Helping wildlife and the planet in your own garden

British gardens cover 432,964 ha, which is the area of the Norfolk Broads, and the Exmoor, Dartmoor and Lake District National Parks added together. This makes them an amazing resource for British wildlife, at a time when nature is under pressure and being squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces. Not all gardens are equally attractive to wildlife though, but gardeners can easily turn their gardens into wildlife havens.

 Wildlife gardening can fit many different styles and approaches, whether you like you garden neat and tidy or more bohemian, and whether you have little or lots of time to spend gardening. Contrary to some beliefs, it doesn’t mean your garden will turn into an impassable jungle, and a big difference can be made with some small changes.

Attracting wildlife to your garden will also help with natural pest management, and will provide you with your very own wildlife spectacle at home – listening to bird song, watching butterflies aflutter,  spotting a frog hopping away – it’s good for the soul!

In this blog post, we’ll go over some of the things you can do in the garden to help wildlife and the planet. There are already lots of useful resources online though, so we have added some useful links for each tip. Happy gardening!

  1. Provide food for pollinators…

Choose flowers which will offer nectar to pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators. As a general rule, single-flowers- with one row of petals- are better than complex ones, which offer little to no nectar at all.

Ideally, choose a variety of plants which will flower at different times of the year, so pollinators have food all year round.

Brimstone butterfly on forget-me-not

RHS: Plants for pollinators

Butterfly Conservation: nectar-rich plants

  • … and their caterpillars

Whilst many gardeners are keen to provide flowers for butterflies, they often forget their caterpillars! Butterflies and moth will lay their eggs on food-plants specific to each species, so their caterpillars have something to eat when they hatch. Think about leaving some common food plants such as holly, ivy, hops, nettles, cuckoo flowers…

Cinnabar moth caterpillar on ragwort

Butterfly conservation: caterpillar food plants

  • Water for wildlife

Adding a water feature of any size will be beneficial for wildlife, even if only to provide drinking water for birds and small mammals. A mini-pond in an old Belfast sink will provide somewhere for dragonflies and butterflies to breed, a larger one will be a home for newts, frogs and toads.

A pond (not stocked with fish) will attract damselflies

https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/diy/how-to-make-a-mini-pond/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/water-for-wildlife/

  • Food for the birds

Feeding the birds peanuts and fat balls is great, but it is much cheaper (and eco-friendly) to grow your own. Choose plants that will provide seeds (sunflowers, globe thistle etc.) or berries (ivy, rowan, sorbus…). Also, remember that insects are birds’ favourite food, especially when feeding their chicks. Any feature (flowers, deadwood, pond…) that attracts insects will help the birds immensely.

Teasels provide flowers for pollinators, then seeds for birds, such as goldfinches

https://www.gardenersworld.com/plants/growing-your-own-bird-food/

https://www.daviddomoney.com/the-10-best-winter-plants-to-attract-and-feed-wild-garden-birds/

  • Dead wood and leaf piles

Insects love deadwood! Leave a stack of logs to rot in a corner of your garden to give insects a home, or build a minibeast hotel if you’d like a tidier look! These will provide a home for insects, and shelter for frogs, toads and newts. Larger stacks and leaf piles might even welcome a hibernating hedgehog.

https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/diy/three-ways-to-create-a-dead-wood-habitat/

https://www.hazelwoodlandscapes.com/blog/case-study-the-importance-of-waste-piles-for-wildlife

https://www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/documents/a-living-landscape/wildlife-advice/garden/nwt-deadwood-in-the-garden

https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/garden-activities/build-a-bug-hotel/

  • Plant a tree

Much noise has been made recently about trees’ wonderful capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere and help fight climate change. Trees also provide food, shelter and nesting sites for wildlife; are good for mental wellbeing, and provide welcome shade on hot summer days. Even if your garden is small, you can plant a small tree (rowan, crab apple…) or some shrubs (dogwood, Cornelian cherry…). When autumn comes, gather fallen leaves into a pile which will provide shelter for small creatures such as hedgehogs, and turn into a brilliant soil improver for your flowers and vegetables.

Spider in a dog rose

Tips for planting / maintenance:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/plants-for-wildlife/shrubs-for-gardens/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/plants-for-wildlife/garden-trees/

What trees / shrubs to plant?

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2019/03/british-trees-to-plant-in-your-garden/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/plants-for-wildlife/shrubs-for-gardens/best-garden-shrubs/

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/plants-for-wildlife/garden-trees/best-trees/

https://www.gardenanswersmagazine.co.uk/welcome-wildlife-blog/2017/11/24/plant-a-small-tree-for-wildlife

  • Be a bit less tidy

Being overly tidy can be quite detrimental to wildlife, why not try a different approach?

  • Mow your grass less, or not as short. You could leave a longer strip along your hedge or create some interesting shapes like circles underneath trees, wavy edges etc.
  • Create a gap in your fence for hedgehogs and other creatures to come in and out
  • Leave dead-heading until early spring. Seedheads can look very pretty, especially in the frost, and little insects such as ladybirds love to shelter in them.
  • Leave (some) ‘weeds’ alone. Dandelion, daisies, clover etc. are often considered weeds but they are amazing sources of food for bees and other pollinators. “A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.” – Doug Larson
Mow a bit less and watch the flowers grow!

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/lawns-for-wildlife/

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/garden-wildlife-mowing-wildflowers-natural-habitat-ecosystem-a8989596.html

  • Help the planet

What you do in your garden does not only affect your patch, but the health of the planet. Here’s a few things you could do to help the earth:

  • Switch to sustainable planting. Go for bulbs and perennials which will last years, instead of seasonal bedding plants which need to be replaced each season. This requires a lot less resources, and releases much less carbon.
  • Avoid leaving garden lights all night long. This will save energy and avoid confusing and hurting the insects in your garden.
  • Refrain from buying herbicides and pesticides, and try natural pest control methods instead. Pesticides and herbicides will not just kill your ‘target’ but other wild flowers and wildlife too (and potentially harm pets). Some of them are also suspected of causing cancer and other health issues in humans! Lawn fertilisers will stop wildflowers from growing as they prefer nutrient-poor soils.
  • Go peat-free.  Peat extraction destroys peat bogs, which are amazing at storing carbon and home to unique flora and fauna. Destroying peatland is akin to cutting down rainforests. Luckily, plenty of peat-free composts are now available.

Pest control:

https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/pests-and-diseases

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/animal-deterrents/organic-pest-control/

Peat:

https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/our-work/campaigning-change/why-we-need-to-keep-peat-in-the-ground-and-out-of-our-gardens

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-go-peat-free-your-garden

  • Going further

And there’s more! Here are a few websites which list even more tips and advice:

Young people’s trust for the environment

https://ypte.org.uk/factsheets/wildlife-in-the-garden/garden-habitats

RSPB

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/

RHS

https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/wildlife-garden/wildlife

The Wildlife Trusts

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/gardening

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