Must-haves for your wildlife-friendly garden
How to make your garden a haven for wildlife.
If you garden is wildlife-friendly or you are following any of these actions - why not apply for our 'Wildlife- friendly Garden Award'?
A pond can be a home, a breeding site, a drinking place or a feeding site to many different creatures.
A marshy area next to a pond makes a natural link between the water and adjacent habitats. There are many interesting and beautiful native plants you can grow, which will attract a host of wildlife. If for some reason it is not possible to have a pond at all, a bog garden is a good alternative and just as valuable to wildlife. Wet boggy ground will be home to many invertebrates, making it an attractive foraging area for frogs, hedgehogs and birds.
We use ever increasing volumes of water, and in a dry summer water is a precious resource. Vegetables and newly planted specimens need regular watering, but elsewhere in the garden choose plants which can survive without extra water. You can reduce the need to water by adding plenty of organic material to the soil and putting a mulch on the soil surface to reduce evaporation.
Drought resistant plants include many of our favourite herbs, such as lavender, thyme and sage. Grass is surprisingly drought-resistant: although it may turn brown in a hot dry summer, as soon as the rain returns new green shoots appear rapidly. You can help your lawn stay green in summer by raising the blades on your mower, so the cut grass is slightly longer.
Use a Water Butt
Using a water butt to collect and store rainwater helps conserve this precious resource, and also reduces the risk of flooding in periods of heavy rainfall. In very dry periods you can reuse some of your domestic water: for example bath water can be re-used on lawns, fruit trees and shrubs.
A number of our familiar garden birds will readily use man-made nest boxes. Many of these birds, such as blue tits and great tits, would naturally nest in cavities in rotten tree trunks, which are scarce in most gardens. So providing nest boxes is essential if these birds are to nest in our gardens.
A bird's feathers need to be kept in tip-top condition to keep the bird warm and enable it to fly. For this reason birds will spend time carefully preening each day. Many like a daily bath as well, even on the coldest days. Any clean shallow water will do, and a pond with very shallow margins will be used by bathing birds. If you haven't got a suitable pond, put out a shallow dish of water, or get a specially built bird bath. Garden birds will be regular visitors to drink and bathe.
Dead wood pile
Dead and decaying wood is a vitally important habitat, becoming increasingly rare as we tidy up our green spaces. The wood will be colonised by many fungi, and the larvae of wood-boring beetles will munch through the decaying wood. Crevices under the bark will be home to woodlice, centipedes and other invertebrates. As well as the permanent residents, many other creatures will use a woodpile as a hibernation site, a safe refuge during the cold winter months.
A dead woodpile can be made up of any natural timber, from the thinnest twigs to massive tree trunks. Most wood-pile residents like cool damp conditions, so stack your wood in a shady place. Out of sight behind the shed or under the shrubbery is fine. Alternatively, make a feature by building it out in the open, then growing honeysuckle or clematis over the pile.
Although they are not as charismatic as mammals and birds, insects are a vital part of the garden. Some help recycle dead material, others are fierce predators, helping to control the creatures we think of as pests. Bees and some flies play an important role in pollinating flowers.
There are many ways to provide homes for insects: a pile of decaying wood or mulch of coarsely shredded bark will quickly be colonised. You can buy or make bug hotels, such as bundles of hollow stems for solitary bees or ladybird refuges.
Too often the roofs of our outbuildings are a wasted space. Growing plants on this space has many benefits: better insulation of the building below, reducing rainwater runoff, and creating a new wildlife habitat. The easiest way to create a green roof is using a special mat with the plants already growing through it. These plants to cope with the conditions on most roofs: hot sunshine, frequent drought and very little roof space. Once established they take very little roof space.
Before creating a green roof make sure the building is strong enough to support the additional weight.
Many of our native wild flowers are beautiful, and look great in any garden. They are good nectar sources for bees and butterflies, and many are also the food plant for the caterpillars of our butterflies and moths. As a bonus to the gardener, these natives are fully adapted to the British climate, so can cope with our hottest summers and coldest winters.
A wildflower meadow can look fantastic, but is not always easy to create, and needs plenty of space to look its best. If space is limited why not grow a few native wild flowers in your borders, alongside your other ornamental plants. In well composted soil with no competition they may surprise you with the amount of flowers produced. Wild flowers adapted to sunny meadows are often drought-tolerant, and will grow well in containers on a patio.
Trellis and climbing plants
Using of vertical space gives you more options to grow plants and create wildlife habitats. Shrubs such as pyracantha, ceanothus, cotoneaster and rambling roses grow best up against a wall, although they need minimal support. Other climbers need something to cling on to, and will grow happily over a trellis or pergola, these include clematis, ivy, honeysuckle and climbing hydrangea. As these plants grow they form a dense tangle of stems, which provides nest sites for wrens and robins, and hibernation homes for many invertebrates.
Putting a strip of trellis along the top of a fence is a great way to create extra growing space for climbers, as well as giving you more shade and privacy.
Nectar, the sugary fluid produced by flowers, is an essential food for many different flying insects; butterflies, moths, bees, hoverflies and more. Not all flowers produce the same amount of nectar: some modern hybrid varieties produce very little, and flowers with many extra petals can be difficult for insect to get at the nectar. The best varieties are often the traditional, cottage garden flowers.
To cater for many different insects it’s best to grow a wide range of flowers; aim to have something in bloom from early in spring, all through summer to late autumn. On a sunny summer day it’s always worth looking in neighbours gardens or public park to see what flowers are attracting the most insects.
