This video from the Kew Mutual Improvement Society in the U.K. blew my mind a bit and I’m curious to see what you guys think.  It’s an online lecture by John Little, a horticulturist at Royal Gardens Kew, preaching the benefits of structures in new landscapes, before moving on to the unimaginable benefits of removing all topsoil and planting in the sand or clay under it.  For real.

Curiously, the title of the talk is: “Is fly-tipping good for biodiversity? The importance of complexity in new landscape” and it’s described this way on YouTube: “Using brownfield and mineral extraction as our template, we look at the potential of new landscapes to become our next nature reserves. We suggest it’s the complexity of structure, topography and soils that should drive our designs.”

If fly-tipping has you stumped, me, too. Turns out it refers to illegally leaving waste or unwanted objects next to a road, in a field, in a river, etc.  In the photo above, Little compares the shopping cart to shipwrecks in attracting wildlife. And below, a roadside dump of construction debris.

Shaw’s been so impressed by the connection between structural complexity and biodiversity that he believes that structures are as important if not more important for wildlife than the plants. He gives the example of Great Dixter, where he asserts that most of its biodiversity is due to the structures on the grounds.

Say what? Shocking words to us plant people, right? He goes on.  “Everyone’s doing pollen and nectar. What we don’t have is structure.” To which I say thank you for broadening my  perspective, which was apparently too narrow.

The video shows us trash piles on brownfields that provide places for hibernation and nesting. “Rubbish piles are great!” 

This screen shot shows a new landscape with buried nesting materials for small mammals and bumblebees.

“We don’t have enough dead trees.”

Acoustic walls can be filled with sand, creating a great place for bee nests, and plants can trail down from the top. On the right above you see some Gabion cages, which can be filed with free, locally sourced rubble. Another way that structure can be included is by using elevated industrial grates for paths, with plants growing under them.

Vertical Structures for Vines – and Birds

Another tip is to construct railings or privacy fences for vines, and we see a couple harvesting grapes from the vines they trained on a railing. 

Rebar poles and other vertical structures in my back yard. Sept ’23.

Which prompts me to add that vertical structures are important perching opportunities for birds.  I love to see them stopping on my privacy fence, and most of all, on these rebar poles that hold the blank CDs that scare off the deer. (Yes, that’s worked well for three years now.)

But Getting Rid of Topsoil???

 The garden above is growing on construction waste and sand – no topsoil. Little says it’s easy to direct-sow into it because the growing medium has no weeds in it.

Above, with just crushed ceramics and no topsoil, the plants on the right are proof it works, I guess.

Back Gardens Somewhere in the U.K.

Finally, this photo and Little’s comment on it surprised me.  Here in the U.S. we’re used to seeing these small townhouse back yards looking pretty darn barren – mostly lawn, with a few foundation plants, and we shake our heads at its emptyness.

But Little praises the enormous diversity – structural and plant-wise – in this neighborhood, where we see lawn but also lots of shrubs, trees, decks and so on. Each yard different. He declares that there’s more biodiversity in a place like this than in the countryside.

Makes me wish the U.S. had that kind of gardening culture, where people enjoy their little slices of heaven to the utmost.

Hat tip to Ed Snodgrass for turning me on to this video. My recent post about him included Gabion cages and other wildlife-supporting structures.