Alice Whitehead gives you tips on how to make the most of your garden as a home for our beloved native wildlife
With spring firmly in our step, it’s easy to get carried away trimming edges, weeding out the unwanted (both plants and pests) and making lawns Wimbledon-ready. But, this year, don’t be tempted to tame your plot or patch too much – because at the edge of the weeds, is the wild.
Bugs, butterflies, bees and birds don’t care about neat lines and clipped topiary, and they certainly don’t like sterile concrete or swathes of gravel. Many of our best-loved creatures (particularly the bee) have seen their natural habitats lost in recent years due to intensive agriculture; so turn your backyard into the garden of their wildest dreams with these handy hints and tips.
Bitten by the Bug
One of the best ways to get up close and personal with creepy crawlies is to be a little untidy. Leaving broken pots, old logs and leaf piles in situ will not only save you a job; it will also provide cool, dark cavities for wood-boring insects to inhabit. If mess drives you mad, or if you’ve already cleared up the clutter, don’t worry; there’s never a bad time to make a mini beast hotel for insects.
Use materials such as old pieces of wood, bricks, garden canes, and old pipes – as well as leaves, moss, twigs and other waste garden material for bedding. Site the hotel somewhere sheltered, near bushes or trees, and build up the ‘floors’ using old wooden pallets balanced carefully on bricks (don’t go too high!), and finish off with a waterproof membrane. If you can’t get a waterproof membrane, old compost bags will do.
Stuff each level with leaves, shredded paper, and newspaper – and consider adding dead wood for stag beetles, centipedes, millipedes, spiders and woodlice; dry sticks and grass for ladybirds; and rolled up corrugated cardboard for lacewings.
Off to a Butterfly-ing Start
With around 95% of the UK’s lowland meadows lost due to intensive agriculture, according to the Wildlife Trusts, it’s even harder for butterflies to find good food sources these days, so give them a helping hand by planting your own. It doesn’t need to be an expansive meadow, even a large pot of wild flowers will do; and it doesn’t need to be expensive either, lots of places sell cheap packets of wildflower seeds these days.
Good soil preparation is essential and, unlike the lush vegetation and flowers in your border, the secret to wild flower success is a low fertility, so strip off any topsoil and reuse old compost. Add nectar-rich flowers such as coneflowers, zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, verbenas, asters and daisies.
Butterflies find it hard to drink from open water so leave out a dish to quench their thirst, and place flat stones among your flowers so they can soak up any sunshine. Of course, a few rotten pears and apples wouldn’t go amiss either, but you might find this attracts unwanted wasps in warmer weather.
Give bees a boost by banning pesticides in your garden and planting bee-friendly alliums (onion family), mint, beans and daisy shaped flowers such as sunflowers and asters, placed in clumps in sunny spots. Holes are also good. Drill a few into fence posts and shed walls and you can provide high-rise apartments for solitary bees.
Bumblebees will have been hibernating in dry, dark, ventilated cavities over winter and have been known to nest in abandoned rodent holes, under sheds, in lawns and in compost heaps. They’ll start appearing in late spring to collect nectar and you can help them move up the property ladder by making a bumblebee house (ready for their winter hibernation) made from an upturned flowerpot, sunk into the ground near a hedge or fence and out of direct sunlight. Insert a little cradle of chicken wire into the pot and fill with nesting material such as dry moss or hamster bedding (avoid cotton wool as they can get tangled) and put a tile over the top to keep out the rain. Run an old length of hose to the entrance and then bury the whole thing under soil or leaves.
Birds and Bats
The better you attract the bugs, the better you’ll attract the birds, but with many people losing their lawns in favour of decking and gravel, there’s much less for them to eat these days. Make sure there’s room in your grand designs for trees and shrubs, which will provide much-needed food during autumn. Consider planting bare-root trees or native shrubs such as holly, rowan, whitebeam, elder, hawthorn, cotoneaster, pyracantha and berberis – all of which provide plenty of berries and hips, as well as shelter for over-wintering insects such as aphids.
High-hanging feeders are perfect if you have cats (fill with wild seed mixtures, pinhead oatmeal, sultanas, raisins and currants), but you can also use cup feeders that sit on top of tall stakes in the flowerbed. A water bath is essential too, so the birds can bathe and preen their feathers, using their inbuilt waterproofing system.
And when you’re planning your garden next year add plenty of pale, night-scented plants too, which have strong odours and glow-in-the-dark colours that attract pipistrelle bats. While the bat won’t eat the plants, their main food source – midges, moths and mosquitoes – will, and the bats can consume up to 3,000 of them in a single night!
Put on the Waterworks
If there’s one thing that will attract more wildlife to your garden than anything else, it’s a water source – whether that’s a small pond made from a Belfast sink, or a palatial bog garden. Choose a cool day (autumn is best) and select a spot away from overhanging trees that gets plenty of light. Dig down so the deepest part of your pond is around 77cm deep. Craft shallow, sloping steps so you can grow plants at different levels and animals can get in and out. Lay an aquatic underlay, and a butyl rubber liner on top, turning the liner under at the edges and turf. Cover the ‘steps’ with soil and fill the pond with water and let it stand for 24 hours before adding oxygenating plants (floating leaves shade out algae and those that stand up out of the water provide homes for emerging dragonfly larvae). Waterlogged ditches or leaky ponds can be made
By Alice Whitehead. Alice is an experienced writer and gardener. She tends two urban allotment plots, and passes on her skills to the next generation through her school garden club.