Updated: Sep 22, 2020
A wildlife garden doesn’t have to be an unkempt jungle of nettles and brambles. In fact, just letting a garden ‘go wild’ and overgrown is bad for biodiversity, and not altogether good for people either. But with a bit of planning we can make our gardens a haven for wildlife and people at the same time.
Whether you have a small or large space – or even just a window ledge or yard – you can make your patch an oasis for wildlife that will attract and nurture many plants and animals that are under pressure from intensive farming practices, and the destruction of their natural habitats as human settlement expands.
I was surprised to learn that a square metre of British garden can support more biodiversity than the same measure of the Amazon rainforest, and in all the gardens we build we try to reserve some space for the native flora and fauna. In a number of community gardens or allotments we have helped build, we’ve recommended the introduction of ‘nectar bars’, which are an area of planting just for pollinators providing food and attracting them to the garden to do their work
The key to attracting wildlife is providing a variety of different habitats for different species. Planning like this can also make one’s garden aesthetically pleasing. The other rule of thumb is to try and champion native plants. Too often, the many beautiful British plants we boast in these Isles are shunted to one side in favour of mass-produced imports from industrial greenhouses in the Netherlands or elsewhere.
In many cases, once planted out, many of the ornamental exotics either don’t flourish, or over-flourish and crowd out all other plant species. And as they are often bio-engineered they don’t deliver much pollen or nectar for bees and other pollinators and aren’t really suitable for the palate of our native animals. Many nurseries now stock indigenous plants, which in summer provide a riot of colour and are able to put up with the rather wet winters we have in the UK.
The first thing that you can do to attract wildlife is to let the grass grow a bit. I know that the concept of a perfectly manicured lawn appeals to the recessive OCD-gene that is in all of us, however leaving a little bit un-mown will make space for many plant and insect species, including butterflies and wildflowers. Mowing the lawn only once every four weeks gives ‘short-grass’ plants like daisies and white clover a chance to flower in profusion, boosting nectar production tenfold.
Providing space to feed and for shelter is a basic necessity for all life (including us). Growing climbers against a wall or fence such as ivy or honeysuckle, will provide brilliant shelter, as well as roosting and breeding sites for birds as well as cover unsightly outbuildings and walls. Lonicera periclymenum, is a native honeysuckle and in full bloom, it’s hard to believe that such an exotic-looking plant is as British as cream tea. It will provide plenty of nectar for butterflies and bees, has a beautiful scent and in the autumn will deliver a harvest of berries to get animals though the winter (just a note for little fingers – honeysuckle berries are poisonous to humans – however the flowers do make a lovely jelly/jam and tea).
Other great options are wisteria, hops, clematis and hydrangea. For that quintessential English county garden look, a rambling, climbing rose will provide great cover, colour, food and scent. If you want to bring various different species into the garden, you need to provide different habitats. A log pile and an open compost heap will offer shelter, food and cover for hedgehogs, frogs and other amphibians, thrushes, sparrows and stag beetles. They can be quite unobtrusive, squirreled away in a dark corner.
Creating corridors through which wildlife can move is important. Another great wildlife option for a garden is to take out your fence and replace it with a hedge, but again plant selection is paramount. A long row of leylandii - much loved by backdoor naturists and the source of many neighbourly ‘light fights’ - is better than a line of panelled fencing, but in no way as beautiful and enriching as a well-thought out barrier of hedgerow species. Using species like hawthorn, beech, spindle, blackthorn, hazel, holly, field maple, buckthorn will provide a refuge for wildlife, deter burglars and unlike the leylandii, enough light will filter down to allow you to plant at the base of the hedge.
Providing bird boxes, bat boxes and hedgehog homes can be a great way of introducing good artificial shelters into nature. Natural roosting and nesting sites can be increasingly hard for animals to find and our gardens give us the chance to give them an ongoing safe alternative.
Finally consider a pond. It’s fairly easy to dig a pond and there are many prefabricated fibreglass shapes that you can buy that will save you fiddling around with pond liners. As well as creating a creating a calm and beautiful environment, it will attract many wildlife visitors to your garden. If you really want to go wild, avoid putting in fish, as they have a voracious appetite. Your pond doesn’t have to be the size of an Olympic swimming pool, a buried dustbin lid or even a large saucepan will suffice.
If you would like to learn a bit more about wildlife gardening, or get RenewEL to help design a wildlife garden for you, please leave your details in the comments below, give us a ring, or reach out to us on social media or email.