With wildlife experts reporting a dramatic decline in many of the UK’s most loved garden mammals, insects and birds, we’ve drafted this list of 5 simple ways to encourage wildlife to visit your garden. If you sometimes feel that gardening is a bit of a chore, you’ll be relieved to read that creating a wildlife garden is much easier than you think. Simple steps, like letting your lawn grow a little longer, or clipping your hedges a little less often, can all encourage new and exciting species to visit your garden.
It’s shocking to learn that even common species like hedgehogs and house sparrows have suffered devastating declines in numbers. In 2007, both species were added to the UK government’s Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). Thanks to wildlife-friendly gardeners and an increased public awareness of conservation issues, it seems that urban hedgehogs are showing early signs of recovery.
Let’s forget about environmental facts and figures for a while. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do some hands-on wildlife gardening. With less digging, weeding and clipping, encouraging wildlife to visit your garden can be a lot more fun than traditional gardening graft!
First, let’s take a few moments to think about the gardening space that you have available to work with. You may be surprised to hear that a small space is not a limitation! Even a few carefully chosen plants growing on a small balcony can be a rich source of nectar for butterflies, bees and hoverflies.
A small patio offers even more potential for insect visitors. The increased planting space means that you can broaden the range of flowers available for your bees and butterflies. With a little research, you can arrange for nectar and pollen to appear on your menu from spring through to autumn. A patio is also a good spot for a bird feeder. A well-stocked patio bird feeder can be a lifesaver through the winter months!
If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, you probably have the potential to attract mammals, large and small. Field voles and shrews are small, secretive creatures that are having a tough time in their natural environment. Like hedgehogs, they can benefit from small areas of a garden left to grow a little wild.
The ‘A-list’ celebrities for urban gardeners are large mammals like badgers, foxes and roe deer. Mostly active at night, these spectacular creatures have adapted their behaviour to take advantage of the food and accommodation available in undisturbed urban gardens.
In this section, our wildlife gardening gurus have compiled a Top 10 list of flowers for a wildlife-friendly garden, patio or balcony. When you choose a flower to encourage wildlife to visit your garden it’s not just about bright colours, nectar and pollen. Ideally, your garden plants should provide the widest possible range of food and shelter throughout the year. Bearing this in mind, here’s our bouquet of the best blossoms for visiting butterflies and bees.
With its broad, flattened head, a Sunflower makes an irresistible landing-pad for hoverflies, bees and butterflies. In the autumn, after the seeds have set, you can cut off the dry heads and place them in a handy spot for seed-eating birds like great tits, blue tits and coal tits.
Coal tits have a special fondness for Sunflower seeds. If you watch them carefully, you’ll see these industrious little birds hiding Sunflower seeds in your plant-pots and containers. In the springtime, you’ll find Sunflower seedlings magically popping up among your patio plants.
Sunflowers are incredibly easy to grow, and a fun plant for encouraging kids to take an interest in nature and gardening.
How could anyone mistake this glorious flower for a weed? OK, the Foxglove is a notorious self-seeder, but the exquisite, bell-shaped flowers are just the right size and shape for visiting bumble-bees.
In the wild, you’ll find Foxgloves in cool woodland glades. For masses of garden flowers, it’s best to grow them in a semi-shaded spot in your wildlife garden. This is a biennial plant which usually only flowers once every two years. Once you have an established colony of Foxgloves, these low-maintenance pollen-providers will happily take care of themselves!
Most seasoned gardeners will have a pot or two of Thyme on the patio. As well as providing savoury leaves for Mediterranean cooking, Thyme’s midsummer flowers attract bees and hoverflies in large numbers.
Thyme is another wildlife-friendly plant that takes care of itself. With a tolerance of dry conditions, Thyme provides dense cover for all kinds of insects.
This is a plant that can be tricky to grow from seeds or cuttings; the easiest way to bring Thyme into your garden is to buy a couple of small plants from the local garden centre. Replant these into bigger pots, or plant out in a well-drained, sunny spot. To keep your Thyme green and abundant, give the plants a generous soak when they get too dry.
With its narrow, needle-like leaves, you won’t be surprised to read that Lavender is another flower that thrives in sunny, Mediterranean conditions. In early summer, Lavender starts to produce a lavish display of exotically scented flowers. With Lavender in your wildlife garden, you’re guaranteed to have butterflies visit throughout the summer months.
If you need a ‘quick-start’ plant that’s going to be an instant butterfly attractor, just pop down to the local garden centre and buy any Lavender variety that takes your fancy. Don’t be put-off by overgrown roots at the base of the pot; most garden centre flowers are ready for immediate re-potting. Just choose a lush, healthy-looking specimen that’s starting to show flowers. Your local butterflies will be in for a fragrant treat!
So far, we’ve focused on ground-level plants. By planting Honeysuckle in a wildlife-friendly garden we offer British insects nectar and pollen collection opportunities at a higher level.
