The great rewilding controversy: what does the buzzword of the moment really mean?

The word ‘rewilding’ has been on everyone’s lips recently, and not always in a positive way. Alan Titchmarsh is concerned that rewilding will be taken too literally and reduce our gardens to patches of nettles, while others believe that traditional gardening no longer has a place in our climate-changing world. Clare Foster explores what the term rewilding actually means to us as gardeners

'A Rewilding Britain Landscape’ by Urquhart & Hunt at Chelsea in 2022

Eva Nemeth

Rewilding was a term invented in the 1990s by American conservation scientists Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, who presented a landmark paper describing the scientific basis for rewilding as a response to biodiversity loss. Originally called ‘wilderness recovery’, it was a term used to describe large-scale conservation projects and had little relevance to domestic gardens. Today it is a buzzword used much more widely, brought to the public’s attention at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2022 when garden designers Urquhart and Hunt won Best in Show for their A Rewilding Britain Landscape garden. ‘Rewilding in its strictest sense means allowing nature to go back to its natural, dynamic self,’ explains Lulu Urquhart. ‘This requires the presence of keystone animals – both predators and herbivores – species that have such a significant impact on the ecosystem that a myriad of life can thrive.’

On a domestic garden scale, ecologists are encouraging us to leave our lawns unmown and to create as much biodiversity in our gardens as possible. A spokesperson for the charity Rewilding Britain says: ‘If people want to play their part by creating wilder gardens and enjoy the benefits of bringing more nature into their lives, that should be welcomed. Simple actions – such as leaving a messy area, putting in a pond, letting wildflowers grow, easing up on the mowing, planting with nature in mind – can make a big difference, and can work well alongside traditional gardening. We all need to be standing fast against the damage caused by plastic grass, garden chemicals, use of peat, over-mowing, and excessive hard-landscaping of gardens.’

Charlie and Isabella Tree on their estate at Knepp

Dean Hearne

However, certain people in the garden world are anxious that the rewilding trend will reduce our precious ornamental gardens to a mess of nettles and brambles. Celebrity gardener Alan Titchmarsh has openly criticised judges at Chelsea for giving out top awards to rewilded gardens and, more recently, he has contributed to a House of Lords investigation into rewilding, warning that ‘a fashionable and ill-considered trend’ could be ‘catastrophic for wildlife’ and ‘deplete our gardens of their botanical riches’. But perhaps he is taking the rewilding concept too literally. ‘There’s a common misconception that it’s about doing nothing, “letting nature take over”,’ writes rewilding pioneer Isabella Tree in a recent article for The Guardian. ‘But turning your back on a garden is not the way to improve it for wildlife. A garden is only complex and species-rich because of the interventions of the gardener.’

And this is the crux. Rewilding is not abandonment, it has to be managed. Gardens have to be tended so, essentially, the gardener becomes the keystone species, as explained by Charlie Harpur, head gardener at Isabella Tree’s experimental walled garden on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex: ‘When we are gardening we are essentially taking the role of the keystone species and mimicking the disturbances created by animals. So, by approaching the garden with a slightly different mindset, and creating a mosaic of different habitats for wildlife, we can garden better for biodiversity.’

The walled garden at Knepp


There is no reason why these climate-friendly, biodiverse gardens can’t be beautiful too. Garden designer Sarah Price creates gardens as much for the insects and animals that can exist there as for their human occupants. ‘As a garden designer it’s not my job to create nature reserves, but my aesthetic deliberately brings nature along with it,’ she says. ‘Ultimately I want to make gardens that are beautiful, to be lived in, but at the same time really alive with wildlife.’

Returning to Alan Titchmarsh’s worry about the loss of our botanical riches, there is no reason we should say goodbye to our traditional borders and flower gardens just yet. On the contrary, the ecological value of our ornamental gardens, where multiple introduced flower species are grown side by side, is indisputable. A biodiversity survey carried out at iconic garden Great Dixter in East Sussex in 2017 proved that the ornamental part of the garden was actually richer in wildlife than the wider meadows and woodland, as its head gardener Fergus Garrett writes in an article for Gardens Illustrated magazine: ‘The results were astonishing… We hadn’t gardened specifically for biodiversity – it was just here as a by-product.’

The sustainability of some of our traditional gardens, however, with their pristine lawns and picture-perfect herbaceous borders, is becoming more questionable as the climate changes. A lawn is a monoculture with little food or shelter for wildlife. It requires mowing, usually with a petrol mower, and in times of drought it needs watering, using up precious resources that we need to conserve. Plants that are grown in the rich soil of a herbaceous border will also need watering when the weather is dry. So what we should be doing is modifying our approach to create the mosaic of habitats that Charlie Harpur outlines. Keep part of your old lawn but let an area of it grow long as a meadow; make a new, low-nutrient gravel garden in one part of the garden with a flower-filled ornamental border elsewhere, plus a no-dig vegetable patch and perhaps a small pond. The point is, the more zones you create, the better the diversity will be. There is no doubt that we need to rethink how we garden as the climate changes, and rewilding, if it is interpreted in the right way, is the concept that can set us on the right path.