Turn your courtyard into a wildlife sanctuary

Martyn Cox / 11 January 2012

Don’t despair if you have just downsized and inherited a tiny, uninspiring courtyard garden. The most unpromising of spaces can be given a new lease of life and it won’t cost you a fortune. Martyn Cox looks at simple ways you can transform a tiny space, whether you want a leafy jungle or a classical formal garden.

Most of us would like to attract wildlife into the garden, but those with tiny plots often feel hamstrung by their lack of space and think it’s impossible to entice beneficial creatures, especially if they live in the heart of a town or city. Well, reject that thought. You don’t need rolling acres; grow the right plants, add some special habitats, take a more relaxed approach towards maintenance and your garden will soon be full of life.


Many large wildlife gardens look like overgrown patches of weeds, but this scruffy look is best avoided in a courtyard garden. Grow a selection of key plants in pots or in raised beds, avoiding anything that grows too rampantly. Aim to choose plants that provide food, shelter and habitats throughout the year.

Crab apples are excellent small trees whose flowers will attract pollinating insects in spring, while their fruit is loved by birds in autumn and winter. Rudbeckia, salvia, helenium and echinacea are perfect perennials with nectar rich flowers in summer, followed by long-lasting seed heads. Crocus, grape hyacinth and winter flowering heathers offer nectar for insects early in the year.

Add Water

It’s essential to have some kind of water feature. Birds, small mammals and insects need water to drink, while a pond will become a habitat for a wide range of aquatic insects and amphibians. A bubble fountain, wall mounted fountain, barrel pond or container pond are an excellent choice where space is really tight. Those with a bit more room could install a diminutive pond – make sure it has shallow edges so creatures can enter or get out easily.

Bug boxes

Although some garden wildlife will find a nook or cranny to hibernate in overwinter, it is a good idea to create some habitats of your own. Frogs, toads, beetles and hedgehogs love to shelter underneath or among the gaps of rotting logs. Create a log pile by loosely arranging a few old branches under a tree, at the foot of a hedge or behind a shed.

Alternatively, install a bug box on a wall or fence – these are used by ladybirds, spiders, lacewings and other creatures as a place to shelter or hibernate. There are many models available from garden centres, which basically consist of a wooden frame stuffed with straw, bark, bits of bamboo cane and leaves. When mounting on a vertical surface, make sure the box is angled slightly downwards to prevent rain from getting in.

Maintaining a wildlife garden

Avoid overzealous tidying. Allow perennials to die back naturally in autumn and winter, as many have old seed heads that act as source of food. You can even allow some piles of fallen leaves to remain on the ground as creatures will hide beneath them or birds will upturn them looking for slugs or other insects to eat.

Many gardeners will instinctively reach for a pesticide if plants are under attack from greenfly, slugs or vine weevil, but these should only be used a last resort. Chemicals tend to indiscriminate and will kill beneficial creatures, as well as those you don’t want.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.