So many people see front gardens as a utility area. How many front gardens really are 'gardens' any more?
Drive through villages, towns and especially cities, and you will more than likely be greeted by row after row of paved over, gravelled over, or even tarmac covered unattractive car parks, resembling the complete opposite of a true garden.
Despite the fact that many of us now have several cars per household, meaning that extra space for a vehicle on the front comes in handy, we need to view front gardens as we used to; a space that is green and nice to look at, catches rainwater and boosts wildlife habitat in the places we live.
For five years, at my previous home, I jumped at the chance of creating a show piece wildlife garden at the front of the property, knowing full well how many heads it would turn in a village where people keep things 'neat and tidy'.
I first cleared out the remains of the old garden, a mixture of dying and tired plants, surrounded by various patches of gravel with exposed areas of tatty old weed membrane used many years previously.
With the ground cleared and rotovated, I kept the weeds down until late March, when I was able to sow a cornfield annual mixture which I then walked over to consolidate the ground and aid germination.
The wildflowers soon germinated, with a fine display of colour and nectar available from May through to July.
With the addition of a couple of birdsfoot trefoil plants added along the edge of the path which had a sunny aspect, my plan to encourage six spot burnet moths to set up a colony worked magnificently. One sunny evening in the second year of the project, I counted 26 large larvae on one plant, meaning many adults delighted me for several weeks as they flew dreamily around the front and back garden mating and nectaring in their little oasis surrounded by agricultural fields and fairly poor quality gardens.
Pollinating insect numbers were massively increased, with the hum of bees providing the backdrop of high summer for weeks. Any time I got in or out of my van, or put the wheelie bins out, I could hear the gentle buzzing of bumblebees, honey bees and everything inbetween busily foraging in this new found haven.
At the end of summer I cut down all the vegetation and rotovated the area, sowing fresh seed and once again walking over the ground to bring the seed into good firm contact with the seedbed.
Over the five years I spent repeating this process and renewing this once common arable habitat in a space where many people tried to persuade me to convert it to 'extra parking', I gained a deep respect for our ancient 'arable weeds'. Their ability to so rapidly grow and take advantage of the newly prepared earth, and amaze us with their vivid colours, provide such a wealth of nectar and seed for our wildlife and adapt to such a temporary existence is incredible.
During those five years I had many discussions with the local villagers about the front garden. Initially opinions were split. Some were confused and sceptical, some were delighted.
Several memorable things happened as time progressed. I used the meadow to my advantage for a few weeks one year, advertising an open day with the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust for a wildflower meadow we created for a client by putting up flyers along the edge of the pavement.
A local farmer who lived a few doors down even paid us to make him a similar cornfield meadow in his back garden, and when his daughter married at the local church I looked out the window one morning hearing the church bells to see the bride and bridesmaids having their photos taken with my meadow as a backdrop!
This however is my fondest memory. One elderly couple took photos of the garden and wrote me a letter telling me how it reminded them of their youth when the countrside was filled with these wayside flowers.
The main reason I decided to create this habitat on my front garden, above all the other factors of rainwater catchment, nectar for insects, aesthetics etc. was simple: to inspire people to break the mould and think about doing something that really is worthwhile on their plots. And it worked.
I've still got that letter, and when I move house I have a strong feeling I know what I'll be doing with the front garden . . .
Text and images by Jim Ashton