Gardening with wildlife in mind

Mike Unwin / 01 June 2021

Mike Unwin explains how to help insects, birds and other animals while retaining your sunbathing patch



A tiny shadow dances across your lawn as a peacock butterfly swoops on to an ivy leaf. It spreads its wings, luxuriating in the sunshine, and then it’s off again, startled by a wren, which hops up to belt out its rattling refrain. Blue tits flit through your forsythia, bees inspect your borders and beneath a log pile, a toad squats in the damp, awaiting dusk.

Garden wildlife has been one silver lining of Covid-19. We’ve found comfort in the buzz of insects and birdsong.

How can we turn our patches into thriving nature reserves? The good news is that you needn’t be a gardening guru. Neither do you need a vast acreage: an urban patio can be as rewarding as a country estate. The key lies in offering food and shelter.

Find out more about how to encourage biodiversity in your garden

No mow 

Take lawns. A billiard-table smooth expanse of chemically enhanced turf is as sterile to wildlife as concrete. Conversely, a small corner of long grass, running wild with plants such as dandelions, buttercups and clover, teems with insects, which, in turn, attract birds. If you can hold back a little on the trimming – set the blade higher and mow less often – and perhaps set aside a small untamed area in which wild plants can flourish as nature intended, your wildlife will thank you for it.

Don’t worry too much about neatness. In late summer, for instance, leave the deadheads of plants such as teasels and hollyhocks for seedeaters such as goldfinches. Hedges can provide nesting cover for late broods of many songbirds. And when you do prune, save your trimmings. A compost heap is heaven for smaller beasts, while a log pile may shelter anything from woodlice and spiders to frogs and shrews.

This approach may mean rethinking some old enemies. Remember: ‘weed’ is just an expedient term for any plant we don’t want. Ivy, much maligned, is a food plant for holly blue butterflies, a retreat for roosting bats and nesting wrens, an autumn nectar dispensary for honeybees and red admirals, and a winter berry feast for blackcaps and redwings.

Find out how to create a meadow

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Look beyond the blooms

Many bedding plants provide showy blooms but little pollen or nectar for insects. Polyanthus, begonias, petunias and busy lizzies are all villains here. Instead, try native wildflowers such as bugle, herbs (thyme, oregano, mint), dog violet, wild pansies and primroses and cowslips. Their less ostentatious splash comes with a living kaleidoscope of insects. Hardy perennials, such as geraniums (related to the non-native, annual pelargonium) are great value for butterflies, moths and bees. If growing from seed, try nasturtiums and honesty.

When choosing bushes and shrubs, think berries for birds. Native species such as rowan, holly, elder and hawthorn all play a vital role in getting birds through the winter, alongside cultivated berry bearers such as pyracantha and berberis.

Every little helps

On a patio or balcony, you can use pot plants to create a wildlife habitat in miniature. Mix evergreen cover, such as vinca or ivy, with drought-resistant nectar-rich flowering shrubs such as lavender. Pack your containers and group them close together to attract insects. Water, if only a birdbath, is important as the temperature starts to rise.

Finally, make time to enjoy the fruits of your labours. Insects are at their busiest in June. Birds are feeding broods late into the long evenings. And darkness may lure a stag beetle, foraging toad or snuffling hedgehog. Pandemic or no pandemic, you may find it hard to leave.

See rspb.org.uk, wildlifetrusts.org and nhm.ac.uk

Gardening sustainably

Here’s how to keep your gardening wildlife-friendly

1. Peat extraction destroys precious wildlife habitats. Avoid peat-based composts.

2. Save rainwater in water butts.

3. Buy FSC-accredited (Forest Stewardship Council) garden furniture and charcoal.

4. Ensure native plants are legally cultivated from seed and of native stock.

5. Use reclaimed materials, such as old pallets and planks, for raised borders and other garden structures.

6. Use non-toxic, non-chemical alternatives to pesticides.

Find out more about what you can do to help hedgehogs in your garden

This article appeared in the June 2021 issue of Saga Magazine

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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.