How to create and care for a wildlife garden

The UK is home to an extraordinary variety of animals, birds and insects living in the wild.  Obviously, these creatures aren’t confined to the countryside alone.  In towns and villages, residential gardens can offer a wonderful haven in which local wildlife can feed, breed and shelter.  It’s estimated that the many gardens in Britain cover around 10 million acres, linked together into green ‘corridors’.  These link urban green spaces with the countryside and provide wildlife with a wide range of habitats.  Every garden and outdoor space – no matter the size – can be enriched to become a healthy haven for local birds and other wildlife.

At The Garden Company – in partnership with our clients – we actively seek to create and build wildlife-friendly gardens. This blog post sets out the rationale for having wildlife at the forefront of our minds when it comes to our gardens.  It also sets out some simple guidance on planning a wildlife garden and nurturing it to its full potential.

Why is this so important?

Wildlife is under threat. There is of course a growing awareness of the threat facing all wildlife. According to the World Wildlife Fund: We are losing incredible wildlife and iconic places at an alarming rate.  Our living planet, our one and only life support system, is critically endangered. Over the past 50 years, there have been huge losses in wildlife in the UK and abroad. Numbers of iconic species have dropped – from the skylark and water vole here in the UK, to African elephants and snow leopards around the world. Precious habitats have been eroded.

We can all take some important steps to address this crisis and protect our own small piece of the planet.

How to get started

In our experience of wildlife-friendly gardens, there are two broad aspects to consider carefully:

  1. Planning ahead – considering design options and wildlife-friendly garden features
  2. Looking after it – nurturing the garden to its full potential through wildlife-friendly gardening practices
1 – How to plan a wildlife garden

From including a garden pond to providing bees with a bee house and growing plants for pollinators, there’s a whole range of wildlife garden design ideas available to you. A few simple principles guiding the way you plan your garden transformation can help to provide safe habitats for a variety of species.

  • Go green

When I’m planning a client’s garden transformation project (or a brand new garden), I always aim to protect existing green boundaries  – hedges, trees and shrubs.  It’s also beneficial to wildlife to replace man-made boundaries with green alternatives. As a general principle, a wildlife-friendly garden will have a high proportion of softscaping to hardscaping. Soft landscaping obviously benefits wildlife by providing food, shelter and places to breed. Read more about this in my blog post on sustainable gardens. Native plant choices are important too, forming a vital part of an ecosystem in which wildlife thrive.

  • Choose pollinator-friendly plants

Pollinator-friendly plants attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial creatures that transfer pollen from flower to flower, or in some cases, within flowers. My favourite prime pollinators are salvias, lavender and verbenas.  I’ve been working hard over the past few years to incorporate as many late-blooming pollinator-friendly plants into my schemes as possible. Not only do I enjoy the punch of colour they provide from September until November, I also love seeing the diversity of pollinators they attract and support. The humble ivy is also great for nesting birds and is very important to many insects too, I’m always keen to preserve ivy when I find it growing well on a client’s garden wall or fence.

  •   Just add water

By providing a water source, you can make your space extremely appealing to pollinators and other wildlife. Water is not only for wildlife to drink. Butterflies get valuable minerals from slightly muddy water.  Birds use it to bathe, get rid of parasites and keep their feathers in good condition. Frogs and toads use water to shelter and as a place to breed.

You will need to consider carefully what space and resources you have available for this. You might be thinking about a small bird bath, a running water feature or a full-scale garden pond. From a design perspective, it’s important to position the water source where you can enjoy watching the wildlife activity that it creates.  Water for birds also needs to be near shrubs or a tree so that they feel safe approaching it. Also, it is vitally important that your water source is shallow in parts, so that anything that climbs in can get out again.

  • Replace lawn with a wildflower meadow

By planting a meadow rather than a lawn, you can recreate the atmosphere of an open, uncultivated field in the English countryside. Wildflowers, flowering plants and native or naturalised grasses will attract butterflies, bees, spiders, birds and small mammals. You might choose to replace some or all of your lawn area with wildflower meadow.  The area needs to be located somewhere that is sunny for most of the day.  Aesthetically speaking, a wildflower meadow provides visual interest for many months, offering great plant diversity and a changing colour palette throughout the seasons.

  •  Provide additional homes for wildlife

In addition to the natural shelter to be found in hedges, trees and climbing plants, you can attract even more wildlife to your garden by providing additional, suitable habitats – including bee houses, bug hotels and birding boxes.  These can look great and also be a source of interest for everyone using the garden.

2 – How to look after a wildlife garden

Once you’ve planned your wildlife garden carefully, you need to put some good gardening practices in place so that it thrives – along with the wildlife it supports.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make and use your own compost

Home-made compost is made of recycled garden and kitchen waste. The process of composting controls the breakdown of natural waste and recycles it into a valuable fertiliser. The addition of a compost heap to your garden provides a great habitat at different times of the year for many wildlife species. Decaying plant material is hugely attractive to insects, worms, mites and other invertebrates. A compost heap can provide a refuge and feeding area for creatures such as hedgehogs, beetles, toads, bats, birds, grass snakes, small mammals and slow-worms. This process helps cut down on landfill too. Find out more here.

  • Let it grow

Generally, a super tidy garden is often not wildlife-friendly.  Delay mowing or stop mowing sometimes (put your lawnmower away for No Mow May). Don’t deadhead too soon and relax about weeding.  Leave seedheads on for birds and delay cutting back plants until later in the year.  However, don’t assume there is no need to maintain a wildflower meadow. They require careful maintenance, to allow the more desirable species to flourish and to reduce the vigour of the more pervasive ones. This usually involves mowing and weed control.

  • Keep the water source accessible throughout the year

During hot summer weather (which is becoming more common for all of us), it is vitally important for animals and birds to be able to drink and bathe in water. In addition, do remember to keep the water topped up during the chillier months. Otherwise, sources of water can become frozen and more difficult to find.

  • Avoid chemical pest control methods

Chemical pesticides can be harmful to the environment and to other wildlife that may not be the problem species being targeted.  Importantly, many pests (including aphids, snails and slugs) can be effectively controlled using natural predators.  By encouraging ladybirds, lacewings, frogs, hedgehogs and birds you can limit the numbers of unwelcome garden pests.  For example, you can actively entice ladybirds into your garden by making sure there is a continuous source of water and planting flowers with flat tops such as fennel, dill and angelica. You can even provide a ladybird tower as a safe habitat.

In conclusion

Creating a wildlife garden helps to reduce the real threat to your local wildlife. There are other significant benefits too. Planting a wildlife-friendly garden is a great way for children to engage with the natural world around them. Gardening activities can attract young people outdoors.  Even small toddlers can enjoy helping to feed garden birds, sow flowers, fruit and vegetables and build log piles and insect homes.

And for all of us, at any age, an interest in gardens and wildlife brings us closer to nature. Transforming an underused garden into a wildlife garden is a wonderful way for us to create a thing of beauty which we share with other living creatures. Immersing ourselves in such a special space and paying attention to the wildlife around us offers both enjoyment and tranquillity.

For more inspiration, take a look at this residential case study featuring a wildflower meadow and other wildlife-friendly features.


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