A patch of long grass can be home to many invertebrates, such as grasshoppers and spiders, and many grassland butterflies lay their eggs on meadow grasses. The simplest way to do this is to stop mowing part of your lawn. If you mow around your meadow patch it will look neat and well-cared for. Cut the grass in late summer or autumn, after any wildflowers have set seeded. You may be surprised what wildflowers appear, or you could add some native flower plants in spring.
Mixed native hedge
Hedges are home to many creatures, birds can roost and nest in the branches while insects and small mammals find shelter in the base. Hedgehogs, stoats, weasels and polecats will all use a hedge as a refuge, as will mice and voles. If there is a strip of rough grass along the base of the hedge this greatly increases its wildlife value. A hedge made up of British native trees and shrubs, such as hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, holly and elder will support many different invertebrates, far more than ornamental varieties. In the autumn the nuts and fruits carried by such a hedge will be food for many different birds as well as wood mice and bank voles.
Regular trimming of a hedge will make it grow very dense, forming fantastic shelter for the wildlife using it. However if it is trimmed every year this removes all the flowering and fruiting branches, reducing its value; far better to only trim every second or third year. Hedge trimming is best done in late winter, after all the berries have been eaten, but before birds start nesting.
A well-grown tree provides habitats for a myriad of wildlife: birds can perch or nest in the branches, lichens grow on the trunk, and woodland wildflowers grow in the shade beneath, nourished by an annual mulch of fallen leaves. Blossom brings in nectar-loving insects in spring and any berries or nuts produced in autumn will find many takers. Loose bark on older trees will shelter woodlice or even bats.
For the greatest wildlife value plant one of our smaller native British trees as these support the widest range of invertebrates. Hawthorn, hazel and rowan all look lovely and won’t grow too big for an average-sized garden.
Fruit and berries are an important food resource for many birds and mammals in the autumn and winter. Garden birds such as blackbirds and thrushes will feast on berries, as will winter migrants such as waxwings and fieldfares. Wood mice will eat some berries, and take others to hide in a stash to eat later in the winter. More surprisingly, even foxes will nibble blackberries from the brambles.
Native shrubs such as hawthorn, blackthorn, holly and guilder rose are great berry produces, but so are some ornamentals. Pyracantha, cotoneaster, berberis and many viburnums will produce a good crop of edible fruit. The hips on roses are also eaten by many, so count in this category.
Fruit tree or bush
A fruit tree can grow food for both you and wildlife. Orchard fruits such as apples, pears and plums are great for us to eat, but surplus fruit is a valued autumn food source for many birds and small mammals. A number of insects will also feed on windfall fruit, including butterflies. In spring fruit tree blossom will attract flying insects such as bees.
Wildlife will also share our harvest of soft fruits such as raspberries and strawberries.
Composting is an important part of recycling in the garden. You can compost almost all of your garden and kitchen waste, which would otherwise be sent to landfill. Inside the compost bin millions of microbe break down the waste, recycling all the nutrients it contains. The resulting compost is the best thing you can add to your soil: it improves the soil structure, supports a diverse fauna of micro-organisms, and grows strong healthy plants.
Use peat free composts
Large amounts of peat are used in most commercial composts. The peat has been extracted from our lowland bogs, thereby damaging or destroying one of our rarest, most fragile and most unusual habitats. Peat bogs take hundreds of years to form, and are home to many beautiful plants and animals found no-where else.
There are now plenty of good-quality peat-free composts available to gardeners. Even better, use your own home-made compost.
Use an organic mulch
A surface mulch is a great way to control weeds and keep in moisture. Many different mulch materials are available, including sheet plastic and gravel. However if you use a mulch of organic material, such as shredded bark, lawn clippings or compost, this has many advantages for wildlife. Creatures such as predatory beetles, woodlice and centipedes will find homes in the mulch material. As the material gradually decays earthworms will take it underground, enriching the soil in the process.
Avoid pesticides & slug pellets
The creatures we thing of as pests are often a valuable food source for other wildlife. While raising it’s chicks in spring a blue tit will need to find thousands of caterpillars, larvae and aphids, many of them garden ‘pests’. Aphids, or greenfly, are the main food of the larvae of hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds. Slugs are fed on by ground beetles, centipedes, frogs, toads and hedgehogs. In a wildlife garden with a wide range of predator species the populations so-called pest species rarely increase so they become a problem.
If slugs or aphids become a problem there are non-chemical means of control, such a pinching off the tips of broad beans infested with blackfly, or using barriers against slugs.
Avoid chemical weed-killers
Chemical weed-killers are poisons, and may be toxic to more than just the target plant. If carelessly applied they can kill nearby ornamental plants. Weed-killers are also toxic to animals, including humans. In many cases we do not know the full effects, but they may lead to long-term harm to human health as well as to wildlife.
There are many other ways to control plants growing where we don’t want them, such as regular hoeing, hand weeding, growing ground-cover plants and use of mulches.
Organic vegetable patch
Why have we included growing vegetables in a wildlife garden? Your garden is part of the wider landscape. Food you grow will not generate any food-miles and will lower your household’s carbon footprint, to the benefit of the whole environment. Its not just vegetables: growing fruit or herbs counts as well.
Organic vegetable gardening techniques cultivate a healthy, fertile soil, which supports a wealth of biodiversity.