Gardening with Wildlife in Mind
I think that over the last couple of months those of us who are lucky enough to have gardens have been spending more time in them than we normally do. As a result, not only are our gardens probably looking as good, if not better, than they have for some time but we have also become more aware that we share our gardens with many other creatures. Most of these are very welcome as they enrich our lives, amuse us with their antics but also, perhaps more importantly, they are good for our gardens. In a world in which natural habitats and wildlife in general are under pressure it is important that our gardens make up for some of this loss and help our wildlife to at least survive or at best begin to recover. There are some 16 million gardens in the UK and in urban areas they can account for as much as a quarter of the total area. This makes them a major wildlife resource, some might even go so far as to describe them as the new countryside!
Any garden with a few plants will attract some insects, animals and birds but growing a greater variety of plants and providing a range of different habitats leads to a much richer diversity of wildlife. This does not mean that you have to let your garden run wild. It is not an excuse for no gardening, although there is always room for the odd wild corner or two. The best “wild” gardens are managed but with a light touch and I hope that what follows gives you some ideas about how to do this.
Wildlife gardeners often recommend eight main ideas for gardening for wildlife. Some are quick and easy to do, others take a little more time and effort, some you might be doing already but they will all make a difference. They are based on providing basic needs such as food, water, shelter and places to breed. The first three are very straightforward, don’t involve plants and need little explanation. The next four are all about enlarging the range of plants in the garden and the final one can bring a whole new dimension to any garden.
1 Bird, Bat and Hedgehog boxes and Bug Homes.
These obviously provide places for nesting, roosting, overwintering and shelter from bad weather. They are readily available at no great cost and are a great addition to any garden. It is also perfectly possible to make them at home, perhaps a project for the coming weeks!
2 Log and Stone Piles
These provide shelter and safety for a whole range of insects and animals such as frogs, toads, newts, slow worms and hedgehogs. They either provide food for each other or for other animals and birds. Within log piles there are also fungi and bacteria breaking down the vegetable matter and recycling it in the form of plant nutrients.
3 Bird Feeding all year round
Birds might take less food at certain times in the year but they will visit feeders throughout the year and by doing so come into the garden to feast on other creatures which you are not so keen on such as slugs, snails and greenfly! Don’t worry about peanuts choking young birds for as long as they are from a proper peanut feeder, whole nuts are almost impossible to remove.
4 Plant Native Trees and Hedges
All trees and hedges are beneficial in some ways for wildlife but native species rather than modern cultivars or those from other parts of the world tend to be home to more insects and produce more seeds and fruit and are therefore more attractive to our birds and animals. Useful native trees include Alder, Silver Birch, Wild Cherry, Hazel, Holly, Crab Apple and Rowan. The same applies to hedges which all give lots of cover, shelter and nesting places but mixed hedges of native shrubs such as Blackthorn, Elder, Hawthorn, Hazel, Holly and wild Rose will provide all these and a more plentiful supply of insects, seeds and fruits.
5 Plant Climbers on walls and fences
Privacy is important for many people in their gardens and walls and fences are often chosen instead of hedges to provide this, particularly in modern, smaller gardens. However, it is perfectly easy to make such sterile barriers into wildlife havens with thoughtful planting. Climbing plants can provide nesting and roosting sites for birds and a perfect habitat for insects and small animals. Choose plants which either produce lots of nectar- rich flowers such as Japanese Quince and Honeysuckle or fruits such as Pyracantha. Also don’t dismiss Ivy as it is evergreen and provides year round cover and shelter and in the autumn the native Ivy (Hedera helix) produces nectar-rich flowers which will be covered in insects. If you have a phobia about Ivy because you have battled with it for many years then plant some of the modern cultivars which are much better behaved!
Whilst on the subject of fences it is important to say that Hedgehogs, the gardener’s friend, have a real problem with fences- I can’t think why!- and a gap just the size of a CD case will allow them to wander freely from garden to garden.
6 Plant Nectar-Rich Flowers
Nectar is a sugary substance produced by flowering plants to attract insects to them for the purpose of cross pollination ie. insects such as Bees and Butterflies collect nectar from a flower as a food source and at the same time pick up pollen on their bodies and wings which can then be carried to another flower which may be pollinated by the transfer of that pollen. Some insects, for example Ladybirds and other Beetles actually eat the pollen as it is rich in protein. Some species of Wasps and Bees also mix pollen with nectar to make specially enriched food for their young. Plants advertise that nectar is available using scent, flower colour and patterns on the petals. None of this is for us but of course we do benefit from the beauty of the flowers! Nectar is only produced when the plant has ripe pollen which is ready to transport to another flower. When a flower has been fertilised or its pollen has been used up nectar production ceases as it takes up a lot of the plant’s energy which it now needs for seed ripening. At this point the flower has nothing to offer the pollinating insect. This is why it is so important that your garden has a succession of flowering plants so that nectar is available for as long as possible. It is also one of the reasons for the dead-heading of plants as by preventing them from setting seed nectar will continue to be produced.
