Gardens cover more land in this country than do nature reserves, so their potential value for wildlife is obvious. Vicky Ellis shows how we can provide a home for our flora and fauna while keeping everything in the garden lovely.
Considering wildlife while gardening does not necessarily mean only wild lawns and stinging nettles. It is possible to grow flowers, vegetables and wildlife and have a lovely garden, too.
The area that gardens occupy in the UK adds up to an area larger than all our nature reserves combined. This drums home how important our gardens are to nature and what they could potentially contribute to our biodiversity, especially when considering that our gardens were probably once part of our countryside. Even window boxes and balconies can play an important role in our environment and, in turn, our health and well-being.
Two of the most damaging things we can do in our gardens is lay down plastic turf or concrete. Plastic turf, or artificial grass, is effectively just that, plastic, and as it breaks down, so the micro-particles of plastic are absorbed into the ground below.
Plastic turf is the single worst option, not just from an environmental stance but also hygiene and waste, with no biodiversity benefits at all – it is a threat to the habitat of birds, bees, butterflies and other critters and creates landfill that will never break down.
The Guardian reported on a study in 2011 that revealed almost 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres or 12 square miles) of green gardens had been lost in eight years, equivalent to two Hyde Parks per year, to artificial grass, decking and concreting. Concrete is impermeable, causing run-off when it rains, and provides little or no shelter to invertebrates.
Even the best-kept lawns have bees that burrow and worms, crane fly larvae and other grubs living beneath the surface. All these help the lawn maintain its structure and ability to absorb nutrients. A lawn is a living, breathing thing, providing habitat, shelter and food for all sorts of wildlife. Cover it up and you create a dead zone.
So how to maximise your space for biodiversity? The more diverse habitats you can fit in, the better. Habitats cater for different species of flora and fauna depending on where your garden is (coastal, woodland and so on) and the soil type, such as clay, sandy or loamy. To avoid getting bogged down in detail, we will stick to the basics that would fit most garden types.
The first step is to retrain your mind to accept that nature is not naturally neat and tidy with straight edges; it is unpredictable, surprising and changeable. Once you have accepted these three things, you can relax and enjoy your garden so much more as you won’t fret about a weed or two in the flowerbed (a weed is simply a plant growing in the wrong place – if you accept wildflowers, there are no such thing as weeds), or the fact that your lawn is more than an inch high!
One of the easiest features to add to any garden is a wood pile. Rotting wood provides food, shelter and nesting sites for invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles. Try to find a sheltered, quiet area in a corner for your log pile and use different types of wood of varying sizes. You can place them stacked on top or randomly clustered together as long as it creates a pile of some sort and, if possible, half-bury the bottom logs. The wood at the bottom should remain damp, even during dry spells; this really aids pupae, molluscs and nematodes. As the logs rot, they provide homes for an array of fungi.
As with logs, rocks provide shelter and basking areas for reptiles. The bottom rocks should remain damp and a pile will provide a sculptural focus for your garden. Try not to place them anywhere hot and exposed. Over time they can become covered in moss, which provides a micro-habitat for invertebrates, holding in moisture. To make your rock pile look even more attractive and colourful, plant with alpines and other plants to create a rock garden, or just wait and see what grows naturally. Maybe keep a diary of what appears.
Water will not just enhance the look of a garden, it will substantially increase biodiversity. You do not need to build a huge pond, a small upturned bin lid or indeed any large receptacle capable of holding water will suffice. It is important to incorporate an escape route for small mammals that might fall into your pond, so put in a ramp; it is best to grade the pond from very shallow at the margins, gradually deepening to the centre. Putting shingle around the shallower edges helps provide shelter and hiding places for aquatic insects and nymphs and gives an opportunity for birds to bathe. Some substrate at the bottom of the pond provides shelter and hiding places for aquatic insects that prefer deeper water. Plant a few reeds round the edges if there’s room as these allow nymphs to come out of the water to morph, while if possible place your pond so it is half in shade and half in the sun.
Resist adding fish as they will feed on invertebrates and aquatic insects or the eggs of amphibians. Unless it is huge, fish do more harm than good in a wildlife pond. Once you have created your pond, aquatic insects such as diving beetles, water boatmen and water skaters will make use of it almost immediately. They seem to parachute in out of nowhere.
Around the margins you can put water-loving native plants such as water mint, arrowhead, water forget-me-nots, marsh marigold and yellow flag iris and place rocks and other water features to enhance the natural look. To help oxygenate the water, plant hornwort, spiked water milfoil and water soldiers.
