Gardening for wildlife is probably the easiest way to garden, and is possibly the best thing that you can do for animals. It’s also something that we can all do in our gardens, and if you have one, in our allotments too.
There’s nothing that beats the sound of bird song, the spectacle of butterflies and bees, and the thrill of meeting squirrels and hedgehogs. Between us, we have over a million acres of gardens; these are a rich mixture of habitats that add up to the largest nature reserve in the country.
If you can think of your garden as a sunny glade, set amongst the trees of an urban forest, that’s filled with fruits and flowers; with a little encouragement, wildlife will come.
The Traditional Recipe
- Nest boxes and bird feeders
Take one garden.
Hopefully inherit one with mature trees (if not you’ll have to grow your own)
Dig a hole in your garden and fill it with water.
Let your lawn grow and leave it straggly.
Scatter wildflower seeds everywhere.
Decorate with nest boxes and bird feeders.
Well not quite, don’t forget that your garden is somewhere that has to accommodate you too, so think about how you will be using your garden and what you want to grow. It needs to work for you and work for wildlife.
Making our gardens wildlife friendly doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to leave them to grow into wild jungles. Every space, whether it’s a huge estate or a busy family garden, can give a home to nature.
There are lots of simple things we can do to help the animals we share a space with, from making sure that they have access to different habitats, to nurturing well stocked feeding grounds for them. With a little imagination, it’s easy to create a recipe in your garden that works for wildlife.
Imagine that your garden is a hotel and that it has to offer:
- A friendly welcome for all creatures.
- A pool
- A Nectar Bar open all year round
- A Restaurant where all diets are catered for
- Is open to non residents
- Accommodates short breaks and long stay
- There’s no booking required.
To create your garden hotel, the traditional recipe for gardening for wildlife needs a few more ingredients. The essentials to bear in mind are the same essentials that we all need; somewhere to live and something to eat and drink; but the secret to success is to consider what needs wildlife has and how to fulfill them.
My Recipe for a Garden Hotel
- Climbing Plants
- Nest boxes, insect houses and bird feeders
Take one garden.
Hopefully inherit one with mature trees (if not you’ll have to grow your own)
Dig a large shallow hole in your garden and fill it with water.
Let an area of grass grow, leave it straggly and let moss grow in the rest.
Plant lots of flowers that come out at different times of the year.
Plant shrubs that flower and some that produce fruits.
Grow climbing plants up walls and fences.
Mulch areas around plants, with wood chippings or slate.
Put wood, twigs and logs in quiet areas.
Don’t be too tidy, leave flowers to seed and put clippings on your borders.
Build a stone wall and use rocks around the garden.
Decorate with nest boxes, insect houses and bird feeders.
Well that was easy!
Like I have already said, gardening for wildlife is probably the easiest way to garden; but with every low maintenance garden there is some work to do in the first place. The good news is that wildlife prefers self catering to five stars and it will work for as long as you have…
The Right Ingredients
To make your Garden Hotel work, the right ingredients are more important than the method. There is no right or wrong method because no two gardens are the same. But the more right ingredients you have, the more wildlife will come into your garden. Here in order of preference are my right ingredients:
- Trees – Nothing in your garden will provide a home and a source of food to more animals than a tree. One tree can support thousands of insects, animals and birds.
- Pond – All wildlife needs water; a shallow pond with a muddy bottom will transform your garden, supporting frogs, toads, dragonflies and birds.
- Flowers – Choose simple flowers and try to achieve the longest flowering season, herbaceous perennials will return every year and can flower for months, feeding bees, butterflies and many other insects, whilst offering shelter to lots of insects, plus slugs and snails.
- Shrubs – Woody perennials offer habitats all year round; they usually flower and produce fruits and seeds that feed birds and small mammals.
- Climbing Plants – Provide habitats and food throughout the year for lots of birds and insects including bees, in areas that are usually lifeless.
- Mulch – Nothing promotes more life in your soil than a mulch. Your barren borders will be alive with insects and your worms will thrive too. Wood chippings are best because they also feed the soil, and you can add to this with clippings from your lawn and from trimmed plants.
- Wood – Old planks, logs or twigs will provide habitats for hundreds of insects, small mammals, slugs, snails and even hedgehogs.
- Stone – Create some nooks and crannies for frogs, toads, insects, and even bees. Creatures of the night will particularly benefit from a loose laid stone wall.
- Nest boxes, insect houses and bird feeders – Can be useful particularly in winter; but often are just decoration and if not maintained properly will harm wildlife. You whole garden can be a wildlife hotel even without them.
- Grass – A well maintained lawn is almost lifeless, but if left to grow it turns into a mini meadow, that will attract of all sorts of animals.
