Bee on sempervivum

One of the hottest gardening topics is how to turn your garden into a wildlife haven. Gardens are seen as a habitat of last resort for many hard-pressed species. Wildlife friendly products abound and you can buy homes suitable for any creature.

What’s not immediately obvious is how much this helps, and whether a garden that is designed principally for humans can also entice wildlife in.

Some very good research into the wildlife values of different gardens was done at the University of Sheffield – and it came up with some surprising results.

To start with, they found that every garden is teeming with wildlife. You may not have the obvious species (birds and small mammals) visiting on a regular basis, but you will have millions of creepy-crawlies. That’s a good start, because the key to successful wildlife gardening is to look at the whole ecosystem – the more different species you can cater for, the better.

If you are replacing a fence then it’s worth considering planting a mixed hedge to enhance the value of your garden to wildlife. A base of hawthorn or blackthorn will have white flowers in spring, followed by berries in autumn. Adding in other species (in a ratio of about 1:5) adds interest for humans and wildlife – try holly, dogwood, roses, oak or hazel.

A new hedge is a considerable investment, but adding new plants for their wildlife value is achievable in most gardens. Aim to have flowers blooming for as long as possible to help bees – crocuses and ivy both help to extend the season. Many plants, such as buddleja and sedum, are well known for attracting bees and butterflies, but the flowers of many herbs (e.g. mints, lemon balm, marjoram and thyme) are just as good.

Ponds open up a new range of habitats, but adding fish greatly reduces the number of species that take up residence. A good range of aquatic plants helps, as does a separate marshy area or bog garden. Shy animals appreciate some cover while they’re drinking, and a shallow edge on one side helps creatures get in and out of the water. Add some flat stones in a sunny spot, for basking, and you have the wildlife equivalent of a 5-star beach resort.

No wildlife-friendly garden is complete without a compost heap. Decomposing plant matter is a very important part of the food chain, and something most gardens lack because of our tendency to clear plant debris away. Adding it back in helps to support a whole army of decomposing organisms.

The only sort of garden that is not good for wildlife is one where pesticides are used (including slug pellets), because they kill off sections of the ecosystem. Beyond that, a garden has to be considered as part of the wider environment. There’s no need for every garden to have a pond or hedge – a variety of plants and garden types in the neighbourhood gives a wide range of habitats and hence supports a wide range of wildlife.

Tips for easy wildlife gardening

    • A patch of nettles is a great wildlife resource. Nettles support early populations of aphids, which feed ladybirds when they come out of hibernation and encourage them to live and breed in your garden. Ladybirds and their larvae help to keep garden pests under control.
    • A log pile in a quiet corner provides a range of wildlife habitats as the logs decompose.
    • Sunflowers provide pollen and nectar for bees, followed by seeds for birds.
    • A wildflower meadow isn’t a ‘must have’ – even a patch of plain, un-mowed grass is a haven for wildlife.

This article first appeared in Country Gardener in August 2008.