Gardening for wildlife

“The natural world is in serious trouble and it needs our help as never before. We continue to lose the precious wildlife that enriches our lives and is essential to the health and well-being of those who live in the UK.”

Sir David Attenborough, The State of Nature 2016

The quality of the countryside for wildlife is deteriorating as more is managed intensively and damaged by pollution. 60% of our wildlife is in decline, which means that gardens are getting ever more important for wildlife.

This series of articles is about both encouraging wildlife but also protecting key parts of the garden from it...


Wildlife in the garden

For me, the true joy of gardening, is in the wildlife that finds a home in the spaces you create. Beyond the creation of a beautiful outdoor place for you and your family we need to be making decisions that support the flora and fauna that surrounds us. The decline in wildlife numbers across the whole of Britain makes for very scary reading, many of the species we have taken for granted throughout our lifetimes may no longer be around for our grandchildren. I believe gardeners must play our part in protecting our native species.

Designing for nature

I don't believe that a wildlife garden has to be entirely messy or chaotic; I find a balance in my designs between allowing a touch of chaos and a natural look in some parts of the garden with plenty of structure to offset the messiness. Sharply clipped hedges (trimmed at the right time of year) and tightly trimmed topiary offsets lush planting which provides food for many species of birds and insects.

Providing water in the garden is the most important thing you can do to support wildlife; you can design a proper wildlife pond with very shallow sloped side to provide a breeding place for frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies and all the other aquatic fauna; as well as a drinking and bathing area for birds and other animals. This can be incorporated into the overall design of the garden by edging it with rocks and pebbles that segue into the surrounding hard or soft landscaping to make it feel part of the overall landscape.

Large wildlife pond with sloping sides
Large wildlife pond with sloping sides

Alternatively, more formal water features can be simply adapted with the addition of a frog-ladder or bridge for wildlife to access the water without risk of getting trapped.

We have multiple bird feeders around the garden but rather than going for garish plastic containers we have made the feeders a feature – we utilise architectural antiques (or stuff from TK Maxx!) such as bird cages, lanterns and re-purposed bird tables to make functionality beautiful.

Baby squirrel eating sunflower hearts in bird cage feeder
Sometimes even our best efforts aren't enough! Not sure how this baby squirrel got into the bird cage feeder.

Natural habitats

Hedges can be far more beautiful than fences and provide important shelter and protection for wildlife, particularly nesting birds and hibernating insects and allow transit across your garden by hedgehogs. Native hawthorn, field maple, blackthorn, beech, hornbeam and holly make an ideal mixture of hedging plants and provide food for many different species of birds and insects. Hedges should not be pruned until late winter or early spring so that wildlife can take advantage of the insects and fruits provided during the winter months.

Leaving long grass in areas of the garden provides homes, feeding and breeding grounds for many different species from beetles and caterpillars through to birds, bats and hedgehogs. You can incorporate unmown patches of grass planted with wildflowers under trees in the garden and make a design feature of them. Alternatively, you could mow paths through long grass to provide meandering paths and walks through the garden.

The right choice of tree in the garden can provide a home for many thousands of birds, insects, beetles and caterpillars. Check out the Woodland Trust's article on the best British trees to plant for wildlife

Go au-naturel

Avoid using pesticides wherever possible, never spray open flowers as this may kill pollinating insects and bees. Using biological control should always be the first line of control for preventing and reducing pests. Accept that the presence of some pests can provide larval food for pollinators, for example aphids are food for some hoverfly larvae.

In autumn and winter allow plants to go to seed and leave dead plant stems in the border for overwintering insects.

We have had great success controlling slugs using organic and biological controls (ferric phosphate slug pellets and nemoslug) or barrier methods (copper tape and slug wool) without resorting to toxic chemicals. Read my article on hole free hostas for advice on how to control slugs in the garden without resorting to chemical nasties.

Native species

It makes logical sense that native wildlife species have evolved with native plant species and therefore need these species to thrive.

Nectar and pollen rich plants are essential to support our pollinating insects; cram as many flowering plants providing blooms over as long a season as possible into the garden. Check out some of my other blog posts on sequential planting based on different colour pallets that provide year round colour. Look out for the RHS Plants for Pollinators logo; their plant lists provide a great starting point

Plants that every wildlife gardener should consider for their patch include sunflowers, foxgloves, thyme, lavender, honeysuckle, rowan, sedum, firethorn, barberry and purple loosestrife to attract a wide range of birds, insects and bees to the garden.

Encouraging wildlife

Give nature a helping hand by providing supplementary food for wildlife, especially when adverse weather conditions make finding food tough and at certain key times of the year when bird, animals and insects are breeding or supporting newly fledged young. In addition to food provided by growing plants, gardeners can help supply food in the form of seed mixtures, fat balls and peanuts for birds. A range of ground, table and hanging feeders stocked with a range of foods including seeds, suet and mealworms will attract a huge range of birds each of which has different feeding habits.

As discussed above, providing water in the garden is the most helpful thing a gardener can do for every type of wildlife visitor.

We go through kilos of bird (& squirrel) food a week so check out my blog on the best suppliers of good quality, cost-effective food for wildlife.

Protecting your precious plants

I love wildlife in all shapes and forms and do everything I can to encourage wildlife in the garden; as such over the years I've come up with a variety of different methods to protect the garden from the effects of foraging badgers, frisky foxes, mischievous squirrels and entire flocks of birds.

Dig proof lawn: our lawn stands up to over 1,00 visitors a year as well as every form of wildlife (apart from deer and rabbits) that can be found in the British Isles. Read my blog on how to protect your lawn from pets, wildlife and heavy foot traffic.

Chicken wire can become one of your best friends! We use a neighbouring plot to grow on seeds, seedlings and bare root plants for use in clients gardens. You would not believe the damage one squirrel can do in just a few unattended minutes to a delicate tray of seedlings you have been carefully nurturing inside for weeks. Click here to read my blog on how to build your own squirrel-baffle to make a stylish solution for protecting young plants until they are ready to plant out.

We have a wide variety of cloches we use around the garden, either temporarily to protect new plants from being dug up before they establish good root systems, or permanently placed over garden pots. Crocus is a great sources of stylish protection from every type of garden visitor.

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