Perhaps a good word here for the much hated common Wasp wouldn’t come amiss! They are not pollinators but are still of great benefit to the gardener. I know they can be a real nuisance in the late summer and autumn when they are on the lookout for sugary snacks and that a nest near the house is not desirable but from April to July they are a great asset in the garden as they consume very large numbers of insect pests such as Aphids.
Plants which attract pollinators often have simple (not double), tubular or daisy-like flowers that the pollinators can access easily and include:-
Ajuga, Allium, Aster, Buddleja, Calluna, Caryopteris, Ceanothus, Cotoneaster, Cytisus, Dahlia, Digitalis, Echinacea, Erica, Eryngium, Heliotropium, Hyssop, Lamium, Lavandula, Lunaria, Mentha, Monarda, Nepeta, Origanum, Papaver, Penstemon, Primula, Rosmarinus, Scabious, Sedum, Tagetes, Verbena and Viola.
If all this seems like a foreign language then just look out at the garden centre for a plant label with a Bee on it !
7 Create a Wildflower Meadow
This is not always practical in a small garden but it can make a wonderfully rich alternative to just plain lawn, especially in an area away from the house. The easiest method is to plant small plug plants into a lawn and then alter the mowing pattern in order to allow plants to flower and produce seed. All the grass cuttings also need to be removed to keep the soil fertility low so that the flowering plants can compete successfully with the grass. Suitable plants for this method would include:- Cowslip, Ox-eye Daisy, Meadow Cranesbill, Yellow Rattle, Self-Heal and Meadow Buttercup.
I have just been reading in the RHS magazine about “No Mow May” which is another approach to creating a meadow. Studies have shown that lawns cut only once a month attract 10 times as many bees as those that are cut more frequently. This is because plants such as Daisies and White Clover bloom for longer and provide more nectar. Other areas of grass cut less often than once a month were even more beneficial for wildlife as larger plants such as the Ox-eye Daisy and Knapweed greatly increased the range of sources of nectar and extended its availability into late summer. The recommendation is therefore for wildlife gardeners to keep two lengths of grass. Some areas can be left unmown until the end of the summer for the larger plants, whilst in other areas the grass can be kept shorter by mowing once a month to a length of 1 or 2 inches.
8 Provide Water
At a very simple level this can just be a bird bath or a saucer of water on the ground. This is really important particularly in dry periods or icy conditions. You only have to watch the activity around a bird bath to know how much your birds appreciate it. On a different level creating a pond, however small, will have an even bigger impact for wildlife. This can range from an upturned dustbin lid, an old sink, a half barrel, a small pre-formed lined pond to a large pool or pond. Creating a pond is a topic in itself and one perhaps for a future blog or talk but I can definitely recommend it. Our small pond using a pre-formed liner holding a thousand litres was put in ready for filling and planting up in the spring of 2018. It is already looking really mature and, as we chose not to stock it with fish which eat everything in sight, it is full of life with Pond Skaters, Water Boatmen, Damselflies, Water Beetles, rapidly growing frog tadpoles and a few newts.
Finally in addition to these 8 key ideas and projects there are also a few useful principles for wildlife gardeners to follow:-
*Resist the urge to be too tidy in autumn and winter! Leave seed heads, plant stems and leaves as food sources, shelter and overwintering places.
*By attracting creatures such as birds, hedgehogs, frogs and toads into the garden slugs and snails will be controlled to some extent naturally. However, if slugs and snails are a problem for young, tender plants or in the vegetable garden there are wildlife friendly methods of control available. Avoid at all costs using chemicals based on Metaldehide or Methiocarb . Instead use barriers such as grit, copper bands on pots, wool products or use pellets based on Ferrous Phosphate which kills slugs and snails but does not make them poisonous to other animals and which, if uneaten, are broken down in the soil to produce a fertiliser.
*Avoid using chemicals as much as possible. Choose herbicides which are neutralised by the soil such as Glyphosate and only use organic insecticides such as dilute washing up liquid or Pyrethrum which is plant based so that beneficial insects are not affected.
*Better still, go completely organic and rely on your new” friends” to deal with the unwanted creatures!
*Leave a few untidy corners, perhaps out of sight from the main garden, where nature can just do its own thing. These would include nettle patches which are the food source for the caterpillars of many butterflies including Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma and also Bramble patches which are great sources of food and shelter for all sorts of creatures.
I hope the above has given you some ideas which you can use in your own garden. If you do, the wildlife will thank you by appearing and sharing your garden with you and you will feel better for it!
For the next blog now that plants are becoming more readily available I am going to look at planting in containers to use on patios and in courtyards.
Until then enjoy your gardening and your garden.