With wildlife in significant decline in Scotland as well as elsewhere, it is more important than ever to try to help. Fortunately, there is much we can do in our own backyards. It is easy to turn our gardens into miniature wildlife havens. No matter how small your garden is, it can become part of a network of rewilded spaces where many creatures, from beetles to bees, butterflies to birds, and amphibians to mammals can be encouraged and nurtured. Biodiversity is the name of the game, and a simple truth: that if you build it, they will come.
Here are a few tips you can follow to make your garden a haven for wildlife:
Bees are a vital link in biodiversity. Without them, many plants would not pollinate at all, and whole species would die out. Anything you can do to encourage bees is useful, all kinds of bees: honey bees, bumble bees and the solitary bees, of which there are over 200 species. Solitary bees are non-aggressive, do not sting and are responsible for around a third of all crop pollination. All excellent reasons to encourage them into our gardens.
Get into the mind of a bee when choosing plants for your garden. Bees do best with pollen and nectar-rich flowers that have open heads and simple petals, making them easy to harvest for nectar. Avoid flowers with double heads and other complicated petal formations. Simple blooms are best.
Try to have at least two plants flowering in any season to help extend the food supply for as much of the year as possible. This gives the bees a good chance to store enough energy to survive the winter.
Bee-friendly late winter and early spring flowering plants include Hellebore (Christmas Rose), Viburnum, Winter Aconite, Snowdrop, Primrose, Crocus and Sweet Violet. Spring flowers with the strongest scents will attract bees out of their hibernation, but choose native simple flowers rather than cultivated hybrids. Lily of the Valley is one of our woodland natives and has a sweet perfume.
Covering early to late summer try Poppy, Cosmos, Cornflower and Buddliea, and heavily scented flowers like Sweet Peas and Lavender. Bees are attracted to strong scented flowers because they promise more nectar. Other scented flowers include Evening Primrose, heathers, clover and hawthorn. Bees like sweet and fruity scents.
Foxgloves and Snapdragons, with their tubular petals, are especially loved by bees, who disappear down the sweet-scented tubes to extract the nectar.
Michaelmas Daisies are easy to grow and flower through late summer and into autumn, hence the name (Michaelmas was traditionally celebrated on 29th September). Nasturtiums too carry on flowering at summer’s end when many other flowers have gone to seed.
Further into autumn bees will get sustenance from Sedum, which flowers into October, and Tree Ivy, which is home to many creatures large and small.
Luckily butterflies like many of the same plants that bees love – especially Buddleia, Lavender, Cosmos, Michaelmas Daisies and Nasturtiums. Anything with lots of nectar, because butterflies feed on nectar the same as bees. It is best to provide butterflies with something they can feed on all year round.
Butterfly caterpillars can be a bit more fussy. For example, the Orange Tip butterfly caterpillar will feed mostly on Garlic Mustard, Cuckoo Flower, also called Lady’s Smock, and Honesty. Though the adult butterflies will feed on a wider variety of nectar-rich flowers.
Stinging Nettles are a favourite of the Comma and Red Admiral caterpillars, while Nasturtium leaves are favoured by the Large and Small White caterpillars. Having a good stock of Nasturtium leaves will steer them away from your precious brassicas! Caterpillars will over-winter in long grass, so try to have a patch of long undisturbed grass growing in a sunny and sheltered part of the garden.
Butterflies are in decline in the UK for many reasons, but one of these is the massive reduction in our naturally occurring wildflower meadows. If you have the space, you can remedy this by cultivating your own small wildflower meadow. Sow a mixture of wildflower seeds with grass and let the grass grow long without mowing until right at the end of the summer.
Wildflowers actually do better on a poor soil where the flowers will not be overwhelmed by over-vigorous grass. So choose a patch of garden where the soil is not too rich. If you have no space for this, you can always cultivate a mini-meadow in a large tub.
Birds will thank you to keep them in mind when selecting larger plants. Trees are one way of introducing birds to your garden. If you have the space choose a flowering tree that produces fruit, nuts or berries and you will provide not only a potential nesting site but food as well. Some flowering trees include Rowan, Crab Apple, Elder, Blackthorn, and Hawthorn. The bees and butterflies too will love the nectar from the flowers.
Not everyone has the space to grow a tree, so for a ready supply of berries go for something smaller like Cotoneaster, a low-growing, low-maintenance shrub which produces bright red berries well into autumn. The birds love to feast on the berries. Remember, though, they are poisonous to humans. If you only have a balcony to work with you can grow Cotoneaster or even a small fruit tree in a pot. It all helps.
