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Best plants for a wildlife garden

David Chapman / 13 July 2020 ( 10 June 2022 )

We round-up some of the best flowers and plants to attract wildlife into your garden and create a haven for birds, butterflies and bees.

Honey bee at ceanothus
Honey bee at ceanothus. Photograph by David Chapman.

Gardening for wildlife is an immensely satisfying, rewarding hobby. No matter what's happening in the world I can take great solace from being able to spend time in my garden, splitting plants, taking cuttings, weeding beds and witnessing the positive impact on wildlife.

Just one example. Last year a friend gave me some bugle plants. I split them, planted them and tended them carefully. This spring they sent up tall flower spikes and began to spread vigorously in their adopted home. Their flowers buzzed with bees throughout April and each time I saw this happen I felt a warm fuzzy gratifying glow.

We are all aware of the need to protect and care for bees and this involves planting flowers to provide a source of nectar throughout the year but we should all be aware that planting for wildlife is far more wide-reaching than that.

When choosing plants for our gardens we should try to anticipate the wide range of requirements that our garden visitors might have.

For instance, the orange-tip butterfly that I saw in our garden this spring was drinking nectar from a bluebell but it was looking for a very different plant on which to lay its eggs. For this purpose it usually chooses one of two wildflowers: garlic mustard or cuckoo flower (aka lady’s smock) and sometimes will lay on the garden plant honesty. Provide nectar along with at least one of these flowers and your garden will become orange-tip heaven!

Under the eaves of my house I have nest boxes for house sparrows, and I also provide them with a bit of bird seed each day but even with these two essentials in place they wouldn’t be happy without some dense shrubbery close by. My sparrows spend most of their day in the pyracantha hedge, occasionally flitting into the dense ivy on an old elder tree nearby.

As it happens the same pyracantha hedge provides a good nectar source in spring and a mass of berries for birds in autumn. By contrast the ivy provides nectar in autumn and a rich supply of berries from mid to late winter. Both plants offer sanctuary to nesting birds and the ivy, in particular, provides a safe place for insects to hibernate.

Having broadened the discussion from simply thinking about nectar-bearing flowers I will look a little more carefully at some of the specific plants that I have found to be most beneficial in my garden for a range of wildlife-related purposes. Some of these will be repeated in the different sections and it is these species that I would recommend for greatest impact, particularly in a small garden.

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Best nectar-rich plants for bees and butterflies

It's relatively easy to find a good range of flowers to provide nectar through the summer but it's important for us to offer some sources of nectar throughout the year. Bees and butterflies are less active in the colder months but there will still be times when they emerge from hibernation and need nourishment.

As a short-term strategy it's possible to take advice from articles such as this and from friends with a similar passion but longer-term I suggest looking around your garden every month of the year to see what nectar sources you are offering. If you think you are short in any month then go to the garden centre or a local open garden and see what plants are attracting insects.

Here are some of my most successful species arranged by season:

  • Winter/early spring: winter-flowering heathers, crocus, hellebores
  • Spring: perennial cornflower, bugle, rosemary, foxglove, wisteria
  • Summer: scabiouses, mallows, lavender, tree lupin or lupin, marjoram, knapweed, red valerian, teasel, mullein, borage, honeysuckle, climbing jasmine
  • Autumn: sedum, ivy, hemp agrimony, verbena bonariensis, autumn-flowering heathers

I've also found a few garden varieties that are fantastic for insects but which can be invasive. I use these in wilder parts of the garden where I am happy to have anything that can fight their own corner and particularly where I can keep them hemmed in by mowing around their beds. These include mint (summer), yellow archangel (spring), comfrey (summer) and the yellow-flowered Elecampane (summer).

To give height to the garden it's important to have some wildlife-friendly shrubs or trees, depending on the size of your plot. The best known of these is the butterfly-bush, buddleia davidii, which is very productive in summer. I have an amazing ceanothus which is quite compact and a much taller cherry tree, both of which are full of bees in spring. I wouldn’t be without my various pyracanthas and it’s hard to beat laburnum for colour and nectar in early summer.

Nectar-rich pond plants

Don’t overlook your pond as a good place to plant nectar-rich flowers. Here my favourites are purple loosestrife (summer), fringed water lily (summer), ragged robin (early summer) and water mint (summer).

Find out how to create a wildlife-friendly pond

Rabbit-proof flowers

My garden is inhabited by a lot of wildlife and this includes rabbits, lots of them. Having rabbits can be useful because it means less mowing but on the whole it makes wildlife-gardening more difficult because they eat most things.

