Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh are missing a crucial point when criticising rewilding gardens

The current debate is distracted by a common misconception about rewilding our gardens.

How would you describe your gardening style? Are you a clipped-lawn lover, tending to every detail of your manicured herbaceous borders? Maybe you’d rather install artificial grass. What about weeds? Some of you may take joy in welcoming them to your patch as tasty snacks for pollinators, while others will reach for the rake. Chances are, whether you’re busy entertaining from an outdoor kitchen or have a balcony, you’ll have heard about the importance of rewilding gardens.  

This naturalistic approach to garden design was one of the major Chelsea Flower Show trends the Saga Exceptional team spotted in 2023. But while many professional gardeners now actively rewild their projects – which includes keeping weeds and prioritising native plants – there’s been animated debate over how effective this approach really is in helping our wildlife. 

Wild gardens at rosemoorCredit: Shutterstock / Peter Turner Photography
Rewilded gardens are a far cry from manicured lawns bordered by neat flowerbeds

Rewilding gardens – a trend or essential work?

It can look different depending on your approach

Rewilding gardens is a huge trend. There are differing interpretations of what rewilding actually looks like (I’ll get into that in a moment). Given its vital role in helping the environment at a time when our relationship with the natural world feels fractured, it’s hard to imagine that it’ll simply be a passing fad. I’ve been trying to rewild my own garden since 2020, with varying degrees of success.

But regardless of any failures, it’s an approach I want to continue with as I’ve seen its benefits first hand. However, it has its detractors. 

Celebrity gardeners are critical of rewilding gardens

Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don have spoken out

Alan Titchmarsh, MBE, inaugurates the RHS Harlow Carr 70th anniversary Summer Flower Show.Credit: Shutterstock / Steve Gill Photography
Alan Titchmarsh looks after his own wildflower meadow at home

The Daily Mail recently reported that Alan Titchmarsh had written to a House of Lords committee, warning that rather than helping boost biodiversity, he believes rewilding in fact “depletes our gardens of their botanical riches”. The news outlet also quoted Monty Don branding the movement as “puritanical nonsense” that shouldn’t be viewed as “worthier” or more “moral” than a traditional garden.

Their strong views could lead you to believe they’re against the principles of rewilding gardens completely. But that’s not the case. Titchmarsh nurtures his own large wildflower meadow at home. And Don has of course championed organic gardening methods for his entire career. They’re hardly wielding weedkiller at the frontline of the hyper-cultivated battlefield and are nationally respected gardeners for good reason.

Yet some of their opinions rely on the assumption that rewilding broadly means leaving swathes of land uncultivated. They also reinforce a false idea that gardening is binary – you’re either rewilding or you’re not. Personally, I don’t see the value in tearing down one approach to validate another. Especially when both styles of gardening are usually trying to achieve the same goal of encouraging plants and wildlife to flourish.

Instead, why not use the influence of these gardening celebrities to change the conversation around rewilding gardens completely? So that it can be engineered to encourage even greater biodiversity?

A misconception about rewilding gardens

It’s not just letting your garden ‘go wild’

Rustic wooden Bench among a field of wildflowers taken in a walled English GardenCredit: Shutterstock / Lorenza Marzocchi
A vibrant wildflower display can take a lot of work to master

I think the reason why the arguments for and against rewilding get muddied lies in the definition. Rewilding is used to describe lots of processes and can easily get lumbered in the “big trends” basket at the checkout, along with buzzwords such as sustainable design. It’s a sweeping statement that I believe is often misunderstood.  

For clarity, the Rewilding Britain organisation defines it as: 

“The large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself.” 

This is big-picture thinking, and our domestic gardens are essential pieces within the puzzle. The keyword here is restoration, which is needed before nature can take care of itself. Rewilding is more complex than simply letting things go wild (though in some cases that’s an important step in the right direction).  

We can learn a lot about a careful, measured approach to rewilding gardens from the principles of permaculture and no-dig gardening. Rather than letting chaos reign in the hope that abundance of foliage and an overreliance on native plants will transform a natural environment for the better, these methods draw on ancient knowledge of the relationships between plants and wildlife. They then utilise this to create and restore ecosystems in the soil, waterways and surrounding air, with no chemical intervention. The plants win. The creatures win.  

Rewilding Britain suggests people can rewild their gardens by not making grass-cutting mistakes, by letting their lawn grow, by creating a pond, cutting hedgehog holes in fences and making organic compost. This is a far cry from simply letting an area grow completely wild and ending up with a tricky monoculture of a few native weeds (though the team does suggest leaving a patch for this).  

What I learnt from rewilding my garden

There’s more work involved than I bargained for

woman wearing gardening gloves pulling at brambles in a gardenCredit: Saga Exceptional / Rosanna Spence
Brambles have always been a huge nuisance in my garden

I’m a fan of traditional techniques and rewilding gardens. And I think gardening culture can thrive by embracing both approaches – even if you only have room for a couple of window boxes at home. 

But for these to work in harmony, you need to properly understand the environment you’re attempting to rewild. I’m still battling the consequences of my own naive, ill-informed attempts at rewilding my huge front lawn and tiered garden to the rear of my house.  

I moved in 2020, and was faced with two large plots rife with thuggish tufts of grass and overgrown with brambles. Aside from some bluebells, there were no flowers, no leaf coverage for birds and nothing to work with.  

After a long summer of clearing brambles and copious wildflower seedball scatterings, I stood back (with the best intentions) and waited for nature to do its thing. Three years later, and my garden is certainly wild, but it’s untameable too. Bindweed smothers my wildflowers, its tendrils creeping among my unmown lawn unnoticed. Despite my efforts to keep slugs out of the garden, their insatiable appetite reigns supreme.  

Cinnabar Moth resting on bright green grass in British garden.Credit: Shutterstock / Mark R Croucher
Cinnabar moths, leafcutter bees and grasshoppers are now a common sight at home

It’s worth it for the wildlife

Letting my land go wild, rather than carefully rewilding it in a controlled way, has certainly impacted my traditional gardening projects. But my efforts haven’t been in vain, either. The evolved lawn/meadow hybrid and wilder borders now attract cinnabar moths, red admiral butterflies, hoverflies and leafcutter bees (who nest in my window frames).

Sparrows feast on the insects. Grasshoppers spring into action when my cat approaches. I made champagne from the abundant dandelions. It’s not the prettiest garden, but it’s as close as I can feel to nature in a busy city. 

I know I have my work cut out if I want to balance the wilder elements of my patch with upcoming projects (I’m planning raised vegetable beds, a new herb garden and a pond). But rather than waste energy taking a side over which style of gardening is best, I’m going to soak up every grubby, thorny part of the process. Nature is far more important than our opinions.  

Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her

Published:

Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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