Lawns do not have to comprise simply grass – you can have a moss lawn, chamomile or clover. Allowing your lawn to grow up in patches encourages grasshoppers, crickets, moths, butterflies and damselflies. Why not allow the grass to grow and then mow paths through the long grass? Take part in ‘No Mow May’ and see what spring flowers you have lurking within your lawn that you never knew were there – there may even be a hidden orchid or two. Having a lawn encompassing an array of native plants such as dandelion, scarlet pimpernel, bird’s-foot trefoil and daisies can look so pretty if allowed to flourish and the pollinators will love it! You will witness more bees, hoverflies and flower beetles and your lawn will come alive with all the activity. It is still important to have mown areas to allow birds to find grubs and seeds.
Varying height in a garden can be attractive to an array of flora and fauna. We have covered the lower-down areas of your garden with log and stone piles and a pond, now we’re going to consider the flowerbeds, pots, shrubs and trees.
In your flowerbed, place small plants at the front, working up to larger plants at the back, using pollinator-friendly plants with a mixture of perennials and annuals such as lavender, cornflowers, alliums, foxgloves, cosmos, sunflowers, hollyhocks, lupins and fennel. You can dot the odd vegetable to harvest among your flowering plants. Avoid ornamental double-headed flowers as bees find it difficult to reach the centre of the flower. If you are feeling adventurous, buy a wildflower seed mix and see what grows. Here you can throw caution to the wind and really cram in the flowers. Think about flowering seasons and try to place plants that flower at different times to extend the flowering season for as long as possible from spring through to autumn.
If you have no room for a flowerbed or prefer pots, you can still grow all the plants already mentioned. Dwarf fruit trees flowering in March and May help provide bees with their first food and then give you a tasty harvest come autumn. The same goes for window boxes and hanging baskets – all these plants can be grown in the tiniest garden or balcony and all help our pollinators.
Shrubs and trees
Flowering shrubs such as buddleia, lilac, choisya and manuka encourage butterflies and bees. If dense enough, you might even get a wren nesting in the shrub. Trees provide nesting areas for birds and, if fruit or nut trees, the blossom provides food for pollinators in spring and the fruit food for birds and small mammals in autumn. Try to think about how useful the tree or shrub is when choosing, rather than its ornamental qualities. Often you will find that any shrub or tree that flowers has highly attractive qualities. If you have a large garden, think linear when placing your trees and shrubs to help create feeding corridors for bats.
Being bold and allowing your garden to grow wild in parts if you have room can be so beneficial for insects, especially caterpillars. A few stinging nettles, brambles and thistles, for instance, are sought after by some species. The peacock butterfly will lay its eggs on stinging nettles, while bumble bees and cabbage whites will enjoy the thistles. To prevent these plants from taking over, you will need to manage them through the year, but the benefits a wild area provides in a wildlife garden are well worth the effort. Be aware that some wildflowers are notifiable, such as spear thistle and ragwort. However, there are ornamental thistles on the market that can be as equally beneficial, while one or two carefully managed specimens of ragwort, an important food plant for the cinnabar moth, placed safely away from any cattle or horses, will do no harm if as soon as it’s finished flowering and before it turns to seed, are topped immediately and disposed of carefully by either burning or landfill. Note that ragwort is still toxic to animals even when cut.
Compost does not just supply regular natural earth and food for plants, it also provides a habitat for wildlife. Slugs and snails are nature’s recyclers and a source of food for birds such as thrushes, frogs, toads, hedgehogs and ground beetles. Worms love a compost heap and help turn your waste into soil. Snakes seek out the warmth of a heap and may even lay their eggs there, so be careful when turning your heap over – avoid using a sharp garden fork.
Wildlife at night
Nocturnal pollinators such as moths benefit from night-scented blooming plants such as honeysuckle, jasmin, tuberose, japonica and evening primrose. These insects in turn are valuable prey for bats.
There are lots you can add to your garden such as insect hotels, bee homes, nesting boxes, bat boxes, a toad house, a bird bath, a watering hole for hedgehogs and feeding stations for birds and mammals. It’s best not to feed birds during the nesting season; the parents should be foraging for a balanced diet, otherwise they will just choose what’s on offer from you, which may not be the best option for growing chicks. Try to place any bird-feeder up in trees or tall bushes; this helps protect visiting birds from aerial predators and gives them a chance to escape. A tree or bush is also a more natural place for them to feed.
You could make your own bug hotel using stacked crates with moss, logs, clay pots, sticks and hollow tubes stuffed in the gaps between. It won’t take long before the residents move in.
- CPRE Kent has an array of wildlife-friendly enhancements for your garden for sale, so why not email the office for more information at email@example.com?
Butterfly house: £10
Bee hotel: £10
Bird nesting boxes: £10
Bug hotels: £15
Toad house – £10
Friday, March 26, 2021