Rewilding the Garden

Context

I’d like to introduce you to where I live from the point of view of birds flying high above. Google Earth satellite image data reveals it to look something like this:

It’s been farmed for over 300 years by European settlers and their descendants on an island in the St. Lawrence River considered to be the cradle of the colony of New France in North America. During that time, previous generations worked tirelessly to convert raw nature in the form of meadow and woodland into productive farm land to support their families. The testament to their hard work is legible in the landscape in the long strips of agricultural fields which now primarily compose the landscape.

Here’s how this pattern of cultivation looks when zoomed out when scaled across a larger nearby landscape:

I honor the work and intention which went into this pushing of “wild” nature back to the woods and edges, but simultaneously recognize that the fundamental conditions under which we live are dramatically different from those of the generations whose toil shaped this landscape. It’s my goal to introduce a different pattern into the mix, and maybe point another way forward which addresses the concerns of today — which include but are certainly not limited to vanishing wildlife, diminishing wetlands, depletion of agricultural lands, and risks associated with Climate Change.

Even if the only area upon which I can have an impact is relatively small in the grand scheme of things (see the two yellow rectangles), it’s a good start:

In fact, if we zoom out much more on this map, these two fields comprising some 62,500 square feet of “wild garden” all but disappear. Viewed from high above, it seems almost insignificant as a gesture relative to the problems facing us on a global scale. But we must work with what we have available to us in life, and find ways to maximize the impacts of the efforts each is able to undertake.

Wild Certification

With that in mind, I share my application materials for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife-Friendly Habitat Certification, in the hopes that the work I’ve done can have an impact above and beyond all the species of birds, and insects, trees, flowers, and plants who have come to call it home. You can bring a lot of wildness back even into much smaller spaces (a 62,500 sq. ft. garden is actually pretty big when viewed from the ground), and their Gardening for Wildlife program gives ideas and pointers on how anyone can get into the action.

It may sound silly, but one of my drivers in getting this certification is so that I can buy and install signage which indicates why the wild cultivation areas I’m working with are special. As Rebecca Hosking points out in her excellent article on Agriwilding, humans are a keystone species as well. If we can influence human imagination and behavior in positive directions, it’s possible that the resulting changes over time could be vast — but only if we try.

Requirements

According to the CWF site, eligibility requirements are actually very few (certainly much less strict than organic requirements):

“You must have one or more sources of water, food and shelter in your garden and use earth-friendly gardening practices to maintain it.”

Garden Map

Included below for reference is a scale rendering of how the two adjoining gardens are laid out. On all sides of this are large conventionally-farmed agricultural fields.

Garden Description

We are on an island in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. The garden spans our property and part of the family property next door, all of which is surrounded by conventional agricultural lands under 3 year rotations of corn, oats & potatoes. There are ponds and larger wooded areas not far away, as well as access to the shoreline of the river.

After having worked extensively on organic farms and running my own break-even small natural farm business for a year (microgreens, herbs, wild edibles, eggs & poultry) a few years back, I transitioned to practicing a much less labor-intensive but equally rewarding experimental system of what I call “Wild Cultivation” on about 62,500 square feet of maintained garden, along with adjoining edge areas. This includes primarily biodiverse test plantations and semi-random assemblages of a combination of perennial culinary and other herbs, mixed grains, wild flowers, wild edible plants, and native grasses. There are also fruit trees of between 2 and five years of age, along with an assortment of berries.

Harvesting is extremely minimal, and outside of personal occasional use, everything is left to flower, go to seed, and not cut at the end of the season. The maintenance that I do during the green season is mowing the pathways about every 7–10 days during summer. There is no watering of the garden outside of rainfall. I’m trying to establish plants in the landscape which will persist on their own and reproduce without human intervention. Having made more money in my trial commercial season as a forager than as a grower, I aim to encourage naturalization of normally cultivated species, and the growth of beneficial and edible wild plants for personal and family harvest, and possibly very light commercial use as a sideline/hobby down the road (such as dried herbal teas, for example).

