Gardening for wildlife (and people…)

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Photo caption: Foxgloves are beautiful biennials loved by bumblebees and people.

1. A wildlife garden doesn’t have to be a jungle
2. How to benefit the wildlife in and around your garden
3. How to benefit wildlife generally by becoming a vargreener gardener
4. The cornerstone of wildlife gardening
5. Plant choice for wildlife and you
6. Short-lived plants for wildlife – hardy annuals from seed
7. More annuals for wildlife
8. Biennials for wildlife
9. Long-lived flowers – perennial herbaceous plants for wildlife
10. Perennials for various times of year for wildlife
11. Perennials – bulbs for wildlife
12. Perennials – trees and shrubs for wildlife
13. Fruitful plants for wildlife
14. Hedges for wildlife
15. Lawns for green gardeners and wildlife
16. Guide to lawncare for greener gardeners – spring
17. Guide to lawncare – summer/autumn
18. Make a brushwood heap

1. A wildlife garden doesn’t have to be a jungle, say Alec and Val Scaresbrook

You don’t have to turn your garden into a jungle for it to be wildlife-friendly.  All it needs is suitable plants and gardening methods.  Then you’ll be rewarded by the extra interest and changing scene as birds, butterflies and bees move in to enjoy your work and enhance your view all year round.  These creatures act as natural pest controllers too, so you can minimise your use of pesticides, and bask in the warm glow of becoming a greener gardener, doing your bit for the world. Thinking globally and acting locally really does make a difference.


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2. How to benefit the wildlife in and around your garden

  • Grow nectar-laden flowers for the bees. These insects are diminishing frighteningly fast, and without bees to pollinate our food crops, the world will lose a third of its food.
  • Grow plants to attract all sorts of insects, which in turn provide food for other creatures.
  • Provide sites and materials for bird nesting (from our online garden centre or the RSPB.

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  • Provide nesting sites for bats (see bat boxes from RSPB.

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  • Provide insect boxes

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  • Prune hedges once the bird nesting season has finished.
  • Provide water for birds and other creatures.
  • Provide a pond for frogs, toads and newts – they’ll soon move in.
  • Provide hibernating places.
  • Provide roosting places.
  • Put out special food for birds and other creatures during difficult times.
  • Don’t tidy up too much. Leave seedheads for winter birdfood, and flowerstalks for winter shelter for beneficial creepy-crawlies.
  • Only use pesticides (weedkillers, fungicides, insecticides) when absolutely essential, and if you must use them, reduce the risk to bees by only applying at dusk, when these insects should be safely tucked up in their hives. Bees are under such pressures that it’s not worth the risk of exposing the bees to any pesticides, even if the ingredients are not designed to kill insects.
  • Protect pondlife, watercourses and ground water from garden chemicals (pesticides and fertilisers) by following all instructions and only using when absolutely necessary. Remember that heavy rain can wash chemicals off plants and the ground into nearby ponds, ditches, gutters and drains, to the detriment of those dependent on this water (which includes us!).

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3. How to benefit wildlife generally by becoming a greener gardener

Is your garden costing the Earth? Just a few changes could reduce your impact.

  • Compost your garden, kitchen and paper waste to reduce pollution (you’ve heard of food miles, but what about tip miles or recycling miles?) and land use for waste disposal.
  • Use fertilisers correctly – don’t overdose as it’s a waste of money and materials. Plants can only use so much, and the excess contaminates surface and underground water.
  • Use the phone and Internet to track down items rather than drive wasted miles.
  • Conserve valuable resources – reduce, re-use, recycle. De-clutter by selling locally or giving away (via Freecycle or Freegle) unwanted but useful stuff.
  • Avoid materials that come from diminishing resources and habitats such as peat bogs, natural forests. Ask where raw materials come from.
  • Avoid materials taken from places valuable for habitat or scenery or both. Ask where they have come from.
  • Avoid materials imported over long distances if locally sourced alternatives are available. Ask where they have come from.
  • Consider the carbon footprint of your garden machinery – could you switch to hand tools, or re-design your garden to reduce the work done by machines?  We replaced our grass lawn with a pond, bog garden, flower beds and a non-grass lawn that requires no mowing.  We also grubbed out our privet hedge that required trimming every few weeks, and replaced it with holly that only requires annual pruning.  So now we can face using hand shears.

