With so much more land being built on, paved over or concreted in, our own gardens play an increasingly vital role in supporting our native flora and fauna species. But that’s not just for their benefit, it’s for our benefit too. We learn about the food chain in infant school but conveniently forget it when it comes to greenfly on our roses! As gardeners, we will get more effective results if we work with nature, not against it.
To be a wildlife gardener doesn’t mean you have to have a garden that looks a complete mess. It can be beautiful and support a wide range of species too. Here are a few simple and often inconspicuous tips that will ensure your patch – however small or large – becomes a sanctuary for wildlife and for you.
All living creatures need water so try to introduce a range of water sources at different positions and heights around your garden. What will suit a landing bird might not suit a dinky hedgehog, for example. We don’t often think about it but even insects need water so shallow dishes with a few pebbles for them to land on will allow them to drink too.
Where you can, use rainwater rather than tap water. Although it won’t harm wildlife, our tap water can be rather hard and any pondlife will definitely prefer rainwater.
Many of us are guilty of dedicating large areas of our gardens to a monoculture crop: our lawn. If you take pride in yours, we’re not suggesting you dig it up, just think about providing the widest diversity of other types of plant in the rest of the garden that you can.
There are two main things to think about when choosing wildlife friendly plants. First, think about when a plant flowers or produces its seeds and berries in relation to the other plants in your garden, so you can try to provide food sources for as long as possible. If all your summer bedding comes into flower at once, for example, not only will it make for very short-lived interest for us humans, but it won’t support our wildlife as much as it could. Second, think about different flower shapes so you can attract the widest range of insects possible. Hover flies, for example, love flat-headed flowers, like Ammi Majus (or cow parsley) whereas some varieties of bee like crawling up into the funnels of flowers like foxglove or snap dragon to find their food. When you can, try to avoid ‘double’ flowers as they can often be bred to have so many petals that the insects can’t find their way through to the nectar or pollen at all.
When planting native plants, ensure they are of genuine native stock and not of continental origin. Also, ensure ‘wild flowers’ have been cultivated from legally collected seed and not dug-up from the wild. (All Hambrooks plants are from responsible sources).
A varied garden is more interesting for us but can also provide more potential habitats for wildlife too. And some of the most under-rated garden features can provide useful homes or shelters.
Although lawns can support a range of smaller insects, they can become a really important habitat if you are prepared to leave a patch to grow longer. Borders full of flowering plants and shrubs don’t just provide food but they can provide cover for birds and small mammals too. (Anyone who has heard a hedgehog snuffling around their dahlias will know that!)
Hedges, trees and climbers provide great opportunities for nesting or roosting; natural roosting sites are becoming increasingly hard to find so any help we can offer is welcome. Hedges also offer valuable shelter to birds and mammals from the elements and potential predators. And even the smallest water features can become a habitat for a variety of invertebrates and amphibians, as well as providing water and bathing facilities to other garden visitors. Even a compost heap or pile of garden clippings can provide protection for small creatures.
If you’re feeling particularly welcoming, why not install a bird box, bat box or bug hotel in your garden? There are lots of guides online to build your own. Do be mindful of the instructions on where to site your new home, as some creatures have particular habits we need to bear in mind.
As we’re already said, areas of long grass and wood piles are brilliant homes for a variety of animals, birds and insects so one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife into your garden is not to be too neat. Or at least, allocate areas of the garden that you will leave less neat than others!
As well as food and shelters, we need to provide suitable opportunities for wildlife to nest or lay eggs. For example, butterflies need suitable plants on which to lay their eggs, and for the emerging caterpillars to feed on. Honesty and hedge garlic, for example, are loved by orange tip butterflies and brimstones love buckthorn bushes!
Most of us are getting better at ditching the weed killers and pesticides but, for the sake of your garden’s native inhabitants, try to cut out the chemical complete. There are many really effective, natural alternatives now so there are less excuses today.
Of course, encouraging nature into your garden will also mean you have natural predators to help you. Hedgehogs will help with your slug and snail problem, but they will also gobble up beetles and caterpillars too. To answer that perennial question “what is the point of wasps?”, they eat aphids and insects so can be useful to have around. That’s without mentioning the diet of more well-known garden predators like ladybirds, bats and garden birds.
So many of our actions have an impact on wildlife which goes beyond our gardens, and it’s important for us to think about this when choosing materials and creating our spaces.
It doesn’t take much effort to become a wildlife supporter, but it does perhaps take a little thought. So much of what we do in our gardens has a wider impact on the nature around us, we need to be more mindful of other inhabitants of our little planet.
Much of the information in this article, as well as many more useful tips on gardening for wildlife, can be found on the RSPB website at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/