In the wild, Honeysuckle can be found entwined around woodland shrubs and trees. When walking in the woods, you’ll often smell the intense aroma of Honeysuckle before you see its elegant blooms. The best time to experience the scent of Honeysuckle is in the early morning or late evening. Like Jasmine and Brugmansia, Honeysuckle is particularly attractive to dusk-loving insects like the elephant hawk moth.
Honeysuckle can be planted to entwine with climbing roses, tall shrubs and small trees. Native varieties mostly flower in mid to late summer. Shorter, shrub varieties can also be found in garden centres.
Rowan is an ancient tree which often features in folk songs and tales of witchcraft. Also known as the Mountain Ash, you’ll see blackbirds and other members of the thrush family feasting on its bright-red berries in autumn.
Being native to the UK, Rowan trees support a wide range of wildlife species. Apart from nutritious berries for birds, Rowan leaves are a staple food for some rare species of moth caterpillars. The Rowan’s summer flowers provide a rich source of nectar for pollinating insects.
Growing up to 20 metres tall, the Rowan makes a handsome garden tree. Before planting, always consider the impact that a large tree will have on your garden. Rowan trees can live for around 200 years. As your Rowan tree gets taller, the increased shade will affect any ground-level plants growing in its shadow.
The Ice Plant (Sedum Spectabile) is easy-to-grow in a rockery, large plant-pot, or a container. Being a late-flowering species, this Sedum delivers a much-needed supply of nectar for bees and butterflies during September and October.
Once you have an Ice Plant, it’s easy to create more by simply pushing loose leaves into a plant pot filled with moist potting compost. Just set the pot aside, watering when needed. Eventually, each leaf will take root, then develop into a new Ice Plant!
Ice Plant propagation and planting is fun for both adults and kids! Once the succulent little Ice Plants are established, they’ll take care of themselves all year round.
Fire Thorn (Pyracantha) is a versatile shrub that can be used as a wildlife-friendly alternative to garden fences and panels. Bristling with thorns, Fire Thorn offers evergreen shelter for nesting garden birds. In late springtime, Fire Thorn is adorned with sprays of nectar and pollen-rich flowers. The flowers soon turn to brightly coloured fruits, which will feed hungry birds through the early winter months.
Best used as an eco-friendly barrier, Fire Thorn can reach a height of almost 2 metres. Clipping your Fire Thorn hedge once or twice a year will prevent it from becoming a nuisance. Apart from the clipping, Fire Thorn is an easy-to-grow shrub that takes care of itself. The clusters of bright berries form an attractive feature when Fire Thorn is planted close to a 2 seater wooden garden bench
Barberry (also known as Berberis) is one of our favourite summer shrubs. In spring, before we even notice the flowers opening, we hear the buzzing of bees greedily feeding on the early nectar. Later in the year, Barberry develops tasty berries which the blackbirds pick off one-by-one.
Barberry is a hardy shrub that knows how to take care of itself. Once it’s established, you can cut a Barberry right back to its base. After a year or so it will be back, as vigorous and productive as ever.
Like Fire Thorn, Barberry is ideal for creating a green barrier, hedge or windbreak. Plant Barberry away from garden slides, swings and trampolines to give your garden bugs and birds a quiet life.
You may know Purple Loosestrife as ‘Purple Willow Herb’. Though Loosestrife is widely regarded as a wetland weed, its colourful, six-petalled flowers hold a store of nectar which is lapped-up by butterflies and exotic moths.
As well as feeding butterflies and bees, Purple Loosestrife can be planted in a soggy corner of your garden to encourage a visit from spectacular hawk moths. These amazing creatures fly like tiny humming-birds, probing an extended tongue deep into the Loosestrife blossoms!
Natural and cultivated varieties of Purple Loosestrife can be ordered online or bought as plug-plants from many of the larger garden centres. Loosestrife is a zero-maintenance plant which will flower throughout the summer.
Looking for a good excuse to cut your hedges and lawns less often? The next time your neighbours hassle you about an untidy hedge, let them know that the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) recommends that you avoid cutting trees and hedges between March and August. In the UK, it is illegal to intentionally damage a wild bird’s nest during hedge-cutting (Section 1, Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981).
How do garden hedges benefit wildlife?
One of the side effects of intensive farming is a marked decrease in the number of hedgerows that traditionally divided farmers’ fields. Loss of habitat is just one of the reasons why so many of the UK’s common bird species are in decline.
With fewer opportunities for nesting on farmland, thrushes, blackbirds and finches now depend on eco-friendly gardeners to create secluded spots for nest building and raising their chicks.
For house sparrows, a bushy hedge is a refuge from aerial predators like the sparrowhawk. Though the sparrows prefer to build communal nests in house roofs and eaves, the busy chatter of a ‘quarrel’ of house sparrows will often be heard as they gather to roost in the safety of a garden hedge.
How will longer grass benefit garden wildlife?
Whilst a close-cut lawn makes it easier for blackbirds to harvest a tasty crop of worms, the short grass is a no-go area for small, vulnerable mammals like field voles and shrews. How about sacrificing a corner or edge of your lawn to create a haven for small mammals?