In our garden we have, just like a hotel, separated the garden into rooms to create different habitats. We have a lawn garden with flower borders, we have a slate garden with a pond and a fire pit; and we have a children’s playground that is mulched. We have planted different trees, shrubs, flowers and climbing plants everywhere; and these have attracted lots of birds, bees, butterflies, slugs, snails, frogs, other flies, beetles, aphids, some bats, a few mice, squirrels, dragon flies and even a visiting fox.
Plants to attract wildlife
Any plant will attract wildlife, but some are better than others; here are a few of the best ones and why:
- Blackberries – More use to more creatures than any other garden plant. Flowers provide nectar, berries feed the birds and the plant provides a protective home for lots of animals, including larger ones like foxes!
- Buddleia – It’s not called the butterfly bush for nothing, but it also feeds other insects and if you leave the seeds on, will feed the birds over winter.
- Borage – A great herb that will be full of bees. You will get a succession of plants if you just leave them to it; that will provide nectar from spring into autumn.
- Comfrey – Flowers from May to July, attracting a wide range of pollinating insects. It has become an important plant for organic gardeners as its roots reach deep into the soil making it rich in minerals, while its leaves can be used for slug control, as a liquid fertiliser and as a composting aid.
- Cow Parsley – Good food for a variety of insect life including bees and hoverflies. A must have for every wildlife garden!
- Cotoneaster and Pyracantha – are a valuable source of nectar when often the bees have little other forage in the June gap. The red berries are also highly attractive to blackbirds and other thrushes.
- Geranium (Sp) – another favourite for lots of insects, hoverflies love them. An easy to grow herbaceous perennial that can flower for months and if cut back after flowering will provide a second flush. If you look under one, just like a log, you’ll find hundreds of insects, slugs and snails.
- Hawthorn – can support more than 300 insects. It is the food plant for caterpillars of many moths. Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The haws are rich in antioxidants and are eaten by many migrating birds such as redwings, fieldfares and thrushes, as well as small mammals. The dense thorny foliage also makes fantastic nesting shelter for many species of bird.
- Honeysuckle – flowers have one of the sweetest scents of all British wild flowers. The scent is strongest at night to attract pollinating moths.
- Holly – Provides birds’ shelter and protection and berries during winter.
- Ivy – Robins, blackbirds and many other birds will nest in it. Insects love to live in it too. Also provides the last source of nectar at the end of the year for bees.
- Lavender – Another favourite for bees and other pollinating insects, it’s a low maintenance plant to grow that is suitable for gardens of all sizes
- Lungwort – one of the first flowering perennials that bees love. Also grows happily in shady areas.
- Nettles – Caterpillars use them as food plants; ladybirds feast on the aphids that shelter among them; and birds enjoy their autumn spoils
- Privet – A great shrub that can be cut into a tidy hedge. Provides flowers and fruit; and a home to birds and insects all year round.
- Snowball Tree (Viburnum opulus) – A spring flowering native with massive appeal to us and them. The red berries are an important food source for birds, including bullfinch and mistle thrush. The shrub canopy provides shelter for other wildlife. The flowers are especially attractive to hoverflies.
Gardening for wildlife is possibly the best thing that you can do for animals; not eating them is definitely too, but another thing you can do to is grow your own food in your garden or at an allotment. Modern farming methods aren’t always kind to animals, or to the environment. If you grow your own, not only are you getting better food, you also know how it has been grown. You can also garden for wildlife whilst growing your own food too!
We also have a large allotment that has also been planned in sections; with different wildlife areas located around the plot. We have planted many of the plants to attract wildlife that I have suggested, to encourage wildlife that benefit our fruit and vegetable plants. Our wildlife areas are attracting insects that pollinate our crop plants, and our wildlife areas support other beneficial creatures that help keep a natural balance across the allotment organically.
My tips for success are:
- Chemicals – Don’t use weed killers, slug bait or insecticides. To put it simply, you will be poisoning everything in your garden. If you pull up weeds and leave the rest to nature, she will create a balance.
- Mulching – Do it because it will stop most weeds, feeds the soil, saves water because it stops the soil drying out and it creates a home for insects. Use wood chips, leaves and home compost together. You can also use slate or single in other areas to create different habitats.
- Variety – Offer wildlife as much variety of plants and habitation as you can.
- Flowers – Try to have something flowering all the time.
- Water – always have water available, in a dish and a pond if you can.
- Don’t be too tidy – leave seed heads on, and leave some grass and other cuttings in your borders for slugs, snails and insects to feed on.
- Habitats – use unused areas for habitats. Make piles out of logs, a few rocks or even some old timber to give creatures a home.
- Recycle everything – Create liquid manure by putting nettles or comfrey in a bucket of water for a month. Collect leaves in the autumn to make leaf mold. Compost or shred everything else and use to create mulch for your borders.
- Get a butt – collect rainwater to water your plants because they prefer it.
- Put your feet up – and enjoy watching the wildlife!
Written by Jonathan Hornett for a talk at Milton Keynes Vegan Festival 2019