Countryside habitats to recreate in miniature
Words: The Garden Technical Editor: Jon Ardle
If you want wildlife to visit your garden, you need to make it feel as at home as possible - and that means mimicking the habitat in which it naturally thrives.
Natural or semi-natural?
Almost all of our countryside is managed, so is at best semi-natural, but it still supports a wealth of wildlife that has adapted to live in it. Traditionally-managed farmland is a mosaic of habitats including woodland, hedgerows, ponds and meadows – all of which have their equivalents in the garden. Here are some examples that you could include in your own plot:
Woodland habitats - add flowering trees
Trees are great for wildlife, especially those that flower and fruit such as rowan, crabapples and cherries. The edges and clearings in woodland allow in enough light to allow a diversity of other plants to grow under the trees so have the highest biodiversity, and this is easy to copy in the garden. Groundcover plants like geraniums and hosta, and grasses, look very natural under trees.
Plant early spring bulbs such as crocus, snowdrops and winter aconites, woodland plants that grow and flower early in the year, before the trees come into leaf and cast more shade.
Hedgerow habitats - plant mixed borders
It is a sad fact that Britain has lost hundreds of miles of hedgerow. Fortunately, herbaceous and mixed borders in the garden have a similar structure, especially where backed by hedges of flowering and fruiting subjects such as hawthorn and blackthorn. Tall herbaceous plants typical of wood edges grow next to the hedge, grading down to shorter plants and bulbs at the front. They can support a wealth of native insects and provide cover for birds and small mammals – how do you think the hedgehog got its name?
Meadowlands - scatter wildflower seeds
Meadows are simply mixtures of grasses and wildflowers. We have lost 96% of our diverse, species-rich meadows since the 1950s, so re-creating them in the garden can help redress the balance. They are great for insects, low-maintenance, and a good, more natural alternative to a labour-intensive lawn. Annual meadows have a mix of annual wildflowers such as poppies, Nigella, corn marigolds and annual grasses; they will succeed on fairly rich soils too but a suitable seed mix usually needs to be resown each year.
Perennial meadows (left) have more permanent plants such as buttercups, ragged robin and Leucanthemum. They need relatively poor soil as this allows the wildflowers to compete with the grasses Including yellow rattle, a native annual that is a partial parasite on grasses also helps level the playing field. Mowing paths through meadows invites exploration.
Ponds - magnets for wildlife
Ponds are wildlife magnets, and not just to amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts – all animals need access to water to survive. Keep at least one edge shallow to allow animals to get in and out. You may see dragonflies and will increase the number of birds visiting your plot. Again, ponds are a feature of the countryside that have been lost at an alarming rate and you can provide a direct replacement.
Sparsely-vegetated habitats - make a rockery
Steeply sloping ground, cliffs and rocky areas support their own specialised species of plants and animals adapted to surviving in areas with poor, thin soils. Their garden equivalents are rock gardens and gravel beds; planted well these are low-maintenance, need little watering, and attract specialised wildlife (such as reptiles, which bask in the heat radiating from rocks and gravel, and mason bees, important pollinators).