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4. The cornerstone of wildlife gardening

Plants and insects

Plants provide a range of habitats that suit different types of life, including creepy crawlies and flying insects, which in turn support creatures higher up the food chain, including hedgehogs, birds and bats.

Like ’em or loathe ’em, insects are essential, with many being vital pollinators, enabling gardeners and farmers alike to produce crops of peas, beans, tomatoes and fruit.  In fact, a third of the world’s food crops require insect pollinators – without them our plant diet would be much more limited (cabbages, root crops, and cereals).  Bulking up seed would also be more difficult.  For these reasons, wildlife gardeners choose to minimise their use of pesticides, to avoid killing essential insects along with the pests.  Although garden chemicals are rigorously tested for their effect on humans and other creatures, and are supposedly safe, it is harder to test for cumulative and synergistic effects from the use of many different types of chemical in combination with weather patterns and other factors. So the precautionary principle is best.

Biological/organic pest control with predators

As some pests are actually good guys for part of their life, timing of their control is important. For example, in the spring, wasps eat greenfly and other aphids, keeping down these sap-suckers, and it is only in late summer when they are searching for sugar that they become a nuisance to us when we’re trying to enjoy a picnic.  Kill them early on in their lives and you remove one of nature’s pest controllers.

Some pests lurking in the garden can be controlled with natural predators, as can many in greenhouses, now that they are sold to ordinary gardeners as well as commercial growers.  Once pests are spotted, you can release these creatures to devour the pests, keeping your crops and your diet as organic as possible.

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5. Plant choice for wildlife and you

Local or foreign plants?

No need to restrict yourself to growing British native plants as many garden varieties, including those native to other countries, are more ornamental and still highly appealing to our wild creatures, providing adult insects with food and shelter.

These more decorative garden varieties are often easier to grow from seed too – much wildflower seed is notoriously difficult to germinate.  Also some unscrupulous suppliers harvest plants and bulbs from the wild instead of growing them in nurseries, so you could unwittingly aid in destroying valuable natural habitats.

With the right plants in your garden, the most obvious visitors will be hoverflies, butterflies, moths, and bees, with birds also taking an interest in insect eggs, caterpillars, and winged insects, along with seedheads and fruit. You may even see bats hunting at dusk.

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6. Short-lived plants – hardy annuals from seed

Annual plants grow, flower, set seed and die in one year, and are usually sown straight into the ground, although you can buy them as small plants (or plugs) too (more info in section 7).  All are happy in sunny places;  some tolerate light shade.  Most are summer flowering, beginning in June/July and continuing until autumn or the first frosts.

Hardy annuals do not have to be nurtured in a greenhouse first, so if the ground they were growing in the previous year is raked over lightly in spring, any seed left in the soil may germinate to give another display.

Wildlife-friendly hardy annuals to sow directly into a well-prepared border in March (or in a windowbox or other container) include:

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7. More annuals for wildlife

Some summer flowering annuals (bedding annuals) are not fully hardy, so need starting off in the greenhouse.  Alternatively you can buy these as plugs (sturdy seedlings) or buy larger plants later in the season.  You can also buy hardy annuals as plugs or plants.  Plugs and plants are produced from seed that is sown indoors in February in small pockets of compost (plugs) thinned out and then sold on to gardeners or these plugs are transferred to pots for sale later.  Whether they are naturally hardy or half hardy, this method produces tender plants that have to be hardened off by leaving them outside during frost-free periods.  Once acclimatised to the colder outdoors, naturally hardy types can be planted out, but the naturally half-hardy types cannot be planted out until frosts have finished.

If you have a greenhouse, some half-hardy annuals are easy to grow from seed, including these:

For faster results, other half-hardies are often available as plants (some from Thompson & Morgan). Browse some options below:

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8. Biennials for wildlife

Sow these in the summer to flower the next year. Or buy plants ready to flower the same year. Sow these hardy biennials in the garden and they’ll self-seed forever, if you let them:

Buy and plant out these hardy biennial plants in autumn:

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9. Long-lived flowers – perennial herbaceous plants for wildlife

Perennial border plants are mainly deciduous, dying back in winter and bursting into life again in spring.  Because they live for many years, they are best planted in a permanent place, but will need digging up every three years or so to be rejuvenated. Split them up (chop with a spade or tease apart with two garden forks back to back) and replant the outer pieces, well spaced apart.  Then discard the old centre.

