Providing a vital habitat for wildlife in your garden can be very rewarding. Many wild species – such as bees, butterflies, hedgehogs and amphibians – are suffering huge declines, thanks to a combination of habitat loss, pesticides and climate change. So, the more wildlife gardening we do, the more we can help wildlife to thrive. It’s also a great way to get children interested in nature and the outdoors and encouraging less screen time!
Fruit for birds
Berries are an important food source for many birds during the winter, especially when the ground is too frozen to hunt worms or snails, and there are few insects about. Holly and ivy are obvious choices but berberis, euonymus and cotoneaster last well into winter too. Hips are another source of food as well, as a cheerful sight in an autumn garden, so wild roses and certain species of garden roses are a good choice.
Crab apple trees are ideal for small gardens, bearing blossom in the spring and apples in the autumn. They are excellent at attracting pollinators as they have extremely long flowering times (which is why they are often planted by commercial growers alongside orchards).
Hedgehogs are in steep decline and this is largely down to them having fewer places to nest, hibernate and forage for food. Hedgehogs can travel as much as a mile overnight, foraging for caterpillars, beetles and worms. We can help hedgehogs by allowing them access to our gardens – a 12x12cm space under a fence is all they need – neighbours can collaborate and create a hedgehog highway through their gardens.
Hedges not fences
Even better than a fence, is a hedge. Hedges are much more wildlife friendly – they allow easy access, and provide food, shelter and nesting sites for countless species. Allowing leaves to accumulate beneath hedges provides an environment where hedgehogs can forage, hibernate and raise their young. A hedge will also provide ever-changing interest in your garden throughout the seasons.
Mixed-plant hedging will attract the greatest variety of wildlife, but hawthorn is a good single species option as it offers blossom and berries (with the potentially useful bonus to us humans of creating an effective security barrier!). A wild rose hedge can provide an abundance of flowers throughout the summer followed by beautiful rosehips in autumn.
Bare fences and walls can be used to grow climbing plants to provide vertical interest for you and food and shelter for wildlife. Birds can nest in climbing plants, butterflies can hibernate and bees can shelter from sudden downpours. There is a plethora of climbing plants to suit every spot of the garden, whether it’s nectar rich honeysuckle, berry laden pyracantha or the dry shade superstar, ivy which provides long-lasting, evergreen cover. Climbing plants can double the size of a small garden, are useful for covering eyesores and ideal for softening bare corners or edges.
Be less tidy
Leaving piles of leaves undisturbed instead of sweeping them away can provide a habitat for insects and amphibians. Instead of deadheading, let seed heads and rosehips develop. Don’t cut back ivy – it offers pollen and nectar for late-flying insects, nutritious berries and roosting for birds, hibernation space for the brimstone butterfly and nesting habitat for moths. Leave part of your lawn uncut, too.
Bog gardens and wildlife ponds
Water is essential for wildlife to thrive, but not just for drinking. Amphibians such as newts, frogs and toads use water as shelter and for breeding grounds. Bog gardens and wildlife ponds provide a haven for insects, thus attracting birds, frogs and perhaps even bats or newts. Hedgehogs actually enjoy swimming too, providing they have a means of exiting the water! Ponds with steep sides can be adapted with simple hedgehog ladders made out of folded chicken wire or by piling stones against the edge.
Many hoglets are born in June and July and dry periods can be fatal as they become hungry and thirsty as their food source of worms, slugs and beetles disappear well underground. A bog garden can be a welcome oasis. There are many pretty bog-tolerant plants such as astilbe, iris and loosestrife. A bog garden is surprisingly simple to make and a good way of utilising excess water in your garden, as this article by The Wildlife Trusts explains.
Plants for pollinators
Healthy populations of pollinators are essential for crop production and maintaining our native flora. Bees, wasps, hoverflies, moths, butterflies and beetles are all pollinators. Most pollinators like single, open flowers where they can access the nectar and pollen at the centre. Tubular-shaped flowers such as foxgloves, honeysuckle and snapdragons are good sources of food for long-tongued bees such as the garden bumblebee.
Different species of pollinators are active at different times of the year so ensuring a good spread of flowering plants throughout the year can really help. Winter flowering clematis and heathers, hellebores, early spring bulbs and single-flowered dahlias and sedum can help fill gaps either side of spring and summer. Flowers in the violet-blue range produce higher volumes of nectar and bees love them – good news if you love lavender, alliums, buddleia and catmint!
Our native pollinators have evolved to be most successful alongside native species, so try to give space in your garden to plants like clovers, daisies, and even dandelions and nettles!
Plant a stumpery
Dark corners of a garden where little else grows can be an ideal spot for woodland plants and a stumpery. A stumpery essentially replicates the forest floor with piles of odd shaped logs interplanted with ferns, lichen, moss and other shade loving plants. They make a perfect habitat for all kinds of insects, toads and fungi. Dead wood makes a wonderful wildlife habitat, providing food and shelter for a huge number of invertebrates, including wood-boring beetles, solitary bees and woodlice.
Let nature do its thing
However small your garden, there are many ways to provide food and water, shelter and breeding habitat for many different species. These will add interest to your garden throughout the year and, as being a little less neat and tidy in your garden is beneficial for wildlife, we can all feel good about embracing a messier garden!