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Award Winning Wildlife Gardeners

Case study ~ Creating a 'limestone quarry' habitat in a suburban back garden

A four year case study on creating a south facing ‘limestone quarry’ habitat bank in an average town garden.

In 2009 I had the opportunity to turn what was effectively an area of waste ground (concrete) that had been used as utility/storage for a number of years into a habitat for wildlife.

The area wasn't huge; roughly 4m x 2.5m, but I wanted the new space to be as beneficial to wildlife as possible, and require very minimal maintenance.

With an existing wildlife pond in place, along with a small native hedgerow, perennial wildflower meadow, stone and log piles and nettle patch, I had the idea of creating an interesting space almost entirely from recycled materials and waste products.

With the area facing South and receiving a good deal of sunshine most of the year and being very sheltered, I knew this could be ideal for growing nectar plants that would not only look good but be beneficial for pollinating insects. I looked at the existing concrete footing carefully and wondered if it could be recycled in any way? It was at this point I had the vision of a South facing 'limestone quarry' inspired habitat.

I made the decision to break up most of the concrete and pile it up to form the base of a bank running along the North side of the area, giving the project an interesting feel now the topography was altered. I cleared away any invasive roots and laid down some weed control membrane once the whole site had been firmed down.

With the area prepared I needed the top layer of aggregate, the 'planting medium', and a trip to a local quarry to source a waste limestone was in order. This very dusty type of product can usually be collected from quarries cheaply as it often can't be used in most applications as a true product, and my couple of tons was sat at the edge of the quarry gathering dust. The same principals here apply to chalk, sand and other interesting aggregates that could be utilised in this type of project.

I spread the limestone over the area at a depth of around 10cm (4in) and then walked over it to consolidate before planting.

I chose a mixture of lime loving plants that would thrive in this well drained, dry and alkaline environment. Years of studying these types of plants in limestone quarries and grassland and the invertebrates that visit them made the selection process easy enough. With the plants in and some native grass seed sown and well watered by the end of September, it was a case of waiting until the following spring to see how they would settle in.

By early April 2010 the plants were greening up nicely, having put down a good root system throughout the damper months.

Towards the end of May the horseshoe vetch was in full flower, one of my favourite wildflowers, and if you take the time to get down to it's low level and smell the flowers they have a wonderful fragrance.

Kidney vetch was also flowering, a biennial capable of colonising disturbed and loose scree slopes; quarries and road verges make excellent habitat for this species.

By the middle of June, a second biennial was flowering spectacularly on top of the bank. Vipers bugloss, in my opinion the best nectar plant you can grow for many species of bees. They look beautiful too, with towering columns of blue flowers that can reach quite a height in fertile soils.

Birdsfoot trefoil, a brilliant nectar plant and foodplant for common blue butterflies (and many other insects) was now flowering too, along with the gorgeous sub-shrub that is rockrose.

2011 saw the first flowering of clustered bellflower, a lovely native campanula that flowers upright in deep blue purple bells.

Ladys bedstraw had grown well and was now adding to the yellows of further kidney vetch, horseshoe vetch, birdsfoot trefoil and rockrose.

By mid July the area was washed with soft shades of pale pink with the clusters of wild marjoram, pulling in scores of pollinating insects.

By summer 2012 the grasses were starting to show through, with sheeps fescue forming good tussocks. This really added to the quarry feel, where after a few years plants and grasses begin to really take hold. Ox eye daisies were prominent too.

In 2013 there was a spectacular show of vipers bugloss, and wild strawberry was so prolific I was able to pick handfuls of fruit whilst spending time there.

This factor has been the most interesting for me throughout the project; what started as a sparsely planted bank of limestone with almost no vegetation has in just four years become a green area now sprinkled with invading ox eye daisies with only a few barer patches.

This type of habitat can be created in a small area in any garden, so long as there is sufficient sunlight to attract the more specialist hole nesting bees and wasps that favour hot bare ground.

So next time you visit species rich limestone or chalk grassland, a sheltered coastal sand dune or perhaps a moorland bank purple with heather, remember, with a little thought you can recreate these wonderful wild habitats right on your doorstep!

Text and images by Jim Ashton