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Why we keep the edges wild . . .

Peacock butterfly

Listen to me read this here

The edges of our garden are wild.

The garden in our deeds is big - about four acres in total - but I deliberately only cultivate a quarter of that and let the rest pretty much do as it will. There is a gravel path that curves down from the end of the vegetable garden to the Studio, and everything beyond that has been left to the plants and animals who were here before us.

The land falls away, through rough, matted nettles, docks and willow herb, through self sown willows and field maple down to a bog of reeds, willow herb and marsh marigolds, to a bluebell wood and burn. I try and resist going down into this part too much - though obviously peak bluebell time is an exception - for it is home to herons and hares, deer and otters, buzzards and voles, newts and frogs.

Over time I can see it gradually returning to forest - the brambles are now protecting seedling trees from the grazing deer and I can see oak, hazel and alder growing up alongside some apple trees I planted when we moved here 18 years ago.

Down the side of the studio path is a big patch of nettles. In the Spring I harvest the nettle leaves to eat or to dye textiles with or to treat my Raynauds . Then I leave them to flower.

Last month the tops of the tallest nettles were swathed in a web - a communal cocoon for clutches of very special eggs - the eggs of the peacock butterfly. The butterflies lay hundreds of eggs on the underside of the nettle leaves, then, when they hatch, the tiny caterpillars spin a communal web that brings the leaves together, giving them a safe place to grow.

This week the cocoons are gone and the nettle stands are mounded instead with tassels of jet black caterpillars.

peacock butterfly caterpillars

In another week they will venture off and pupate. In August the garden will be full of bright wings as they feed before hibernating until the Spring.

Sometimes, rushing, bare legged, I curse at the nettles that wave over onto the paths. But then, if they weren't there so close to where I walk each day, I would not get to see these amazing creatures, crawling and eating their way down the plants. For me the magic of seeing a cycle of life emerge is worth so much more than a designed, decorative, managed bed would be.

I'm not saying that we should all fill our gardens with nettles and I'm very aware that we have a lot of space here, but this is a call for some relaxation around the edges. It doesn't take much.

In the spring my friend Simon made a pond in his London garden. The pond was so small that he got a lot of teasing from his family. It is a beautiful, if admittedly tiny, pond - surrounded by plants, a peaceful spot. On 18th May his wife, delightedly eating her words, messaged me a photo of the first frog that moved in with the caption "How did the frog know the pond was here?". A month later her text read "Massive frog convention" with a photo of 5 pairs of eyes crammed in around the water lily.

It doesn't take much.

Just a little wildness around the edge.

If you would like free downloadable guides to the Folklore and Field Notes of the Peacock Butterfly you can sign up here.

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