Nature based solutions in my backyard

Nature based solutions offer a transformative way to solve several of the current crises we are dealing with: climate change, biodiversity loss, health and economy. At their heart, these solutions are about working with nature rather than trying to dominate her or work around her. The International Union for Conservation of Nature defines them as: actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits

Some examples of these types of solutions are restoring peatlands or wetlands in a water catchment so that they hold more water, resulting in reducing flooding risks in towns downstream. Or protecting mangroves or coral reefs to protect coastal communities from storm surges rather than building a wall. These ecosystems also store carbon, so help with mitigating climate change and they have also been found to generate jobs and we are learning all the time how important nature is for our physical and mental health. And they are cheaper to implement than many other climate mitigation options. Of course each solution needs to be thought about carefully, to be beneficial to the local situation and not to cause any unintended consequences.

I’ve just moved house but I’ve spent most of 2020 and the various lockdowns in a small terraced house with tiny front and back gardens. I’ve been thinking about what sort of nature-based solutions I’ve used in the gardens (by chance, I didn’t think of it that way at the time) and what benefits they have had.

I moved into the house about 6 years ago and at the time the front “garden” (approx. 1 m2!) was just gravel and the tiny back garden (approx. 16 m2) was completely paved over.

Over the past 5 years, I have pulled up most of the paving in the back garden and tried to make it wildlife friendly – planting small trees, pollinator friendly plants, not using pesticides, adding a tiny pond and feeding the birds. I got rid of the gravel in the front garden and planted pollinator friendly plants – lavender, rosemary, heather and a pyracantha hedge.

My only concern was to improve it for wildlife but thinking about it as a mini nature-based solution project has got me thinking about the other co-benefits that have come as a result*:   

Biodiversity – it’s easy to observe the increase in biodiversity in the gardens. When it was paved, I remember doing #30DaysWild and only finding a slug and a woodlouse in the back garden. It’s still home to loads of slugs and woodlice but also many species of moths, flies, hoverflies, spiders, aphids, ladybirds, worms and many more bugs that I don’t know about. Birds eat the berries from the cherry tree and the pyracantha and eat insects off the birch trees. The bees feed on the foxgloves, lavender, hebe and many others and butterflies visit the Mexican orange blossom. The tiny pond is home mainly to water mint and water snails!

Carbon – just by planting more trees and plants there will be more carbon captured in the garden than there was before. I also got the soil tested back in the spring which told me the soil had very high organic content at 13%, which translates into 7.55% carbon. Assuming 30cm of top soil, that translates into 29.44kg of carbon per m2 and so my tiny back garden is storing about 0.12 tonnes of carbon in the soil alone+. That’s not going to change the world but I like having a tiny climate benefit by looking after my soil.

Water – by removing paving and introducing soil, plants and some areas of pebbles the garden will absorb more water than when it was paved and reduce run-off into the drains and into the neighbour’s garden. There’s a slope across the garden as the road is on a hill, so no worry about flooding for us but we’re benefiting people down the hill from us by slowing the flow of any rainwater.

Health – the garden has brought me so much joy, particularly this year with spending a lot of time at home. I loved designing it and watching the transformation, and then particularly the joy of seeing different wildlife come to the plants I’d chosen for them. I especially love bumblebees and seeing them visiting foxgloves that I’d planted for them was very pleasing.

It also provided a place of calm in the middle of lockdown and a place for easy, gentle exercise and pottering around without having to leave the house. It also brought me closer to my neighbours – they are much more experienced gardeners than me and it brought us a common interest to bond over.

Jobs – for such a small project, this is a bit of a stretch but…. I did get help from a local garden designer and she also helped to rebuild the walls and fences. I bought plants, seeds, tools and books which contributed to various businesses’ revenues and them employing staff.

Real nature-based solutions are obviously much larger scale than my small garden but I think even a garden can illustrate the benefits of working with nature and all the different positive results from making our spaces greener.

* I did not do any baseline measurement at the beginning so this is just qualitative reflections based on what I can remember observing at the time or imply from what it used to be like

+ Only about 6 m2 of the garden has soil available for planting and that the test would apply to. The paved and pebbled areas also have soil underneath but I don’t know what condition this is in and it’s not included in this calculation.

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