In a megalopolis like Tokyo you are more likely to see gardens disappearing than otherwise. But here is an encouraging story about one that sprang up from almost nowhere and is now full of life.

Akabane Shizen Kansatsu Koen, meaning "Akabane Nature Observation Park," lies in a valley in Kita Ward, in the northern part of the city where public-housing projects cover most of the hillsides. I used to walk around there and enjoy seeing the herbs and flowers many residents grew in small, communal plots.

However, the valley itself was always an eyesore: a large, neglected space that belonged to the Self-Defense Forces. Beyond a wire fence all you could see were old barracks and a pit full of dirty-looking water.

Fortunately, though, Kita Ward decided to reclaim the land and provide a park. Even more luckily, they had an unusual idea, after being inspired by a newspaper article titled "Nature Parks for All." The result was that, after several years of planning, a new, 5 1/2-hectare nature park opened there in 1999.

As well as professional landscapers, volunteers helped to create the park. Some people rolled up their sleeves and planted a donguri no mori (acorn wood) with native trees while others started surveying the insect, bird and plant populations. And the grimy pit became a pond.

Now, just a few years on, the park has become a popular spot. Some people play ball games there and have picnics, while many enjoy simply walking along the paths and lingering by the stream.

A natural spring trickles down the hill, attracting insects such as water boatmen and dragonflies. Water-loving trees, such as willow and alder, have quickly put down roots, and on these warm autumn days birds are calling from the trees. In spring, children on school trips love searching the pools for tadpoles. The water even feeds a rice paddy, which is planted, tended and reaped by volunteers.

There have, however, been setbacks. Seishi Honya, a member of the "biotope" volunteer group, explained, for example, that "Somebody put black bass into the pond, which ate all the small fish and shrimps. With no food, most of the waterfowl disappeared. We even used to see a kingfisher, but it has gone too."

At least there seem to be far more butterflies than in a typical city park. Recently I spotted numbers of brimstone, blue and comma butterflies, plus a hawkmoth (in Japanese, a member of the susume-ga family) that looks like a tiny hummingbird. It was darting about sipping nectar from the flowers of some sweet-smelling hototogisu (hairy-toad lilies; Tricyrtis hirta).

Naturally, there are many challenges ahead, but already this park is helping city children to enjoy a "natural" type of garden. And it shows how nature will try its best to make a comeback -- if we just give it a chance.

So how can we invite nature into our own gardens? Here are some simple hints picked up at the park.

One idea is to leave some part of your plot undisturbed. Sweeping up every leaf, cutting down shrubs at the end of the season and burning the debris destroys small creatures that are part of the wildlife web.

Another idea is to choose native plants. Here are a few that please both gardeners and birds alike in autumn.

The shrub murasaki shikibu (beauty berry; Callicarpa japonica) produces sprays of small, purple berries with a pearly sheen. It attracts birds such as onaga (azure-winged magpies), dainty mejiro (Japanese white eyes) and shy kiji-bato (rufous turtle doves), which are often seen in devoted pairs.

Nanten (heavenly bamboo; Nandina domestica) has graceful leaves and panicles of red berries in autumn. These feed birds such as mugudori (gray starlings) and the acrobatic hiyodori (brown-eared bulbuls). The tough aoki (aucuba shrub) is an evergreen laurel that can grow in polluted cities and produces large juicy berries in winter.

If you plant manryo (coral berry; Ardisia crenata), though, you might be triply blessed. This small evergreen is a lucky plant, bearing bright red berries that last into winter. Its name manryo (literally, "10,000 pieces of gold") implies the beautiful berries are priceless. A few of them make pretty Christmas or New Year's decorations, but the idea is to leave them alone, and hope for flying visits from lovely birds such as jo-bitaki (Daurian redstarts) and akahara (red thrushes).

However, if you are short of time, you could just slice a persimmon or tangerine in half and hang it from a tree or put it on a garden stone. That way, you might help a few "feathered friends" through the winter.