A well-chosen mixed hedge can give shelter and food to many small mammals, birds, and hibernating insects. If you are thinking of planting a hedge don’t just go for a boring Privet, try introducing other species like the fast-growing Cherry Laurel, Blackthorn, also known as a Sloe Berry Bush, Beech, Dog Rose, or Holly. Hedges also provide windbreaks, providing important sheltered spots for butterfly larvae to develop.
Planting hedges instead of fences gives wildlife a natural corridor to move around the urban landscape in search of food and shelter, which in turn will enhance the biodiversity in your own garden.
Keep your hedges a little bit wild. Too neatly clipped and your hedges will not produce flowers at all. Obviously, you don’t want to annoy your next door neighbour with your overgrown hedges, but there is a balance you can achieve between attracting wildlife and repelling neighbours.
Don’t prune your hedges until either late winter or early spring, when wildlife have taken full advantage of the foliage for winter shelter, and any remaining nutrients like insects and winter berries. Never cut hedges during the nesting season, which is from early March to late August.
06. Wildlife Habitats: If You Build It They Will Come
Although the kinds of plants you can grow are important, for those of us without the gift of green fingers, they are not the only thing you can do to encourage birds, bees and insects.
At The High Table
A bird table or even a hanging container of bird food can make all the difference to the neighbourhood birds during a long cold winter. Your local pet shop will sell a variety of bird food. They especially like sunflower hearts, mealworms, seeds and fat balls, and even kitchen scraps like apple cores, melon or pumpkin seeds and bananas. Make sure the table is high enough to deter the neighbourhood cats.
Birds will thank you for a good water supply especially throughout the winter. A bird bath topped up with fresh unfrozen water will reward you with plenty of feathered visitors.
A Bee Hotel
A bunch of short bamboo canes tied together and hung from a post or tree in a sunny sheltered spot, will give solitary bees something useful to nest in. Or drill a series of small holes (about 5-10mm in diameter) in an old wood block. In our concrete jungles, bees and other insects find it harder to search for nooks and crannies for nesting and hibernating. An old crumbling stone wall is a perfect home.
A pile of old wood is not everyone’s idea of aesthetic elegance, but it is a great place for insects like beetles and other bugs, which are an essential part of the food chain. Many birds and frogs feed on tiny insects. It is easy to hide a log pile behind a flowerbed or border where it can be less visible to the aesthetically sensitive.
Old logs, half buried in the ground are best. A damp decomposing log is a rich banquet of tiny creepy crawlies, including the rarer stag beetles and bark beetles. It also supports fungi and provides hibernation sites. Other cuter animals, like pine martens, will use it as a larder. If you don’t have any natural tree logs, then some old chopped up wood is fine, as long as it’s not painted or varnished or treated with chemicals.
Speaking of chemicals, you don’t want them in your wildlife haven. We mean pesticides, especially glyphosates, those seductive solutions to your aphid problem that sit temptingly on the shelves at the local garden centre. They might make life a little easier for you, but the damage they do to other species far outweighs their benefits to the gardener.
Glyphosates have long been thought to be fatally harmful to bees, and only aggressive lobbying by big agri-chemical companies keeps them on the shelves, while our precious bees continue to die out.
There are other solutions to aphids and greenfly. If you are growing tomatoes, mix in some marigolds. Greenfly, who love a tomato plant, can’t stand the smell of marigolds.
If there are aphids on your roses, then plant some garlic around them. Not only will you have a ready supply of organic garlic, but your roses will also be aphid free.
Neem oil is one of the most effective natural pesticides known to man. It was used in India long before anyone dreamed up the word agri-chemical. Neem oil is on sale in any good wholefood supermarket. Mix it with a little liquid soap and top up with warm water in a spray bottle. Spray it on your aphids.
Salt spray, natural mineral salt mixed with warm water in a spray bottle is an effective cure for spider mite.
The internet is full of home remedies for pest control, but remember that killing insects is not as beneficial to the environment as deterring them with guardian plants, like the marigold and garlic solutions mentioned above. A little internet research will turn up many more.
The single most effective way of adding wildlife to your garden is to introduce water. Let’s not get complicated. It doesn’t have to be a life-sized model of the Trevi Fountain. No water pumps or moving parts required. A simple pond is perfectly effective, using an old bucket, an upside-down dustbin lid, an old baby bath, large metal jam pan or half an old barrel sunk into the ground. Even the smallest container of water can provide a home for all manner of water-based insects, and support frogs and newts.
