Nature vs Nurture: How to Rewild Your Garden

This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s blog Luxury Defined.


For decades, the gardening world has been obsessed with taming nature, planting in straight lines, and demanding that the environment bends to its collective will. But if the events of recent months have shown us anything, it’s that nurturing nature can be nourishing for body and mind. Rewilding—creating gardens that allow native plants and wildlife to flourish as they would in nature—can be a rewarding way to do so.


Wild bluebell flowers

At Somerlyton Estate, formal flowerbeds have been eschewed in favor of letting seasonal wildflowers—like these bluebells—grow naturally.


“For nature’s sake, we all have to change our mindset and stop being so tidy,” says Hugh Crossley, 4th Baron Somerleyton, and current owner of Somerleyton Estate in the east of England. Crossley is a passionate naturalist, who, several years ago, took the decision to rewild 1,000 acres (405 ha) around a lake on his East Anglian estate, as well as to relax management of the historic parkland around his Jacobean manor house.


Here he provides insight on the practice of rewilding, and answers Luxury Defined’s questions about letting your garden grow its own way.


Chicago's Lurie Garden

Chicago’s Lurie Garden has naturalistic plantings and ecologically sensitive maintenance—and it’s all the more remarkable due to its proximity to the city. Image: Getty Images


Back to Basics
In its purest form, rewilding is the restoration of ecosystems, and the reintroduction of missing species, to allow nature to take care of itself. The Lurie Garden in Chicago and the High Line in New York are both brilliant examples of how a more relaxed approach to planting and landscape maintenance can transform how nature is experienced in urban environments.


While you may not be inclined to allow your estate or backyard to entirely run free, you can certainly relax your grip and enable nature to send out a few tentative shoots towards liberty. Simple steps include gardening organically, without relying on chemical fertilizers and insecticides; growing edible produce; creating places for wildlife to rest and nest, and embracing weeds and wildflowers.


Established on a disused section of elevated railway, the design of New York City’s High Line is inspired by the landscape that naturally sprung up on the tracks after the trains stopped running. Image: Getty Images


“It doesn’t have to be complicated or scientific. Reengage with your natural environment, as if you were a child again. Be playful and allow yourself to be messy,” says Crossley, who has also established a charitable foundation called Wild East. With it, he hopes to encourage what he describes as “nature recovery” in his corner of England.


Rewilding: What to Know

How can we each contribute to nature’s recovery?
We can only heal the land if we all work together. That is particularly true of big estates and farms, but it applies to suburban gardeners, too. Nature is relevant to everyone so look over your fence and be neighborly—train your eye to look at your garden differently, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Together, you can make a huge difference.


When it comes to rewilding a suburban garden, embrace a little organic chaos and create a wild area where plants are able to grow freely. Image: Alamy


Is it difficult to know where to start?
The people who have worked on Somerleyton Estate for a long time remember when that area was open grazing, and it was full of bird life and red squirrels. So, look at old photos from the 1930s, ’50s, or ’70s, and see what the gardens and parks in your area looked like then. What grew there all those years ago can guide your hand today.


Everyone loves instant results, though…
Creating a more dynamic environment for nature doesn’t always happen immediately. But you can give it a helping hand. At Somerleyton we want to share the beauty of the environment with our guests sooner rather than later, so we’re now considering sowing seeds of plants which will naturally arrive anyway—mountain ash, blackthorn, gorse, heather. Sometimes there are benefits to hastening nature.

White roses growing on rustic wooden fence in large country garden
Embracing an “ungardening” philosophy need not mean that your entire backyard runs free. Instead, set aside sections of your garden and let them grow (mostly) unaided. Image: Alamy

How can you start with “baby steps”?
My tip is to dedicate a specific area to rewilding, then simply experiment. Don’t mow the lawn in that area at all, and cut it back at the end of summer, as if you were making hay. Grow a bulb meadow under fruit trees, rotavate an area for growing vegetables, or install a bird feeder.


Are animals a must-have?
Any large-scale rewilding project needs apex herbivores to encourage the natural lifecycle, because animals digging in the soil provides food for birds, and it allows seeds to germinate and new plants to grow. But if you can’t introduce deer, or pigs or chickens, you have to become an “intelligent herbivore” and naturally intervene yourself. That could be recreating cattle footprints to help capture rain, or by partially turning over the soil in the same way a pig would.


A stag at Somerlyton Estate

At Somerlyton Estate, animals such as deer and black pigs have played a large role in rewilding the area. You can recreate the effect in your own space by mimicking the behaviors of local wildlife.
What does rewilding mean to you and your family?
I’ve always loved communing with the nature that exists around our lake. Being able to bequeath to my son a dynamic environment, where nature and people coexist, will be wonderful. The area is now “living” in the complete sense: wild stock and livestock are in harmony, and the land is humming with insects and birdlife. Yet it can all still be enjoyed by people, too.