This means I have many flower beds which are permanently fenced off which is not particularly attractive. Outside of the fences I have experimented to find some useful species that rabbits don’t tend to eat.

Flowers that rabbits won't eat

  • Comfrey
  • Mint
  • Red valerian
  • Rosemary
  • Foxglove
  • Yellow archangel
  • Mullein
  • Teasel
  • Elecampane

Food plants for butterflies and moths

It makes sense to record the species of butterfly and moth that you see in your garden and then provide the plants that their caterpillars eat. There's little point in growing cow-wheat (the food plant of heath fritillary butterfly caterpillars) if the nearest population of the butterflies is hundreds of miles away.

However there are a few species of butterfly that are quite widespread and can realistically be attracted to gardens using flowers that also have some value as nectar-bearing plants.

Here are a few to try: garlic mustard, cuckoo flower and honesty for orange-tip and green-veined white butterflies; mullein for mullein moth; bird’s-foot trefoil for a wide range of butterflies and moths including common blue butterfly and six spot burnet moth; dog violets for many fritillary butterflies; alder buckthorn for brimstone butterflies; holly and ivy for holly blue butterfly.

I read many articles promoting nettles as a food source for the caterpillars of butterflies. It is true that nettles are used by a number of species but there are many reasons why I don’t encourage them in my garden: there seem to be plenty of nettles in the wider countryside without me having to plant them, they don’t offer much else for wildlife, I have never had any caterpillars of butterflies on the nettles I do have in my garden and I don’t actually need to encourage them, I spend a lot of time digging them out!

Find out how to photograph butterflies in your garden

Best food sources for butterfly and moth caterpillars

  • Garlic mustard (orange tip and green-veined white)
  • Cuckoo flower (orange tip and green-veined white)
  • Honesty (orange tip and green-veined white)
  • Mullein (mullein moth)
  • Bird’s-foot trefoil (wide range)
  • Dog violets (fritillary butterflies)
  • Alder buckthorn (brimstone butterflies)
  • Holly (holly blue butterfly)
  • Ivy (holly blue butterfly)
alt text here
Blackbird female on pyracantha.

Food plants for birds

Birds can usually find enough food from late spring through to autumn and we can always supplement their diet with bird feeders if we feel they are in need but it is great if we are able to grow plants which provide for them during the periods food is less plentiful.

Through the winter this food often comes from berries and fruits in hedgerows. If you have space to grow trees then try rowan, hawthorn and holly which provide berries from late summer to December. After that ivy is great for an abundance of berries from mid-January through February. If you don’t have enough space for larger trees my favourites are pyracantha and guelder rose for berries and maybe a small crab apple or apple tree for larger fruits.

There are also plenty of smaller plants which have good flowers for insects and then offer seed to birds in the late summer, these include knapweed, teasels (especially for goldfinches), honesty and sunflowers.

Best plants to attract birds

  • Pyracantha
  • Guelder rose
  • Rowan
  • Hawthorn
  • Holly
  • Ivy
  • Knapweed
  • Teasels
  • Honesty
  • Sunflowers

Plants as refuge

Birds need places to nest and roost, insects need places to hibernate. For these purposes we need to have dense thickets which can be provided by climbing plants such as honeysuckle, clematis and ivy or shrubs such as holly, pyracantha, box, berberis, or small conifers. Conifers are a good way to provide nest sites for many bird species but check the height and width they are likely to reach before planting.

Best shelter plants for birds

  • Honeysuckle
  • Clematis
  • Ivy
  • Holly
  • Pyracantha
  • Box
  • Berberis
  • Conifer (check size of variety before planting)

In summary

It would be great if we could all provide everything that all our wildlife will ever need, but that’s not practical. If you have a small garden maybe it would be a good idea to work with your neighbours to cover a wider spectrum of aims. It doesn’t matter to the bees and butterflies if there is a fence between one nectar source and another, but remember to leave gaps at the bottom of the fence for hedgehogs to negotiate their way through.

I’ve mentioned a large number of different species and purposes here but even so this list is just a fraction of the possible options. You might have guessed that my own favourite plant for wildlife is the pyracantha, despite its thorns! But if I was to pick out one plant to champion for its all-round wildlife credentials it would have to be ivy. It produces nectar and berries at times of year when they are less abundant elsewhere and it provides a safe place for birds to nest and insects to hibernate. It has it all. I know we don’t all want to leave ivy to grow everywhere but I do think that if we all give it just a corner in which to thrive our gardens would be richer for wildlife.

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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.