our seventh spring here hopefully the best display yet.
Mike Dilger is a naturalist, author, TV presenter and proud supporter of Plantlife.