10 ways to get your garden buzzing with life
It is not difficult to encourage greater biodiversity without compromising the way your garden looks. Here are a few small changes you could make to the way you manage your garden that can bring major benefits for the creatures that call it home. Some will actually save you time and resources, and all should bring in more wildlife to watch. Remember: gardening for wildlife does not mean leaving an untidy mess of only native plants.
1: Flowers mean food
Flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects. The busy hum of bees and bright colours of butterflies enlivens gardens, and pollinators perform the vital task of fertilisation – seed and fruit production would drop dramatically without them.
Avoid too many highly bred cultivars with big and blowsy or double flowers, most of which contain little or no pollen or nectar. Choose plants that provide pollen and nectar for as long a season as possible, from spring (Crocus, and Mahonia for example) through to autumn (Michaelmas daisy, Sedum spectabile and ivy, which is particularly late to bloom and may provide food into early winter). Studies are showing wildlife cares little if a plant is native or not – Buddleja davidii hails from China yet British native butterflies love it.
2: Grow a mix of trees and shrubs
Grow a range of trees, shrubs and climbers, or a mixed hedge to provide food and shelter. The Biodiversity in Urban Gardens project showed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that larger plants, particularly trees, support more wildlife. As well as providing food in the form of flowers, fruits and seeds, they provide cover and nesting sites for garden animals, from insects to larger species such as birds.
Small trees and shrubs that are good for blossom and berries include rowan, crab apple, elder, blackthorn and hawthorn – and not just our native species. Fruit trees support a range of specialist native wildlife and can provide for them while also supplying you with a useful crop.
3: Look after mature trees
If your garden is too small for big trees, get some planted in the neighbourhood, and protect those that are already there – large street trees provide a vital habitat for a range of wildlife which may visit nearby gardens while foraging. Wildlife rarely respects garden boundaries: try to see your own plot as part of a wider web of interlinked gardens and greenspace.
4: Add water
Ideally dig a pond, but a container of water will do. The single easiest way to 'add wildlife value' to a garden is to install a pond, however tiny, a large pot or even an inverted dustbin lid in an out-of-the-way spot will do. Ideally, do not introduce fish to a pond primarily there for wildlife (they will eat anything that moves), and if you can resist temptation, allow water plants to colonise naturally. Make sure ponds have at least one sloping side to allow creatures an easy way out. Most wildlife, including amphibians like newts and frogs, like shallower water than is generally thought.
5: Leave a pile of dead wood in a shady spot.
Decaying wood provides an ever rarer habitat to a range of specialist wildlfe that is growing increasingly uncommon in the countryside, such a stag and bark beetles and their grubs, and many species of fungi, while also providing cover and hibernation sites. Any unstained or unpainted wood will do, although big, natural logs are best, ideally partly buried. Artfully arranged, logpiles can look quite architectural and rustic, though many prefer to tuck them out of sight.
6: Compost, compost, compost
Composting your garden waste helps all your garden plants and wildlife, as it merely speeds up the natural recycling of nutrients that goes on in nature all the time, harnessing native decomposer organisms or saprophytes, especially fungi and soil bacteria.
Compost makes for healthy soil, which is good for everything living in it and growing on it; it is an excellent mulch; it is free and easy to produce; and unlike organic matter imported from elsewhere, comes without packaging or the 'fuel miles' involved in its transport. Compost heaps also shelter many small creatures (and some larger ones, like slug-loving slowworms, and grass snakes), which enjoy the heat released by decomposition.
7: Provide food and water for birds all year
Garden birds are some of the most conspicuous of garden wildlife, and easy to attract with supplemental feeding. Over the winter supplementary food may mean the difference between life and death for many, especially with weather as cold as the last two years.
Ideally, offer a mix of food including peanuts, sunflower hearts, seeds, kitchen scraps and fat balls, or proprietary seed mixtures, to supplement natural food such as berries and seedheads. Don't forgot a supply of clean, unfrozen water is just as vital for feathered visitors – and ensure feeding tables are not accessible to garden birds' nemesis, the domestic cat.
8: Don’t be too tidy & leave some areas undisturbed
This doesn't mean your garden has to look a mess, but piles of leaves and twiggy debris provide both food and habitat for many species. If you leave perennials uncut over winter, their hollow stems can shelter hibernating insects. Piles of stones also make good habitat, for hibernating reptiles and amphibians particularly – you can tuck them away in hidden corners, at the back of borders or even behind the shed.
9: Allow a patch of grass to grow longer
If you don't have room for, or do not want, a full-scale wildflower meadow, simply allowing patches of lawn to grow longer will provide shelter for small mammals such as wood mice, voles and shrews, and food for some butterfly caterpillars – not all of these eat cabbages or nettles, contrary to popular belief!
10: Garden sustainably to help protect wildlife
Sustainability is an environmental buzz-word that simply means minimising your use of finite resources (such as oil) in favour of those that are continuously produced by natural processes (power from wind turbines, or bringing it right home, using your own compost).
Synthetic pesticides are not only toxic to more than the target organisms, they are extremely energy-intensive to produce, so employ them as a last resort wherever possible. Avoid peat-based composts, choose wood for patio furniture from sustainable sources, recycle all you can, and save water wherever possible – these are all more sustainable forms of gardening. It will help ensure that your garden treads lightly on the world.
Words: Ken Thompson, Wildlife Gardening Forum