‘Bugs don’t care what things look like, they simply want somewhere to live. We try to make it beautiful for the sake of the people’: Meet the man who’s bringing the buzz back to gardening

John Little, founder of the Grass Roof Company, tells Country Life about why a derelict oil refinery contains a greater variety of invertebrates than anywhere else in the country and how we can learn from it.

John Little is a bit of a garden visionary. Not for him the tweaked borders of country houses or the starched formality of the city garden. For him, gardening is all about diversity of species and how people can comfortably cohabit with as wide a range of invertebrates as possible.

As a starting point, he talks about a brownfield site on Canvey Island (the south Essex home of 1970s rock band Dr Feelgood), which he thinks is a more important habitat than meadows and ancient woodland. It is a post-industrial site (formerly an oil refinery) that has been left alone for 50 years. The concrete has cracked, the steel has rusted and native plants have self-seeded. ‘The fact that it has not been shut away and kids ride their bikes over it (and occasionally set fire to things) has made it even better,’ he explains.

Now, it is run by the RSPB and Buglife and is an extraordinarily diverse place, estimated to have more species of invertebrates per square yard than anywhere in the country. It has even more than you will find in ancient woodlands and historic meadows — and this has all been achieved in a mere half century. The question is what relevance that huge area of urban dereliction has to us and how we, too, can encourage natural diversity in our gardens.

This is why I find myself sitting in a very comfortable kitchen overlooking south Essex. In front of me is an excellent crumble (with custard), in the far distance winks the Thames estuary and, just below me, is the remarkable garden of John and Fiona Little. Mr Little has always had an interest in native plants — not for him the joys of the Hybrid Tea — ever since he was (in his words) ‘quite a weird child’. His father had fairly a conventional garden, but his grandad was much more liberal and, frankly, ‘did not give a hoot, so he let me do anything and plant stuff anywhere’.

Mr Little’s garden incorporates a variety of growing media designed to attract as great a diversity of plants and wildlife as possible.

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When he was 12 years old, John bought a greenhouse and was allowed to plonk it smack-bang in the middle of his grandfather’s (not very large) lawn. On leaving school, he fell into the family business (running shoe shops in Essex) for about a decade, until he bought his current home in 1990. ‘When we arrived, there was a pretty rotten pebble-dashed bungalow. We lived there as we built this house, which we finished in 1995.’ Mr Little sold the shops a few years later and was confronted with the problem of the next step. He wanted to do something with plants, but was not interested in conventional gardening — it was always going to be about the wild plants that had captivated him as a child.

He started by making native meadows, building ponds, planting trees and hedges, ‘all the usual stuff’. About 20 years ago, he found himself with a business making green roofs for people. Mr Little was much more interested in doing work in the public domain than in domestic gardens, so a breakthrough into collaborating with schools was exactly what the doctor ordered. He moved into the area of education and built outdoor classrooms — all of them with green roofs.

It is generally agreed that green roofs are a good thing (unlike green walls, which are a waste of resources; if you want an entertaining, 10-minute rant, ask Mr Little his opinion), but he was not happy with the conventional way of building them. This generally consists of a drainage layer and a substrate supporting either a low-maintenance sedum roof or a wildflower mix.

Where others might see mess and unchecked growth, Mr Little sees a thriving habitat for invertebrates.

His roofs are based on his experience at home. ‘We started with a 6in-layer of sticky clay straight from the ground. With that depth of soil, interesting things start to happen.’ I must note a small caveat here: before piling anything on your roof, check the loading with an engineer. You really don’t need tons of soil falling into the bath.

Back to the point: it is not only about growing things, but creating everything you need to attract other species. There is a lot of chat about helping pollinators — filling your garden with bee- and butterfly-friendly plants — but, as well as food, we need to provide shelter and comfortable accommodation or they won’t stay. What substrates will suit nesting bees? Where do amphibians like to hibernate? Where do lizards prefer to warm up in the spring? All are important questions.‘Topography and structure are really important for diversity,’ Mr Little insists. ‘Make mounds, add sand piles, construct log piles and allow places for water to pool.’

The obvious next step is to climb down from the roof and use the knowledge gained in the wider garden, which has led Mr Little down all sorts of experimental alleyways. Most of us have learnt over many years of gardening and listening to experts that a good soil is a rich soil. We should be ladling on the compost and investing heavily in organic matter.

This is still correct if we want to grow the classic shrubs, vegetables and perennials of the English garden, but there is room in everybody’s garden for a bit of horticultural heterogeneity. For example, if you introduce sand or rubble, your plants will never be bothered by conventional weeds in that area, because there is nothing to attract a nettle or a bramble. Instead, you have a place where you can grow plants that enjoy, for example, much sharper drainage or which cannot cope with competition.

Not a load of rubbish: a beautiful wall in Mr Little’s garden in Essex built using old bricks, unwanted rubble and waste concrete.

‘What we have found is that if, for example, we make a 2ft heap of sand (leaving the topsoil beneath intact, provided it is not covered in noxious weeds), then you can grow varieties of plants new to your garden that are more robust and don’t need staking.’ Plants growing in sand will quickly send down roots to connect with the mycorrhizae of the soil. They will be a bit shorter, but much more robust.

Bear in mind, however, that his work involves brownfield sites and, if you have good topsoil, leave well alone. A rubbly corner, by contrast, would be a good place for experimentation using sharp sand (from the builder’s merchant) or some crushed rubble or chalk spoil. Another suggestion is to make a dead hedge: rather than chipping or composting hedge prunings, arrange them into a sinuous curving hedge. It makes an excellent habitat.

This way, we can grow new things and attract more beneficial insects than you ever thought possible. It is also an awful lot less work. Mr Little is constantly spreading the word through talks and by hosting groups in his own garden. ‘We had 70 groups here last year to talk about what we do and how that can work not only in private gardens, but, more importantly, in social housing.’

It could be said that all this stuff with rubble and piles of old wood and heaps of sand makes for a messy garden. All very well for the bugs, but are you forgetting the people? Mr Little understands this and manages very successfully to weave good design into his schemes. ‘It is a good and important game to play with the public. Bugs don’t care what things look like, they simply want somewhere to live. We try to make it beautiful for the sake of the people.’

Much of his work is in the public domain — he spent many years working in social housing — and he understands how important it is that things look good for us. If it doesn’t, people would be put off and that is absolutely not the point: he needs everyone to understand that the cake of biodiversity is not only for having, but also for eating.