If you’re with Auntie Sheila when you get this message, remind her that for Xmas 1976 she bought me this book about woodland insects.
Sheila encouraged me to pursue my interest in nature, saying that a knowledge of pollinators is as important as a knowledge of fruit trees, and that knowing both is the perfect marriage.
I always enjoyed my visits to Sheila and her gardens. At Sandling, her large woodland garden, I remember we discussed gardening with deer, or rather coping with their nighttime raids, and the pros and cons of trying to manage Dutch elm disease with fungicides. At her second garden, it took three years to help her control disease on her peach tree and get it fruiting properly. Her last garden had a wonderful herbaceous border and several enviable heritage fruit trees.
Sheila was so excited when I was admitted as a student at Kew Gardens, she gave me a copy of ‘The Natural History of Selborne‘, an early contribution to ecology and phenology, both of which are now embedded in my everyday gardening and thinking.
Sheila said it appealed to her because it gives insight into what pre-industrial England was like – hard to imagine now – plus it was an ‘entry level’ book for anyone interested in nature. I arrived at Kew Gardens with little botanical knowledge, but that book meant I knew more about gardening for nature than most of the other students.
That book guided me to build the pond system and marsh garden in our London garden where we had frogs, newts, freshwater cockles and mussels breeding. It had chapters helping me to provide food and refuge for hedgehogs, and how best to garden for butterflies, bees and birds.
Her gentle reinforcement to pursue an education in the things that interest me is something I’ll always remember. Sheila was always up to date with botanical discoveries and the latest natural history research, and she keenly sought out rare and useful plants. This guaranteed that we always had deep and meaningful conversations. Sheila always knew what was necessary to solve a problem, the only thing that I could help her with was technique.
As Sheila coached me to, I’ve tried to keep my eyes peeled for something I can do to make a difference to the world around me. At Brockley Nursery, I sought out heritage and rare wild plants to multiply and spread around the parks and gardens of south London. At Wandsworth, I introduced wild food trees, like crabapples, hazel, damson and medlar into the approved trees list for environmental improvements in the urban forest.
At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Australia’s oldest scientific organisation, I initiated the first biodiversity checklist, adding to the bird checklist created by Alan Leishmann. Garden staff could document where, for example, spider wasps have their favourite nursery. It helped us to better manage the botanic estate and to work with, not against, its nature.
There, I made friends with an entomologist at the Australian Museum, and he confirmed the botanic gardens is a custodian – the only place in the entire Sydney basin – to have a colony of the Southern Pearl White butterfly. The native Hibiscus flowers we planted at Lion Gate lodge became the only place where a rare, minuscule rainforest species of (non-destructive) fruit fly lived out its brief life in an urban environment.
Since moving to subtropical Brisbane I have kept a checklist of the animals, big and small, which call my garden home or lunch. There are more than 500 species on my checklist now. I’ve discovered two new species of wasp in my garden. One likes drinking Italian parsley nectar, the other is a hyperparasite. Some of my records of insect finds were useful enough to get into Australia’s national insect archives.
Auntie’s thoughtful gifts, our shared interest in growing beneficial plants and the nature that finds a home in the gardens we grow still helps to shape me.
I even became the world’s foremost photographer of a rare crane fly which lives in my footpath garden.
Say Merry Christmas to Auntie, thank her for listening to this emerging gardener, for the nourishing conversations we always have, and especially for being supportive and thoughtful.
Tell her I miss our gardening conversations.
Love, Jeremy xx
21st December 2014