By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
The urban gardener can now make even the smallest outdoor space a haven for wildlife, and buy in ladybirds, bumblebees and worms. Can suburbia rival the countryside for biodiversity?
With 15 million nationwide, the UK's domestic gardens cover an area greater than all of the designated National Nature Reserves in the country, according to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
And far from just manicured lawns and gnomes, many of them are being transformed into eco-friendly wildlife havens. Dumped are the packets of pesticides, instead it's pots of natural predators, such as ladybirds, that are flying off garden centre shelves.
Experts now think domestic gardens can provide richer habitats for wildlife and biodiversity than many found in nature. Research has also found while species are disappearing from the countryside, there has been a rise in diversity in the nation's backyards.
Eco-friendly all the rage
Up until now suburbia had been largely ignored by ecologists, and more was known about the world's remotest regions than the UK's own backyards. But recent studies have discovered domestic gardens are not the wildlife deserts many people assume.
The study of just one Leicester garden designed to attract wildlife recorded more than 2,200 animal and plant species.
A species of lichen - an organism that is a combination of fungus and algae - never previously recorded, along with an extremely rare moth which only breeds on juniper bushes, were discovered by the Bugs (Biodiversity in Urban Gardens in Sheffield) project.
Bumblebee nests are now available at garden centres
Run by Sheffield University, Bugs researched 61 different sized gardens in the city. It found that gardens rival the countryside as the most important habitat for wildlife. For the gardens studied include 250,000 ponds, 45,500 nest boxes and 360,000 trees over three metres tall - more than are found in equivalent areas of countryside.
A second project is now underway, recording gardens in four UK cities.
"Collectively domestic gardens are the largest nature reserve we have but no one really knows much about them," says Alison Loran, researcher with the second Bugs project.
She says people have the mistaken idea that domestic gardens are not important ecologically because they are often highly cultivated and full of species bought in garden centres which aren't native to the UK.
"But they are extremely important and their significance will continue to grow as urbanisation spreads. Owners of tiny gardens might not think their little patch of land is important, but linked to all their neighbours it becomes part of a large area of green space which species move between."
Green and pleasant land
The RHS says with a diverse combination of plants a garden can provide richer habitats for wildlife than the countryside. It is conducting its own major survey of gardens as part of its Wild About Gardens campaign with the Wildlife Trusts.
"Gardening for wildlife has gained popularity over the past few years," says Simon Thornton-Wood, assistant director of Science and Learning for the RHS.
"Research into the environmental value of domestic gardens has given us the popular blueprint for wildlife gardening, but research is still in its infancy and there is much we don't know about species and about local wildlife."
Popularity of green gardening methods means species in gardens are set to become even more diverse. According to the RHS, younger gardeners are leading the way. It says that 75% of gardeners aged between 15 and 34 refuse to use any form of pesticides.
ECO TIPS FOR GARDENERS
Hang up bird and bat boxes and homes for individual wasps
Leave piles of decaying wood
Plant a tree that will grow over two metres
Plant different levels
On average £2.6bn a year is spent on gardening products, so shops have had to respond to the eco-friendly demand.
Ladybird houses, feeders and the little bugs themselves now appear on garden centre shelves and are available by post, along side bumblebee nest boxes, supplied in sizes suitable for even the smallest gardens.
"We are no longer talking about niche markets; these product are in ordinary shops and more and more people are using them," says Ms Loran.
The rewards of an ecologically-friendly garden are great for the gardener as well as wildlife, according to environmental broadcaster Chris Baines.
"Nature on the doorstep is a lifesaver," he says. "At the end of a stressful day, just a few minutes in the garden, surrounded by birdsong, butterflies and the buzz of the bees, and I'm a new man.
"Gardening with nature can make an enormous contribution to conservation, but sharing our million acres of domestic gardens with wildlife can also bring huge benefits for people."
Your pictures of biodiversity in your garden:
This Robin came to "help" while I was digging in my London garden...
This is a baby rabbit sampling the lettuces and radishes we grow in pots on our patio. The rabbit thinks, and we agree, that home-grown vegetables cannot be beaten for taste.
I live in a flat in Belfast and although I don't have a garden I do have a small balcony. Here I grow a variety of food and ornamental plants organically, including lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, herbs, nasturtiums and French marigolds. The variety of creatures that have made their home here is astonishing! Beetles, spiders, caterpillars, centipedes and unfortunately slugs and snails are just some of the creepy crawlies I have spotted.
My plants grow in compost made from kitchen waste made by my wormery.
George Lyttle, Belfast
This unfortunate frog was accidentally disturbed while we were digging out the roots of a very old fuschia bush on a scorching summer day in 2004. Frogs and toads are fairly frequent night visitors to our small flowerbeds and patio and are sometimes found hiding under paving stones. This frog was photographed after being released near a shady rock pile behind our shed.
I watched this damsel Fly hatch from my pond, and it happily flitted around my pond all day ¿ before being eaten by a Blackbird.
This is a green-veined white butterfly (I think!) feeding on lavender, a picture I snatched from someone elses front garden on a hot day last August. It was taken in Penn, Buckinghamshire.
We had a blackbird boom during 2004, with several pairs nesting locally and feeding in our back garden. This single chick persisted in begging for far longer than usual and was enormous by the time its frantic parents finally started ignoring it!
Is this what we want with biodiversity? As spotted in my Harlow garden last summer...
This picture is of a spider which took up residence in our lean-to greenhouse. Throughout last summer it and numerous companions (including hover flies, ladybirds, and parasitic wasps) meant that we had no pest problems, and no need to spray. We even had a nearby bee hive pollinating our flowers.
All this life in a 4 X 2 metre greenhouse.