Making Your Garden Wildlife Friendly

There are plenty of ways to make your garden wildlife friendly, but by far the most beneficial is actually the simplest of all – doing nothing.

By letting your garden grow without interference, you will give insect-friendly weeds the chance to flourish, and grasses the chance to go to seed, providing birds and small mammals with food for themselves and their young.

Garden Wildlife
A well kept veg plot is fab for pollinators

I was really surprised to read this on the BBC website. It reinforces a myth I bump into regularly. Making you garden wildlife friendly is categorically NOT done by doing nothing. Total neglect will result in less plant and habitat diversity than you can create. People often don’t realize that some of our richest habitats are managed. Wildflower meadows, for example, are not natural. If you leave a wildflower meadow area it will become less and less wildlife friendly as it is likely to revert to scrub and grass/dock/creeping thistle. Scrub and grass/dock/creeping thistle have their own biodiversity value, of course, but it’s less than a flower rich diverse meadow.

Making your garden wildlife friendly by doing nothing is a great excuse for non-gardeners, who can just explain away the biohazard outside the back door as a “wildlife friendly garden”. Weeds, nettles, brambles, fallen tree limbs and choked ponds all have value for wildlife, of course, but promoting that look is going to put serious gardeners off the whole idea.

What would my 5 top tips be to make your garden wildlife friendly? Hmm – that’s tricky. How about:

1. Have a wildlife friendly pond
2. Plant a good variety of the right plants – including native wildflowers – for pollinators
3. Don’t use pesticides/slug pellets etc.
4. Don’t disturb your compost heap any more than you have to
5. Don’t deadhead

Jenny Steel is much better qualified to say; have a look at her top ten tips. Making your garden wildlife friendly by doing nothing isn’t one of them!

Gardens: The New Countryside

I was reading a piece in the Journal of Applied Ecology over my second mug of coffee this morning, as you do, and I was struck by a significant truth. The paper was catchily titled “Effects of land use at a landscape scale on bumblebee nest density and survival”, and its conclusion was pithy and unambiguous:
“gardens… now provide a stronghold for bumblebees in an otherwise impoverished agricultural environment; furthermore, our data suggest that the positive influence of gardens on bumblebee populations can spill over at least 1km into surrounding farmland”

Of course it’s not just relatively high profile insects like bumblebees and butterflies that are struggling in this impoverished environment. We don’t really know what is happening to hoverflies. Or solitary bees. Or dragonflies. Or – you get the picture. As a bee scientist put it to me earlier this week – when was the last time you had to clean the insects off your windscreen? Some time in the 1980s?

Wildlife gardening is no longer about attracting fauna into your garden, but allowing species to survive. There’s increasingly nowhere else where they can live. We still suffer from the Victorian sense that wildlife is something that happens elsewhere, “in the countryside”. Even in rural Somerset, folk bemoan the lack of butterflies and bees in one breath and complain about the cost of cutting a couple of acres of disused pony paddock in the next. It’s as if their land is somehow disconnected from what is going on, which consequently they feel powerless to influence. And they’re much better placed than urban dwellers to know there’s no bucolic paradise out there full of bumblebees abuzzing, frogs acroaking and butterflies afluttering, all to the strains of Vaughan Williams.

I’ve seen estimates that gardens cover up to 2 million acres in the UK – and that’s without all those disused pony paddocks. They generally don’t suffer from pesticide use and chemical run off, soil imbalances and constant disturbance. They usually even mimic natural habitats, offering multiple and extended sources of pollen and nectar, foodplants, unpolluted water, and shelter. And they’re pretty joined up too. They don’t have to be a brambly bio-hazard to help; just sensitively planned, planted, and managed.

Ask many keen gardeners about the wildlife in their garden and they still tend to think of what they see in the Press and notice themselves; annoying caterpillars, birds and large mammals. Ask them about “habitat” and they think of even larger mammals rampaging through their fruit and veg like it was the Serengeti. It is critical that “wildlife gardening” becomes just good gardening practice, and in a hurry. Otherwise it will be more than bumblebees going down the tube.

The Sociable Garden in Autumn

Nature’s Grand Hotel has its Season, like the others. As the guests one by one pack, pay, and depart, and the seats at the table d’hote shrink pitifully at each succeeding meal; as suites of rooms are closed, carpets taken up, and waiters sent away; those boarders who are staying on, en pension, until the next year’s full reopening, cannot help being somewhat affected by all these flittings and farewells, this eager discussion of plans, routes, and fresh quarters, this daily shrinkage in the stream of comradeship. One gets unsettled, depressed, and inclined to be querulous.

