Your garden is home to more creatures than you might imagine. It provides a valuable space for them to feed, shelter and breed, as well as a corridor to other gardens, allowing them to move about freely. In fact the total area of the UKs gardens put together actually exceeds the area of our National Nature reserves. So you see, your garden really does have a vital role in supporting local wildlife populations!
With a little effort you can easily enhance your garden to provide some really useful habitats for mammals, insects, birds and amphibians. Why not create a wildlife haven on your doorstep? Read on to learn how.
You may not think lawns can offer much for wildlife. In fact they are home to a host of insects which in turn provide food for birds and other animals. By avoiding the use of chemicals, leaving the grass a little longer (around 3 - 5cm) and mowing less often (maybe every two weeks, but certainly no more than weekly) you will encourage these harmless insects to thrive. Leaving the grass longer during winter and not mowing again until March will provide shelter and hibernation sites for many insects.
If you can leave an area of longer grass (20-30cm) it will provide shelter for grasshoppers, lacewings and many other creatures, as well as producing seed as food for birds. You can also plant taller ornamental grasses in flower borders which will have the same effect.
If you have the space then a wildflower meadow makes a lovely garden feature as well a superb habitat. During the summer months a path can be mown through it to allow access through the meadow without trampling the grass and flowers.
Hedges are extremely important in providing food and shelter for birds, mammals, and a whole host of insects. Some hedgerows provide important flight routes for bats too. A native mixed hedge is the best choice to encourage the greatest diversity of wildlife. Try planting a mix of hawthorn, wild rose, blackthorn, holly, field maple and honeysuckle.
Walls and fences can also provide a useful habitat if they are covered in climbers and wall shrubs. There are plenty to choose from, such as Wisteria, Pyracantha, Honeysuckle or Ivy.
Most gardeners view nettles as an unsightly weed, but they are actually one of the UK’s most valuable plants for the wildlife garden. Nettles support over 40 species of insect which in turn, will attract plenty of birds too. Cultivate a few patches of nettles in both sun and shade to encourage the greatest diversity of insects. Cutting back some of the stems in July will encourage a fresh flush of leaves as useful feeding material for caterpillars.
A well cared for compost heap will be alive with fungi and bacteria, as well as worms, slugs, snails, beetles and all manner of insects. Birds and insect-eating mammals will enjoy the quick meal that this provides. You may even see the odd toad or newt enjoying the warm shelter it provides. A compost heap that has no base will be most effective as it allows worms and insects access through the bottom of the heap.
Fallen trees and deadwood provide important shelter for beetles and other insects. You can simulate this habitat by creating a log pile in a shady spot and leaving it to decay over the years. Provide a good mixture of different sized logs with different barks. Oak, Ash, Beech and other native trees are ideal. A layer of leaf litter spread around the base of the pile will provide further habitat for your garden residents.
In time, your log pile may also attract hibernating toads and hedgehogs as well as supporting a large range of fungi.
Have you ever lifted a stone and marvelled at the beasties that lie beneath? You can create piles of rocks and stones in various locations around your garden to provide this type of dark, damp habitat. Try to create stone piles in both sun and shade as these will become different habitats over time, attracting a greater range of insects and invertebrates to the different conditions. Once in situ, leave your rock pile undisturbed and let the weeds grow up around it.
A well maintained pond is the single most complex and useful habitat that you can provide in your wildlife garden. Even a small pond can be an oasis for wildlife, attracting dragonflies, offering water for birds and small animals, and providing habitats for frogs, newts and many aquatic insects. Ponds are important for a huge diversity of species, some spending their entire life cycle in the water while others come and go.
Trees and shrubs provide nesting sites, food and shelter for a wide range of birds. Taller trees may also provide a suitable roost for bats. If you are planting trees for wildlife it is best to choose native species such as Rowan, Birch, Hazel, Hawthorn, Cherry, Spindle and Willow. Oak, Ash and Beech are also useful for wildlife but may prove too large for most gardens.
Fill your borders with a range of nectar rich flowering plants to encourage a variety of insect species in your garden. Try to choose a variety of plants with different flowering periods to ensure that there is pollen and nectar available from spring right through to autumn. Take a look at our list of Plants for wildlife for some suitable planting suggestions.
If all of this sounds like an effort, simply leave a corner of the garden undisturbed and over time, it will naturally become a haven for wildlife - what could be easier? If there are a few logs and old pots for shelter so much the better.
Plants and gardens have always been a big part of my life. I can remember helping my Dad to prick out seedlings, even before I could see over the top of the potting bench. As an adult, I trained at Writtle College where I received my degree, BSc. (Hons) Horticulture. After working in a specialist plantsman's nursery, and later, as a consulting arboriculturalist, I joined Thompson & Morgan in 2008. Initially looking after the grounds and coordinating the plant trials, I now support the web team offering horticultural advice online.