Guardians of Greenery

Catherine Tidnam, St James’s Gardener, explains how we achieved Green Flag Status.

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When I first started looking after the Southwood Garden, 10 years ago this August, the garden had only recently been replanted. As a result there was very little mass of vegetation and none between the ground and the high canopies of the London plane trees which surround the garden. This meant birds, as they moved about the garden, were exposed with nowhere to hide. They love a thicket of leaves and stems to feed, shelter and nest in. So we added some fast growing hedging and vigorous climbers and adopted a pruning regime which allowed the shrubs to grow tall and mesh with each other. We also retained the lower growth on one of the trees, a Box Elder (Acer negundo), during routine tree works. All of this created a hierarchy of vegetation.

Different species nest at different heights. Our wrens, for example, are nesting in one of the climbers – Mile a Minute (Fallopia baldschuanica – something I probably wouldn’t plant again as it does take off!) and the robins in the ivy (Hedera helix) along Jermyn Street. Meanwhile our magpies, nesting 15 metres above the ground are big and aggressive enough to cope with the exposure and ward off predators.

At the ground level we have created mini-habitats, for example, logs sunk into the earth or piles of sticks and branches place on top of the ground. Buried wood encourages beetles as the wood rots and moisture is retained. Wood lying on top of the ground dries out and creates nooks and crannies for certain spiders, woodlouse and other invertebrates. We aren’t just creating a single token pile there are multiple piles tucked here and there, created as I prune or cut back. This keeps any wildlife lurking in the clippings close to where they were living rather than removing them to another place where you process the green waste for a compost heap.

The leaves from the plane trees which fall pretty much constantly throughout the year, are left on the beds. They are removed from the paving, the front of the beds, shrubs and if they are preventing young plants accessing light. Keeping the ground covered with leaves keeps moisture in the ground and keeps the soil surface open and crumbly which then allows any rain that falls a better chance of being absorbed. The leaves also provide food for detritivores such as slugs and snails, earthworms, millipedes and woodlice. These then provide rich pickings for birds. Both the wood piles and leaving the leaves encourages beneficial mycorrhizal fungi which help plants access nutrients in the soil.

We have a comprehensive composting system with two bins for leaf mould, two closed ones for all garden waste plus two hot bins for kitchen waste. All of these are teeming with life. They also, of course, reduce waste going to landfill.

All new plants are selected on environmental criteria, such as being good for pollinators. The garden is a dry shady spot and the choice of bee-friendly plants is more limited. However, the majority of our flowering plants are bee-friendly. The Japanese anemone (Anemone japonica) which flowers in the late summer, is beloved by bumble bees, whilst the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) was full of bees in July. Letting the mint (Menta, various species) in the pots around the caravan and the lemon balm ( Melissa officinalis) self-seeded in the beds, flower, also provides a popular source of mid to late summer nectar and the Sweet winter box (Sarcococca confuse) provides a food source in winter.

Water in the garden boosts biodiversity but our containerised pond didn’t do well so we replaced it with a bog garden. We now have four and they are planted with marsh marigolds, whose flowers in spring shine like a handful of gold, and purple loosestrife. Purple loosestrife is a very upright plant and the dead stems and seedheads are attractive and remain upright so we don’t cut them down but leave them for another season for wildlife to hide amongst or lay their eggs in. We water our bog containers with rainwater we collect in water butts. We leave pots and buckets with standing water in around the shed area. Even mosquito larvae are valuable as they provide food for creatures further up the food chain, for example, dragonflies, one of which I spotted last week.

As you can see, encouraging biodiversity in your garden is not just about what you plant but how you garden. It is about getting to know who lives in your green space, what their life cycles are, what they need to flourish and how they interact with each other.

We are delighted to be awarded a Green Flag Award for 2023/2024. The news that we have achieved this accreditation – the international quality mark for parks and green spaces – is a testament all those at St James’s who help maintain the green space and keep it clean and tidy so that everyone can enjoy it.

The Green Flag judge commented: “St James’s Church, Piccadilly is a magical green site, offering beauty and quiet reflection within the busy urban West End. Careful and thoughtful management and maintenance is clearly working to deliver a high-quality experience for users.

The Green Flag Award scheme, managed by environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy under licence from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, recognises and rewards well-managed parks and green spaces, setting the benchmark standard for the management of green spaces across the United Kingdom and around the world.

St James’s Church sees the garden as an opportunity to cherish nature and encourage biodiversity and the Green Flag Award team recognised this: “The practical small-scale, ‘take home’ measures for mitigating the impacts of the climate and biodiversity emergencies are particularly inspiring.

Where Green Excellence Thrives

Wood stack sunk into the earth.

Sticks piled next to a compost bin. Bumble bees nested underneath the sticks one year.

Once these hollow stems dry out they make a good location for some wild bee to lay their eggs in.

Leaves of the plane trees are left on the soil and only removed at the edges of the bed and/or to allow light to reach plants underneath them.

This year we have seen lots of wrens in the garden – more than one family. They have survived the presence of magpies.

We leave saucers of water out not only for the birds but also bees and other insects. The lack of rain in June was a threat to any chicks that were born then.

Seasonal pots by Piccadilly Gates – all new plants are selected on an environmental criteria. The pots at the entrance to the courtyard are no exception using popular bee friendly annuals and perennials.

The scabious is particularly popular with honeybees.

We were surprised that the peruvian lily (alstroemeria) attracted bees in this instance, a carder bee.

This photo shows the hierarchy of vegetation we have achieved which creates an attractive environment for wildlife.

Marsh marigold in containerised bog garden.