Rat muses, Wind in the Willows, Chapter 9

Poor Ratty — he obviously wasn’t a gardener. Autumn is my favourite season, partly because I’m keen on my cider and perry, jams and jellies. It’s partly also because it’s the time to plant and sow in the garden, and not just for our own benefit.

This is the perfect moment to sow native wildflower and grass mixes. The seed of some of our native plants needs to chill over the winter before germinating, so an autumn sowing is preferable to spring, particularly as springs seem to have been so dry recently.

Barn Owl (Photo: Drum Images)
Why start a meadow? Most of our unimproved grassland — over 97% — has disappeared. That’s a tragedy — not just for us, but also for the myriad animal species associated with them. Unimproved grassland is one of our richest native habitats, as well as one of the most beautiful. Meadows don’t just work as giant nectar bars in the summer, but support a complicated ecosystem all year round. I know folk who have beautiful meadows that are made up of largely non-native species. They are nectar-rich, possibly, but useless for any of the animal species dependent on particular plants. No Kidney Vetch, no Small Blue. No Annual Meadow Grass, no Wall. These butterflies will not colonize areas where their larvae have no food plants, and the food plants of British butterflies are British plants. Nectar is not the complete answer. Establish and manage the right plants properly in your garden and your insect and bird populations thrive. We’ve got a tussocky area for voles too, and, hey presto — Barn Owls.

Bombus terrestris (Photo: Drum Images)
‘The right plants’ also means local plants. It’s difficult to find really locally appropriate mixes commercially, but you might be lucky. If not, you will be able to find a generic mix for your garden soil type or requirement, but do make sure it is from a reputable supplier and signatory of the Flora Locale code of practice. Local species will obligingly appear over time as well, of course.

You won’t be able to create a 500-year-old hay meadow overnight, but even a small “micromeadow” in your back garden will make a difference. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s relatively easy to start and maintain a meadow area. If you prepare properly and establish an annual regime you’ll be surprised how simple it is. As ever, “wildlife gardening” doesn’t mean “go wild”. Brambles, nettles, thistles and dock are as much a nuisance in a meadow as they are in a formal garden area. My in-laws, very good gardeners, had a “wildlife” area in their garden that looked more like a biohazard. We had a council of war and decided what they thought was a wildflower and what was a weed. It now gives them as much pleasure for its flora as for the fauna it has attracted.

I ought to talk about native berrying plants as well — the emphasis on native again. You can make a really good alternative to the woodland edge in your garden by planting a mixed hedge. Wildlife corridor, good nest sites, hedgerows in decline — you know the story, I’m sure. It’s the perfect time of year to plant these chaps too. Bare root plants have a much better chance of establishing themselves in your garden and, again, the dry springs we’ve had recently mean that autumn is the better planting season.

Pied Flycatcher (Photo: Drum Images)
Here too there’s a happy coincidence; what’s good for the birds is in many instances good for us. John Wright has written the latest of several good books on hedgerow cooking, and we mostly follow fellow River Cottager “Pam the Jam” Corbin. At this time of year we’re always knee deep in jams and jellies, chutneys and cheeses and, of course, the dreaded sloe gin. We’ve recently processed an industrial 15 kg of sloes, so popular is the final product with our friends as a Christmas present. A woman came up to me in Waitrose as I loaded several tonnes of sugar into my trolley and asked me conspiratorially if I knew about an impending shortage.

High Brown Fritillary (Photo: Drum Images)
Anyway, which are my favourite native plants for human and avian consumption? We have roses in any hedgerow we plant, and not just for their hips (jelly and tea). Simple, single-flowered species are good for nectar too. Blackthorn is, as you’ve probably gathered, a particular favourite, and its spiny habit means it’s a good nesting place too. Hawthorn is quicker-growing and less spiky but much more common, and I don’t much go for Hawthorn Berry wine. Crab Apples are a decorative choice as a small tree (as are Cherry Plums) and their fruit, with its high pectin levels, is very helpful in the kitchen. If you’ve a little more space there is Bird Cherry and Wild Cherry; I’ve recently planted a Mazzard — an ancient variety of Wild Cherry that can be eaten off the tree by humans. Rowan will make a jelly, but is more popular among Chaffinches than humans.

Fieldfare (Photo: Drum Images)
Elder flowers and berries are, of course, a culinary delight, but the trees need to be sited carefully as they tend to take over. On my hedge-laying course I was told to cut them out of the hedge line, as you do brambles; they are helpful in their place, although a friend’s notion of a butterfly-friendly “bramblarium” seems a bit excessive unless you’ve got space and relaxed aesthetics.