One of my main interests is radically stocking the soil seed bank with many types of seeds continuously year after year, so that the land will have many options from which to choose in its growth expressions as the system modulates over time, and attracts and interacts with other species of wildlife. I intervene in the meadow-style sections very minimally, except to remove plants I consider noxious for this close to the house, as in burdock or similar spiny plants. I’m slowly watching the ecological succession process of the two largest plots toward their next stage of development under my quasi-wild cultivation system, but will prevent them from transitioning to a forest. I’d like to take the observations and learnings from these plots over time and try to apply them on larger scales to rehabbing and rewilding nearby intensively-farmed agricultural fields.

Landscape Features

I’ll include elements here from the CWF application page which are relevant to either my garden, or it’s immediate environs.

✅ Shoreline — River (St. Lawrence is not far away)
✅ Pond or other wetland (nearby after an adjoining field)
✅ Forest or wooded area (nearby after an adjoining field)
✅ Meadow or prairie (two large plots indicated in the garden chart)
✅ Farmland (monoculture fields in 3 year rotations surround the area)

Note: I’m actually uncertain whether “Farmland” is really a desirable landscape trait within the context of restoring wild areas, but I won’t bother getting bogged down in that debate too much here. I guess it rather depends on the type of cultivation going on. In the way I’m envisioning it, the farmland would be more of the ‘blank slate’ from which restorative/regenerative wild cultivation springs forth.

Food Sources

Flowering plants (for nectar and pollen):

  • Huge assortment of perennial herbs, wildflowers, and wild edible plants
  • Flowering shrubs, fruit trees and other flowering trees (such as linden), willow

Fruit and berry producing plants:

  • Apple, pear, plum, peach, kiwi, raspberry, blueberry, grape, strawberry, wild strawberry, black & red currant

Nut or seed producing plants (left on the plant):

  • All herbs, mixed grains, wildflowers, and other plants are left to go to seed, with only very minimal hand harvesting for occasional use.

Water

Bird bath
✅ Shallow dish with perching stones for beneficial insects (will add perching stones)
✅ Pond with sloped sides and/or perches for wildlife

Notes: Hand-made shallow concrete bird baths and bowls collect and store rain water. Not far away is a small pond fed by a spring, and a bit further the river shoreline.

Shelter

✅ Evergreen trees or shrubs
✅ “Wild” areas of tall grass
✅ Brush piles
✅ Logs
✅ Host plants for caterpillars
✅ Deciduous trees or shrubs
✅ Rock piles
✅ Nesting boxes

How the garden is maintained as an earth-friendly space

✅ Do not use chemical insecticides or pesticides
✅ Use a rain barrel
✅ Use natural soil amendmenst (such as compost or well-aged manure)
✅ Leave grass clippings on lawn
✅ Have my own composter
✅ Use fall leaves to mulch beds or as compost

Notes: The criteria in this section are, in my eyes, somewhat deficient. One of the options it includes which I have not checked is “Water my lawn no more than once per week if necessary.” I’ve never watered my lawn, and never had to. I don’t water the garden whatsoever. (In fact, I follow Ken Shepard’s “STUN” method: sheer total utter neglect. If it can’t survive on its own in our garden it’s not meant to be.) There are a great many other criteria which I think could be included here in a more comprehensive certification, but I’ll continue working to expand on these ideas and will post on that another time.

Wild Animals Spotted

Some wildlife species that have visited the property:

  • Grey partridge
  • Turtle dove
  • Chickadee
  • Finch
  • Swallow
  • Monarch butterfly
  • Skunk
  • Toad
  • Starling
  • Owl (type unidentified)
  • Eagle or falcon (type unidentified)

Photos

I have at this point I’m sure hundreds of photos from the last 8 or so years since I began gardening in this area. But I’ll only include some special highlights from this year as a conclusion to this application.

I hope it inspires you too to help make the world around you a little more wild!

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