Frogs and newts like to cavort in shallow water, so make sure there is a sloping side in the sunken water container. It is best to allow water-loving plants to establish themselves naturally over time. Though there will be an overwhelming urge to rush down to the garden centre and buy a few, try to resist at first and just see what the soil turns up.
Likewise, don’t be over keen to introduce fish at first. They will eat everything else in the pond.
If your handkerchief-sized balcony garden can’t stretch to a pond, it doesn’t matter how small your water feature is. A bird bath filled with fresh unfrozen water is essential for our over-wintering birds.
Many shop bought composts, such as peat compost, are unsustainable. Peat compost is taken from peat bogs which take years to mature and are home to many species including the Large Heath Butterfly which is in serious decline. If we stop buying compost and make our own, not only will we be turning our own kitchen scraps into wonderful rich organic compost, but we will be saving money and saving the planet too!
Research has shown that the kitchen food we put into our little brown food bins for the council to take away would be much better employed in our gardens. This is because the waste food collections are usually put into massive landfill holes where air cannot get to the organic waste, causing a build-up of greenhouse gases such as methane as it breaks down. If you compost at home in a compost bin, oxygen can get to the waste as it decomposes, thereby ensuring that methane and other gases cannot build up. That’s good news for the environment, and in 12 months you will have a fertiliser to use on your garden, enriching your soil, and above all it’s free!
Homegrown compost helps maintain the water levels in your soil, improves soil structure, and helps with the PH balance, all of which improves the condition of the soil and benefits the plants with nutrients like potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus.
How To Compost
When composting with kitchen waste, it helps to keep a balance of roughly 50% ‘greens’ and 50% ‘browns’. ‘Greens’ rot quickly and provide water and nitrogen. They include items like grass mowings, cut flowers and leaves, weeds, and fruit and vegetable peelings.
‘Browns’ rot more slowly, and form air pockets in the compost heap, which brings oxygen to the process of decomposition. They also contribute carbon and fibre to the compost which helps with soil structure. Browns are drier than greens and include autumn leaves, old Christmas trees, nut husks, straw, cardboard and egg boxes, woody prunings and even the contents of your vacuum cleaner bag.
Avoid putting animal faeces or any meat or dairy products on a compost pile. These make it smell particularly bad, and will attract the wrong kind of insects and pests. The best compost piles are strictly vegan!
Unless you take measures to speed up the process yourself, it normally takes around a twelve month period to fully compost a pile of old vegetation, so it is best to have an ongoing compost container, and after a year you can start another. Then you can begin using the ‘seasoned’ pile on the garden.
Roughly alternate your greens and browns in layers as much as you can, until you have a pile about 3 feet deep. Too many greens and your compost will start to pong a bit, so you will know when to add some browns. If it looks very brown and bone dry then add more greens, or even water it a bit with a hosepipe or watering can to give it the consistency of a damp spongy mound. You will soon discover a happy medium. A happy compost heap will feel warm in the middle, which is how you know it’s doing its job.
It is also a good idea to stir up the pile with a garden fork once a week. This ensures an even decomposition, giving all matter a chance to be in the middle where it is warmest. This will help to speed up the ‘cooking.’
You will know when your compost is ready. It will eventually stop giving off heat, and become brown and crumbly like a very rich soil. What a beautiful sight! At this point, you can introduce it to your garden, by mulching about 4 to 6 inches of compost into the flowerbeds.
To garden sustainably is to garden in such a way as to perpetuate all life as opposed to reducing or eliminating parts of it in favour of other parts. We all have trouble with garden pests, but finding ways to discourage rather than kill ensures that other beneficial wildlife doesn’t become collateral damage.
The best wildlife gardens are not too tidy; it is not necessary to mow the lawn as much as we have been told, or weed quite so diligently. Let there be wild corners, a small tangle of bramble, let a few nettles encroach. The more you relax your gardening habits, the more likely wildlife will visit.
By following organic gardening practises, cutting out chemical pesticides, using natural garden furniture that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, and composting regularly, you can make your garden sustain not only wildlife, but also yourself and your family.
A natural environment has proven time and again to have health benefits. Being in nature, encouraging it and interacting respectfully with it, not only benefits the environment but brings peace to the restless human spirit and sustains us in ways that are timeless and immeasurable. We simply cannot thrive without nature.