The berries of the Sea-buckthorn were a Neolithic staple but, unless you’re Ray Mears, to my mind they’re more useful for Fieldfares and other thrushes than humans. I don’t think I would personally cook with Juniper berries either, which are an arbortifacient, although I’m very keen to see more Juniper trees planted. They’re in sharp decline at the moment, and provide a good garden habitat for a range of insect and bird species. Take care not to plant them close to pear trees, however, as they harbour pear rust. I’m not sure there are any culinary uses for Guelder Rose berries or Alder Buckthorn berries, but they are attractive and useful berrying shrubs. Dayglo Spindleberry and Purging Buckthorn berries are — guess what — strong purgatives, and Wild Privet berries are poisonous to us but attractive to birds, especially apparently thrushes, and as a semi-evergreen provides helpful cover.

Although these are typically hedgerow species you don’t have to grow them as a hedge if you don’t have room for one. Try planting natives in a formal garden area, preferably in a small group, avoiding any suckering species like Blackthorn if you haven’t got much space. You can keep them tidy by clipping them if you like (at the right times of year). And when you plant, sow a suitable mix of wildflowers around them too.

…Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.

Wind in the Willows, Chapter 9

I wrote this article originally for Bird Guides’ webzine.

Wildflowers in Your Garden

Wildflower BankMy friend Sarah had some building work done last year, and was left with a south west facing bank of poor quality spoil next to her kitchen. After a not entirely sober conversation over dinner last summer and against her inclination (!) she very sweetly agreed to plant it with native wildflowers. And – thank goodness – what a result! It couldn’t have been much easier to do, and it couldn’t be much easier to maintain. I’ve chronicled its progress in our Projects section on the website. We spent a month weeding and spraying before planting a couple of trays of our mixed “wildflower plugs for sunny sites” in June. We pepped it up by sowing some Corncockle in the autumn, when Sarah tidied up the perennials. Apart from that all she’s done is the occasional weed. Fox and CubsThe odd arrival blows in from the riverbank behind the bed too, or just pops up unbidden – some are welcome and some are not. I love the Fox and Cubs (Hieracium Aurantiacum), but I’m at best ambivalent about Figwort (which gets everywhere here), and nettles are definitely not welcome. The overall visual effect a year after planting is great, and I’m chuffed to bits with the biodiversity we’ve introduced to the garden through developing a relatively small area. The bed is low maintenance, will flower all summer, and over time its appearance will change naturally as it matures. Needless to say, the plants are ALL great for wildlife. There is nectar and pollen in abundance, and butterflies in particular love it for its warm aspect and the key foodplants they find there. Aesthetically and environmentally appealing. Result.
Related Posts: Wildflower Plugs

Vinnie the Vole

Limey and Vinnie
Limey and Vinnie

Vinnie is the friend of Jenny Steel, and I couldn’t resist posting this photo from her Facebook album.

Planted up wildlife pond
Our New Wildlife Pond

He hangs out in her potting shed where he chats to Limey, but mostly just eats. He is keen to point out he is no way responsible for the voles currently destroying my lawn. Jenny is, however, responsible for our spanking new pond – it was one of her excellent wildlife gardening days that got me thinking about putting one in. It’s going to be fantastic.

Annual Wildflowers in Your Garden

annual wildflowers in the gardenAs part of Gardener Mike’s fantastic veg garden extension we’re doing a fair bit of companion planting. In addition to some traditional annuals – Nasturtium, French marigold, and Poached Egg plants – we’ve put aside a bed for annual wildflowers. Not only will it look stunning, but it will be a nectar magnet for all sorts of helpful pollinators in high summer. We weeded a south facing sunny bed next to the base of an old greenhouse, so the soil is poor – full of hardcore. Perfect. Annual wildflowers in the gardenI sowed a chunk of our Cornfield annual mix around three weeks ago, and now you can almost see the seedlings growing as you watch. This mix includes some of our most beautiful native flowers, like the Cornflower – now astonishingly rare in the wild. Frustratingly, many folk seem to leave their annual wildflowers to get on with it once they’ve sown them, with the consequence that they just disappear after a year. Ours will keep on repeating, as I’m going to follow Richard Brown of Emorsgate’s regime:[aembed:youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu_nDqXeTwQ]

I can’t wait to post the pictures of what the bed will look like in June – or better a video, so you can see the bees, butterflies, and hoverflies zipping around it. Absolutely vibrant. I promise that you won’t be able to resist – better start thinking where you could fit one in now…

Related Posts: Place Names Sarah’s Wildflower Bank

Diversity

Diversity
According to the Natural History Museum under half the adult population in the UK know what biodiversity is; rather fewer, you’d think, than could correctly identify Diversity, winners of last year’s Britain’s Got Talent. Perhaps this sort of thing is what the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity is trying to help correct. I wish it well, I agree wholeheartedly with its aims, and I support the charities it is promoting. Rather belatedly we’re signing up as a partner.
It’s not just a question of establishing a basic understanding, though. People are not generally going to start creating wildflower meadows or changing the way they plant their gardens for altruistic reasons. They have to be motivated by a realization that the habitats they create will give them extra pleasure, at which point “wildlife gardening” will become the norm.
People also have to understand that what is around them is complex and supports a huge range of animal species, and if anything that understanding is diminishing. The Editorial in the latest edition of ECOS, the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists makes this point. Apparently, for example, a third of A level biology teachers know fewer than four common British wildflowers. Yikes. Time for more than a PR campaign.

