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Wildlife Gardening for Balconies and Gardens

By Fleur Pavlidis
Photos by Martinos Gaethlich

Every available chair was taken for a lecture at Sparoza by MGS member Martinos Gaethlich, a specialist in Greek flora and fauna as well as a keen gardener, who combines his interests through wildlife gardening. Martinos's examples and many of his slides were drawn from his two "gardens", one an 11 square metre balcony in the centre of Athens and the other a 5 acre plot on the Cycladic island of Syros.


Pied Wagtail - Motacilla alba - on the shallow beach of a pond.

He started the talk by explaining that all forms of wildlife have four basic requirements: food, water, shelter and breeding sites. Although people wanting to attract wildlife usually think in terms of providing food, in our conditions the first priority should be the provision of water. A water feature, no matter how small, will attract numerous creatures, some to drink, some to wash and some to take up residence. A patch of mud is similarly useful, both to butterflies for drinking and to birds building nests.


Comma butterfly - Polygonia c-album - on a thistle head.

But food of course is a great attractor. From the autumnal garden, Martinos had gathered a selection of common berried plants which birds feed on: pyracantha, Duranta repens, Lantana camara, ivy, myrtle and privet. He also explained that by leaving a part of our gardens 'untidy' where the thistles, grasses and other wild plants could grow and seed, we would be providing both food for birds, butterflies and other insects and habitats for the caterpillars and insects. Once we became interested in gardening for wildlife, our old anthropomorphic prejudices against some forms of life, e.g. caterpillars and other grubs and larvae, would be transformed. Even if we didn't learn to love them we would welcome them as food for our birds. One slide from Martinos's balcony showed a regular guest, a male blackbird with a white tail feather, with a beakful of caterpillars carefully harvested from the potted garden and destined for chicks in a nearby nest.


A blackbird - Turdus merula - collects caterpillars from a balcony in central Athens.

Left to their own devices, several species of birds will take up residence round our houses, for instance swallows under balconies and sparrows under eaves. With a little help, mostly involving leaving suitable habitats like old holey trees and crumbling dry-stone walls alone, gardens can provide a haven of shelter and breeding sites. In small gardens where opportunities for nesting sites are few, specially built nesting boxes can encourage the less shy birds to raise their families. Martinos decried the fashion among Greek architects to recommend, or at least not oppose, the 'bare ground' policy of creating gardens around new villas. Bulldozers move in and clear the site of all vegetation as a precursor to planting a 'garden'. The destruction of wildlife habitats involved is tremendous as in nature no area is without its residents from owls nesting high up in trees to lizards and geckos between rocks and solitary bees in any available hole. An eco-system takes years to mature and instant gardening based on a policy of planting large plants and trees is a poor approximation.


Painted Ladies - Cynthia cardui - on the wild Heliotropium europaeum.


A Tawny Owl - Strix aluco - in a plane tree - Platanus orientalis in an Athens suburban street.

Wild flowers are an obvious source of food for wildlife, but as gardeners we want to plant our pots and beds with flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals from all the mediterranean regions. Martinos illustrated how many imported flowers provide nectar for butterflies and bees. Buddlejas are a well-known favourite and some, like Buddleja 'Lochinch' and the winter flowering B. officinalis are quite drought resistant. For pots the Freylinia lanceolata makes a handsome plant and butterflies love the autumn flowers with their bleachy smell. The fact that we would naturally select plants which fill the garden with year-round colour means that our garden residents and visitors will always find somewhere to feed.


A pot-grown Buddleja officinalis attracts a Painted Lady -
Cynthia cardui - to a balcony in central Athens.

Gardening for wildlife adds an extra dimension to the enjoyment of our gardens and Martinos's enthusiasm made many converts at the lecture. He is also writing a booklet about wildlife gardening, which will be one of a series of gardening and garden design booklets to be produced by the Greek branch.


A collared dove - Streptopelia decaocto - eating seeds from a sunflower.

 

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