For most animal species, urban gardens form a ‘wildlife corridor’ for feeding opportunities, migration and winter hibernation. Though a precisely manicured garden may have visual appeal for its owner, hedgehogs, voles and amphibians depend on a protective tangle of vegetation for their survival.
By setting aside a few areas for wild growth, you can easily turn your garden into a welcoming super-highway for native mammals and amphibians!
If you have a traditional garden or patio, you’re already providing a source natural of food for wild animals, birds and insects. By following our 5 hints for encouraging wildlife into your garden, you can increase the amount of food available and ensure that there’s something to be eaten all year round.
When offering wild animals food in your garden, please consider your neighbours. Pet foods and commercial bird seeds make an easy meal for rats, mice and other animals regarded as vermin. Keeping your feeding areas clean and tidy is essential for healthy wildlife. It also ensures that you stay friendly with the folks next door.
Here are a few of the best supplemental foods for helping garden wildlife to survive harsh weather.
Pet food for garden animals
When visiting your garden, hedgehogs will feed mostly on slugs and snails. To fatten hedgehogs up before or after winter, offer them a bowl of meat-based pet food. Be prepared for a visit by badgers or foxes; the smell of a meaty pet food feast may attract these large mammals. Remember that hedgehogs and badgers will be sleeping through most of the winter months.
Mealworms for robins and shrews
These days, dried mealworms can be bought in most pet shops and garden centres. As well as feeding house sparrows and robins on a bird table, mealworms make an excellent food supplement for shrews. Shrews have an astonishing metabolism, and they need to eat garden insects every 2 or 3 hours to survive. Before and after winter, a few mealworms scattered in your garden may help these shy insectivores to survive.
Commercial birdseed for feeders and bird tables
In a Harsh winter, many birds rely on gardeners to provide a wide range of seeds in garden feeders. Generally, a small-seed mix is best. Commercial feeds with high wheat content may fatten your local pigeons, but they’re not great for small garden birds.
Each bird species has its own favourite seeds. Goldfinches and siskins will spend days taking their fill of small, black Nyger seeds. Along with fat balls, most members of the tit family are partial to hulled sunflower hearts. Peanuts are a favourite for woodpeckers and many other species, but they can be a choking hazard for spring and summer fledgelings.
As well as encouraging wild animals to visit your garden, why not build them a permanent home? An ornamental water feature is a natural drinking fountain for birds and wild creatures, but even a tiny garden pond will open-up a whole new world for frogs, toads, newts and their tadpoles.
If amphibians aren’t your thing, how about placing a few bird boxes, or even a bat box around your house or garden?
Creating a garden water feature
In a small space, just a simple, large bowl can be artfully positioned to form a wildlife-friendly feature.
If you’re lucky enough to have a small garden, it only takes an afternoon to create space for a low-cost, pre-formed garden pond. It’s amazing how quickly a tiny pond will become populated with species like smooth newts and frogs. Don’t worry if you’re squeamish about having resident amphibians in your garden. These are shy, harmless creatures that you’ll rarely see in daylight.
Creating a large pond requires careful planning and quite a lot of work. The reward is the priceless contribution that you’ll make to wildlife conservation!
Bird boxes for homes and gardens
House sparrows and swifts are desperately seeking accommodation in your area!
House sparrows are sociable birds that seldom nest in a single box. To ease the shortage of house sparrow accommodation, you can buy (or build) multiple nest boxes combined in a single unit.
It can be frustrating when a great tit or blue tit decides to build a nest in one of your communal house sparrow nest boxes. You can ease the housing pressure by installing single boxes specially for tits and their large families.
Due to modern house building techniques, swifts are also having problems finding life-long homes. Ready-made swift nest boxes and ‘swift bricks’ tend to be quite expensive. With swifts preferring to nest in communities, a single nest box isn’t usually a practical
solution. If you’re a keen DIY fan, plans for inexpensive swift nest boxes are easy to find online.
Insect homes and bug hotels
Let’s not forget the insects. With just a few short lengths of bamboo and a twist of garden twine, it’s easy to make an insect home that will accommodate solitary bees, ladybirds and other garden-friendly bugs. For accommodation that’s a little more up-market, look-out for a ready-made bug hotel in your local garden centre.
Enjoying your wildlife garden
Most of us will agree that the pace of modern life is often a little too hurried and stressful. For many families, keeping up-to-date with social media is a distraction that disconnects us from wildlife and nature. We’re so engrossed in Facebook likes and Twitter posts that it’s difficult to find time to take an interest in the natural, non-digital world.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading our hints and tips for wildlife gardening. It really is incredibly simple to encourage more wild creatures to visit your garden, patio or balcony.
With fewer gardening chores on your to-do list, we hope that you’ll find more time to sit back and enjoy daily visits from an amazing range of native birds, animals and insects!
Anna is the marketing and office manager for Garden Benches – a premium supplier of high-quality wooden benches and other outdoor furniture.