Perennials sold as plugs or in containers can be planted at any time if the soil is neither frozen nor waterlogged.  However, autumn is the best time, when the soil is warm and there is no danger of drought, so you don’t have to water.  If you buy bare-rooted plants, they will have been dug up from the ground and should be planted immediately, so make sure you are ready before delivery.  Large perennial plants are good value as you can split them up before planting to cover a larger area of ground.

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10. Perennials for various times of year

Choose mat-forming and trailing plants for rockeries and other well-drained places, and taller plants for flower borders. The following plants all provide nectar, or pollen, or both, to attract butterflies, hoverflies and bees.

Perennials for early flowers (January/February):

Perennials for spring flowers:

  • Arabis  – mat-forming white-flowered (choose single flowering types)
  • Aubretia – trailing red/purple-flowered flowers
  • Alyssum – brassy yellow flowers brighten the garden
  • Leopard’s bane(Doronicum) – produces an early yellow flower
  • Perennial cornflower (Centaurea dealbata ; C. montana) – blues, pinks, white, depending on species and cultivar. See the choice from our online shop and Thompson & Morgan.

Perennials for mid-summer flowers:

  • Thyme (Thymus) – mat-forming
  • Marjoram (Oreganum) – low-growing
  • Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum) – white flowers.Stake these tall plants to support their flowers stems
  • Oriental poppy (Papaver) – varety of colours
  • Hollyhock (Althaea) – choose single flowers
  • Golden rod (Solidago) – choose a well-behaved compact type, not the old-fashioned tall spreading type
  • Perennial phlox (Phlox)
  • Globe thistle (Echinops) – no need for staking
  • Scabious – doesn’t need staking.

Autumn-flowering perennials:

  • Michaelmas daisies (Aster)
  • Ice plant (Sedum spectabile) – avoid named types such as Autumn Joy, which aren’t so attractive to butterflies.

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11. Perennials – bulbs

The following bulbs are especially useful for wildlife.

For spring colour – plant in autumn:

  • Winter aconite (Aconitus)
  • Grape hyacinth (Muscari) – spreads quickly, so contain it by deadheading and digging out unwanted plants
  • Spring crocus (Crocus)
  • Anemone
  • English bluebell (Endymion non-scripta) – shorter and more delicate than the Spanish bluebell, but invasive so take care to contain it.  Tolerates light shade.

For autumn colour – plant in early summer:

  • Meadow saffron (Colchicum) – flowers appear in autumn, large leaves in spring.

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12. Perennials – trees and shrubs

These woody plants provide structure in the garden all year round, nooks and crannies for overwintering insects, and sites for birds to roost or nest. Any dense plant, especially if evergreen, provides shelter and cover for birds, and a larder of creepy crawlies. Additionally pollen- or nectar-laden flowers, plus fruit, may be beneficial, in addition to providing a colourful display for you. In no particular order:

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13. Fruitful plants

Not all plants are reliable at producing berries. A number of plants are either male or female and you need both nearby to ensure berries on the female plant. Also, birds often ignore the ‘wrong’ colour, so choose red berries to be sure. Those that make attractive garden plants and yield well for the birds include:

Climbers:

  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera)
  • Vine (Vitis) – produces grapes.
  • Ivy (Hedera) – produces black berries.

Shrubs:

  • Cotoneaster  – reliable crop on evergreen and deciduous varieties, which can be grown against a wall.
  • Firethorn (Pyracantha) – can be trained to grow flat against a wall, fruits in October – red berried varieties best for birds.
  • Japonica (Chaenomeles)
  • Crab apple (Malus)
  • Rose (Rosa) – choose ones that reliabley produce rose hips, which are popular with greenfinches.
  • Berberis 
  • Aucuba
  • Butchers broom (Ruscus)
  • Hypericum
  • Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
  • Pernettya  – ‘Bell’s Seedling’ has male and female flowers on same plant so you only need one for berries.
  • Mahonia 
  • Chokeberry (Cotoneaster)
  • Elder (Sambucus) – there are ornamental versions – only choose the wild one if you can keep it in check!
  • Skimmia (S. reevesiana) – this species has male and female flowers on the same plant.
  • Holly (Ilex) – such as ‘Wilsonii’ or Brilliant’ (beware holly names – kings are female, queens are male)
  • Viburnum davidii  – forms a low-growing mound that fruits more profusely if there are several plants.

