Grenville Johnson, St George Wildlife Champion

Bristol is full of people transforming their neighbourhoods into nature-friendly spaces to benefit both wildlife and people.

We designate them Wildlife Champions – at the same time as nurturing nature, they are growing communities. One such champion is Grenville Johnson who set up the annual St George in Bloom award.

“It has been a lovely, magical and unexpected journey,” says Grenville, who was born and raised in St George, and lives in the same house his grandmother bought in 1890 on Kensington Road. His wildlife story began in 2004 on his retirement as head teacher, when he transformed his tiny garden into a nature-rich oasis.

To Grenville’s amazement, his garden reached the final six in the 2006 Daily Mail National Gardens Competition. BBC Gardeners’ World then featured it to demonstrate how to attract wildlife in urban spaces. Alan Titchmarsh chose the garden as one of his 30 Best British Back gardens on ITV’s Great British Garden Revival, while BBC’s Gardeners World’s Frances Tophill featured it in her book, First Time Gardener. The Victorian House Garden, now a Garden of Interest, is open for visits (by arrangement) during the summer.

“I got a lovely letter from the Prince of Wales because of my efforts with my small urban garden. I have a stumpery (ferns planted in a tree stump) inspired by the one in the Highgrove House Gardens. However, I am a dedicated amateur gardener. My background is in the visual arts, and I visit other gardens for inspiration. All you need is a trowel.”

In 2005, he became chair of his local residents’ association. “I got the neighbours together and asked: what do you want? The answer was a cleaner and greener street,” says Grenville.

Kensington Road residents missed their over a-century-old plane trees, felled due to invasive roots. So, Grenville talked with a local Bristol City councillor who helped obtain council funding for wildlife-friendly rowan trees. “The residents under-planted the rowan trees with wildlife-friendly plants, and people put out window boxes and hanging baskets,” says Grenville who was awarded the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s medal for his local community and environmental work in Kensington Road in 2013.

The residents’ association also took over a plot of unadopted land, planting it with pollen-rich flowers. These small connecting parcels of land are crucial to wildlife because they provide nature corridors for wildlife be they butterflies, slow worms or hedgehogs.

In 2014, Grenville set up the annual St George in Bloom competition, which became an RHS Britain in Bloom finalist in 2016. The group created a ‘pollinators’ garden’ on council land next to the Sikh temple on Church Road, planted-up a neglected traffic island, and the Kingsway shopping centre. These areas are now buzzing with wildlife.

Working with Bristol City council and with sponsorship from local shops, he and his team are currently creating a new bee-and-butterfly area in St George’s Park in 2019. Other plans in the pipeline include a nectar and pollen fast food outlet for birds and bees, and a litter campaign. “I like to use the educational element to bring people on board and raise awareness in gentle ways that the world can be a better place,” he says.

In 2015, the RHS chose Kensington Road to be replicated at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show to showcase its new campaign to improve public and private spaces. For instance, one garden became an ‘edible’ garden growing fresh produce; one was planted to attract pollinators, another to counteract pollution. Using infrared technology, the RHS showed how trees can cool an urban setting. Grenville and fellow residents were thrilled when the Duchess of Cornwall visited the exhibition.

But it is not all about high-profile events. “Someone who was terminally ill asked to see the garden – this was the most moving experience,” says Grenville. “My journey is so worthwhile and has such a big impact, but not only for wildlife. Green spaces provide an incalculable benefit to health and wellbeing. Last year I was ill and my garden was my salvation. Nature raises our spirits – its timeless principles is something we need it more than ever in times of uncertainty.”