Wildflower plugs

June 2009
June 2009
One of our illustration projects is at Sarah’s house. There was a bank left after some building work which she very sportingly decided to have native wildflowers on for us, which we planted in June. I’m particularly pleased with our native plug plants, which are a good size and offer interesting selections for different locations. For a project like this they’re ideal, and talk about quick results – which is really why I’m mentioning it now. Look at it 3 months later!
Today
Today

As ever my photography doesn’t do it justice – you can see better pictures here which will expand when clicked. You can see the Knapweed, Scabious and Oxeye Daisies most clearly in the photo, but in addition to the 13 species in the original collection there are some welcome new additions that have appeared as well – Foxglove, Lungwort, Lemon Balm (which I’m allowing), Feverfew (ditto) and Comfrey (to be carefully policed). Fantastic. Sarah’s sowing the remaining bare patches with some native annuals too…who said this was difficult?

Sedums

Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and squadron of White-tailed bumblebees
Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and squadron of White-tailed bumblebees
It’s nearly September and there seems to be a new urgency in the air. Now we have taken our honey the honeybees, battling wasps at the hive entrance, are building up stores ready for winter. The butterflies now look very ragged and faded, as do this year’s Bumblebees – although the new queens look pristine, and are feeding frantically to build up fat for their hibernation.
I’m acutely aware of the need for nectar flow before the ivy flowers, and for us although Verbena and some Asters seem to do well for insects at this time of year the plant that ticks all the boxes is Sedum, or Stonecrop (spectabile) and Orpine (telephium). The large flowerheads with their scores of florets are perfect for most pollinators. We’ve devoted a nice big section of a sunny southwest facing border to it, where I grow three different varieties in order to ensure seamless foraging from late August to October. As ever, the fancier the cultivar the less helpful it is – I’ve had several failed experiments.
Male Red-tailed bumblebee
Male Red-tailed bumblebee

Small Tortoiseshell and Honeybee
Small Tortoiseshell and Honeybee
Male Carder Bee
Male Carder Bee
I’m cursing because I can’t remember the name of the more prostrate plant shown right- can you help me out ? Incidentally, there are many more of the smaller male bumblebees about at this time of year. Having mated they have nothing to do; lacking pollen baskets all they do is feed. Sedum telephium ‘Purple Emperor’ (pictured right), named after its foliage rather than flower colour, is in full flower at the moment and attracting a wide range of pollinators. Or at least I think that’s what it is; it might just be Orpine, Sedum telephium ‘Matrona’, which is another fabulous nectar plant. The odd honeybee and Carder bee are trying to winkle open ‘Autumn Joy’ (below right) already – in a week or so the flowerheads will be heaving with honeybees once the sun hits them. Excuse all the bumblebee photos by the way – I’m honing my identification skills, and I’m seemingly no better at picking different kinds of Sedum than I am Carder bees…

The Cottage Garden Society

Gatekeeper on Oregano
Gatekeeper on Oregano
I’m a big fan – and member of – the Cottage Garden Society. The CGS is a group of about 6,000 friendly and typically experienced gardeners, organized into small regional groups in the UK. Without being preachy they have an underlying philosophy I absolutely empathise with:

Gardens now provide vital habitats for wildlife, as a result of changes in farming methods, increased use of chemicals, destruction of orchards, hedges and ponds. By growing simpler, traditional cottage garden flowers such as lavender, thyme and other herbs, foxgloves, pinks and single varieties of flowers, rather than modern, double-flowered varieties, we can help to maintain a variety of birds, butterflies, insects etc. Modern hybrid flowers are often sterile and produce no nectar for insects, who have an important role in pollinating our fruit and flowers. Bees in particular need gardeners help in providing nectar-rich flowers – bumble bees are especially affected by the loss of food plants, and their numbers have declined. Other beneficial insects, birds, frogs, toads, hedgehogs also contribute to our gardens in helping to keep down insect pests, slugs and snails. By encouraging biodiversity in our gardens, we can help maintain the precarious balance of nature.

This might very well have come from our own website. Membership is from a very reasonable £9, for which you get a range of benefits adding up to a lot of practical help.