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Creating wildlife-friendly and sustainable gardens at Girton College

Ladybird on wildflower in Cloister Court, Girton College

Girton College is situated in 50 acres of bio-diverse green belt on the edge of Cambridge. The gardens, established early in the College’s history, are a combination of wild woodland, formal spaces, meadows, sports fields and an orchard.

‘…with gardens and grounds and everything that is good for body, soul and spirit’

   - Emily Davies, 1866

The spirit of Girton, thriving and flourishing, continues to this day with our Gardens Team creating and expanding the wildlife-friendly and sustainable gardens.

To mark Earth Day 2024, which acts as a reminder of the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability, our Head Gardener, Julia Andersson, shares some of the projects the gardeners are working on.


Girton College is a good example of where many historical decisions, intentional or not, have created the perfect set-up for wildlife-friendly gardening. From the decision to locate further away from the city centre, plant extensive woodland belts to shelter against the chilling winds, establish orchards to feed the College and extract gravel for the Stanley Library’s foundation leaving behind a naturally formed pond, to mention a few.

(Left) Conducting a pond survey for water depth and silt depth. (Right) Apple blossom in the Orchard. Both are parts of the original garden. 

In recent years, due to a shortage of gardeners, areas of grassland that traditionally were managed as manicured lawns, have become areas of long grass. The focus at the time was to maintain formal areas such as courtyards and the Fellows Garden, which has worked in our favour now as it has created invaluable conditions for a host of wildlife.

(Left) Cowslips in long grass in the Orchard from March to early May.  (Right) Bulbs such as snowdrops can be seen in various places of the college January – March.

Since joining the College in August 2022,  I have been focused on three main areas:

  • the creation of the Sensory Garden and its annual wildflower area;
  • the setup of a brand-new composting compound that allows us to process all green waste generated on-site;
  • the sustainable management of our woodland areas.

The Sensory Garden was the first new garden development since the creation of Ash Court some ten years prior, and the first project for me as Head Gardener. Part of the brief for this development was sustainability, which was an important consideration when choosing plants and planting styles.

This is demonstrated by the drought-resistant plantings in the aromatic lawn, the Mediterranean gravel garden and the prairie planting, as well as the annual wildflower area. The wildflower area was such a success that we are in the process of extending the area for this year and will possibly turn it over to a perennial mix for the following year. A second addition to this area will be two colonies of honeybees in our newly-built Hazel Hurdle compound!

(Top left) Cutting and lifting turf around the proposed new and extended wildflower area. (Top right) Preparing the ground and sowing wildflower meadow mix, then covering with a protective layer of fleece. (Bottom left) The annual wildflower meadow in July 2023. (Bottom right) The prairie planting in the sensory garden is largely made up of drought-tolerant plants such as bronze fennel, Verbascum and giant verbena.

When I arrived, the College did not have a proper composting system. Instead, all green waste including any wood generated from annual tree works was removed for processing off-site. One year later, in August 2023, our brand-new compound was ready for use and no garden green waste has been removed off-site since. Our first batch of compost was dug into the new herbaceous border in Cloister Court prior to planting.

The compost bays in August 2023.

The compost bays in August 2023.

As well as composting all the gardens green waste and some kitchen waste, we also keep all the arisings from tree works on-site. Where possible, tree trunks and larger logs have been left in situ for the benefit of invertebrates and other wildlife. Brush gets chipped and mixed into our compost or used on woodland paths. When choosing replacement trees for the woodland perimeter it is not always possible to choose native species, but I favour trees that bear fruits or nuts to support the College's wildlife.

Moving forwards, my main aim is to provide flowers and fruit for wildlife for as much of the year as possible and to create more wild areas in the College grounds, whilst maintaining the formal areas of the gardens.

We have many other projects underway, including restoring Cloister Court into a tranquil and impressive green space for the College community. Follow us on Instagram, @girtongardens, for regular updates on all our work!


Photographs by Julia Andersson and the Girton Gardens Team.