Trees:

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14. Hedges for wildlife

If the trees and shrubs suggested in the previous section would become too large for your garden, you could choose some to grow instead as hedges – trim after flowering but leave some old blossom to develop into fruit – you can trim off these straggly bits once the fruit has gone. Dense hedges are good for nesting birds, although some such as leylandii are not so good for gardeners unless kept under control. Look at our hedging information.

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15. Lawns for green gardeners

Lawns resembling wildflower meadows are impractical in most gardens and quite difficult to do well. Fortunately, you can keep a traditional lawn looking neat, and be green at the same time.

Most chemicals are unnecessary for routine care of ordinary lawns. Troubles can usually be avoided by encouraging the grass to grow strongly. Cutting the lawn too short and taking too much off in one mowing session weakens the grass plants, turning the lawn yellow and giving moss and other weeds a chance to invade.

In the problem areas, such as shady or badly drained sites, the answer is to grow something other than a lawn – perhaps low-growing evergreens that are happy in the poor conditions.

Powered mowers contribute to air pollution, either from the mower engine or the power station providing the electricity, so you could consider a hand mower if you don’t have a very big lawn. They are much much easier to push than the old-fashioned ones – have a go and be surprised.

If you remove the mowings from your lawn every time you cut it, the soil in which the lawn is growing will gradually become less fertile. One solution is to leave the clippings on every third cut. If you mow little and often, you won’t get clumps of clippings so you could let them drop every time. Or you could use a mulching mower that cuts up the mowings into tiny pieces so they are not visible when left on the lawn. If you really must collect the mowings, then they are great for the compost heap. However, because you are robbing the lawn of its nutrients, you’ll need to apply some lawn fertiliser, but remember that although nitrogen is important for leafy plants, high levels result in excessive growth. Avoid the extra mowing by studying the fertiliser’s contents, and choosing a slow-release type to feed the lawn gradually so it doesn’t race away. For a good green colour without fast growth, choose a fertiliser containing iron.

If you are still keen on a wildflower meadow, then create a mini-meadow as a clearly defined, unmown section of your lawn – leave a strip or corner and cut it after the grasses and any wildflowers have gone to seed. And for a different approach altogether, you could consider an alternative to grass.

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16. Guide to lawncare for greener gardeners – spring

  • Aim to remove no more that a third of the growth, so start mowing early in the year and adjust the mower’s cutting height if necessary.
  • Collect the mowings if there are lots.

Mow the grass to leave it at least half an inch high (preferably one inch), so that it can survive spells of drought. Then there is no need to water the lawn to keep it green.

  • Stop mowing if the grass stops growing.
  • Kill moss with lawn sand, then rake out the dead moss after a few days.
  • Weeds in lawns are a problem for greener gardeners who don’t want to use weedkillers. The simplest method of getting rid of individual weeds is to dig them out. Cut out buttercups and daisies at ground level. Deep-rooted weeds like dandelions, plantains and couch grass need to be taken out with as much of the root attached as possible. In the case of lawns infested with large numbers of weeds the best long-term solution is to create conditions in which grasses thrive. Use spot weedkillers on the lawn only as a last resort!
  • Click on this lawncare link for more information.

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17. Guide to lawncare – summer/autumn

Summer After the first burst of growth in spring, grass growth usually slows down. Continue to mow frequently, but don’t collect the mowings. When only mowing off a little grass at a time, the mowings are unobstructive and quickly decompose, returning nutrients to the soil. Autumn Wormcasts become more obvious now, making mowing a slippery job and providing a seedbed for weeds. Allow time to drag a stiff brush over the lawn before mowing, to disperse the casts and knock dew off the grass. An acidic fertilizer (eg one containing iron sulphate) makes the soil less attractive to cast-forming worms. Remove leaves regularly before they block light to the grass. Don’t delay because once worms pull the tips of leaves into the ground, they can’t be swept up. Use a brush, lawn rake, mechanical lawn sweep or rotary mower. Click on this lawncare link for more information.

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18. Make a brushwood heap

Wildlife benefits from an undisturbed area, and creating a woody heap not only helps wildlife but solves the problem of disposing of woody prunings. No need to shred, burn or take them to the tip. The pile of wood can be neat and tidy – that won’t deter the wildlife. Make a definite edge to it with large logs or wooden slats, then stack your prunings in the middle. If you trim them up so you can place all the branches and twigs in the same direction, you’ll reduce the volume, make a tidier stack, and provide more shelter for hedgehogs, toads and so on.
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