Stone and coast habitats
Stone features in a garden offer wildlife many nooks and crannies to hide or hunt in, as well as basking opportunities as the sun warms the surface of the stone. Rock gardens, gravel gardens and dry stone walls share certain characteristics with gardens on the coast but the salt-laden winds and unique plant communities found in coastal regions make for a special space for nature.
- Lizards and butterflies bask on the sunny sides of a rockery
- Cavities within a dry stone wall are perfect for shrews and mice
- Hunting spiders use the open space in gravel gardens to catch prey
- Plants between rocky crevices shelter wildlife in coastal gardens
- A pile of rocks and bricks covered with soil makes a reptile and amphibian hibernaculum (overwintering refuge)
As their name suggests, rock gardens contain rocks, usually of varying size and shape. They are usually planted up with dwarf or low-growing alpine plants which allows plenty of sun to reach and warm the rocks. Butterflies can be seen in summer sunning themselves in such spots. Reptiles too, especially lizards will use these areas to catch the sun to warm up.
A cairn made of our rocks and bricks, covered in turf or a layer of soil up to 45cm (18in) deep will provide a snug overwintering shelter for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles, not to mention many other creatures too. This is called a 'hibernaculum'. It can also be made in a pit. Insert some pipes or tubes into the hibernaculum as you construct it to provide easy access for animals.
Even if you don’t have a rock garden, try placing some large, flat stones or slabs on the ground around the garden. Thrushes can use these as ‘anvil stones’ to crack open snail shells. Listen out for the tell-tale ‘tap-tap-tap’ of a thrush at work, getting at its tasty meal.
A gravel garden can seem like too harsh an environment to be a good garden habitat, but it is often the most wildlife-friendly solution for a particular space. You may need off-street parking perhaps; or a low-maintenance alternative to a lawn; a path running between flower beds, or just somewhere to sit and enjoy the garden.
A sunny position is best for drought-tolerant and pollinator-friendly plants in your gravel garden. Go for Mediterranean-style planting including lavender, euphorbias, Cistus, Santolina and Phlomis – these provide plenty of nectar and pollen for visiting insects.
Gravel gardens can be planted fairly sparsely. It’s attractive to see the gravel between plants or clusters of plants and it is in these spaces that ground-hunting spiders can readily catch their prey. In a bigger area try adding in some larger stones or pebbles.
Incorporating a pool into the garden is a brilliant way of maximising the wildlife appeal of your gravel garden and will prove popular almost straight away. Dig out a shallow hole to an approximate depth of 30cm (1ft) in the centre with sloping sides. Like a normal pond, line it with a butyl liner with the edges buried around the sides in a trench or under large stones. Lay a thin layer of soil over the base and then a 5cm (2in) layer of 0.5-1cm (¼-1in) gravel or shingle, adding a few larger stones for variety. Then fill with water. Plant around the edges with damp-soil-loving plants like marsh marigolds and ragged robin. Alternatively, you can simply stand a stone dish or bird bath in the gravel, just not too close to plants from which cats might ambush wildlife.
Make a mini gravel garden for wildlife by lifting a patio slab or two and planting with lamb’s ears or thyme.
Even cobbled areas give opportunities for mosses and small invertebrates to live.
Discover more about gravel gardens.
Anthemis tinctoria (golden marguerite, ox-eye chamomile)
Eryngium giganteum 'Silver Ghost'
Ajuga reptans (bugle)
Primula vulgaris (primrose)
Digitalis purpurea (foxglove)
Dry stone walls
In the countryside, dry stone walls are an important environment for wildlife. They provide miles of cover for creatures to move around from place to place, a vantage point for birds to perch where there are no trees, and nooks and crannies for insects, amphibians and small mammals to nest, overwinter, and hide.
They are host to many plants: tiny saxifrages sheltering in their crevices, heavy curtains of ivy sprawling across their backs, ferns and grasses tucked in at their feet and lichens and mosses studding their surfaces. Their central hollow is dry and snug and is home to everything from birds to shrews and slow-worms.
Some of us might be lucky and already have dry stone walls as boundaries, but for the majority of us, the easiest way of incorporating this habitat into our gardens is as walls around raised beds. If you’re not confident about doing this look around locally for a professional dry stone waller or, if you enjoy learning new skills, book yourself onto a course. Rocks and stones sourced locally blend better with the surroundings and the local soil.
Walls with a south-facing aspect will favour different plants and animals to one which is north-facing. There's no right or wrong but if you have opportunity to construct your dry stone wall with more than one aspect, this will give you maximum diversity.
Because the walls act as ‘corridors’ for wildlife, leave a strip of unmown grass on at least one side to provide more shelter.
In time your dry stone wall will be naturally colonised by lichens and mosses. The gaps and crevices can also be left for plants to colonise naturally, or given help by introducing small alpines, low-growing herbs such as thymes or perhaps saxifrages and sempervivums. Extend the theme by planting up any cracks in steps or gaps in paving.
For lots more recommended plants for dry stone walls, see our advice page.
Erysimum cheiri (wallflower)
Centranthus ruber (red valerian)
Arabis alpina subsp. caucasica (rock cress)
Aurinia saxitalis (gold dust)
Campanula carpatica (bellflower)
Cymbalaria muralis (ivy-leaved toadflax)
Gardens set along our extensive British coastline are a welcome sight for migratory birds and butterflies, first setting down after long flights across the sea. These might be snow buntings or winter thrushes from Scandinavia, or swallows and painted lady butterflies from Africa. Those close to dunes might see rarities such as natterjack toads or sand lizards. As well as typical garden birds, sea birds can frequent, though gulls can cause be unpopular neighbours (noise, bird droppings, defense of nests) if they nest close to humans.
For the coastal garden the most important provision to make for wildlife is shelter. Some resilient trees and shrubs, once established as a windbreak will make all the difference to your visitors. Evergreen Griselinia littoralis, Elaeagnus, Escallonia, hebe and holly make handsome hedges, often with flower interest for pollinators. Alder, willow and tamarisk make excellent windbreaks. Living hedges take time to establish so why not begin with a ‘dead hedge’ made of driftwood. See our page on log piles and other dead wood habitats for tips on making a dead hedge.
As with rockeries and gravel gardens, stone is often a strong feature in coastal gardens, especially those located on the cliff edge or close to the shingle. Strong winds off the sea, however, make them less appealing for animals to bask on. Planting with salt tolerant plants such as sea thrift (Armeria maritima), sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), sea kale (Crambe maritima) and bladder campion (Silene vulgaris) will help offer some protection.
Piled up driftwood gathered from the beach makes snug homes for small creatures.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.