It’s estimated that there are around 30 million gardens in the UK. If you have a back, or even just a front, garden, however small, you can choose to play an important part in restoring and protecting our biodiversity.
Imagine what a difference we could make to the survival and thriving of our native species of wild animals, insects and plants if all those with gardens provided a patch that encourages and protects biodiversity.
The word biodiversity simply refers to the biological diversity and interdependence of all living things, including ourselves. In a word, we need biodiversity to live healthy lives, and biodiversity needs us. Without a wide range of animals, plants, and microorganisms, we cannot have the healthy ecosystems that we rely on to provide us with the air we breathe and the food we eat.
Whether you live in the countryside or an urban area, have an ample space or a small patch, by making a few minor adjustments you can create a space irresistible to a range of wildlife.
There are a multitude of ways to encourage wildlife in your garden. Some may involve a significant commitment to change; others are easy and simple, but all offer food and shelter to the insects and animals that visit your garden. Let’s start with some of those simple ideas to create natural habitats to help wildlife.
Make your garden a haven for our pollinators by planting pollen and nectar-rich flowers. Whatever the size of your garden, you can attract and sustain bees and butterflies by growing the flowers they love.
Plants are the single most crucial factor in creating a wildlife garden. As a general rule, the best plants for pollinators are single-flowering, open varieties and not highly bred cultivars or multi-petalled varieties. Many modern hybrids with multiple layers of petals or blooms may look very pretty but often have much less nectar and pollen and are less beneficial to potential feeding insects.
Another key feature in growing plants for pollinators is to try to have some plants that flower all year around. With some careful planning and a mix of herbaceous, biennial and annual flowering plants, you can have something in flower for most months of the year. By planting, for instance, a busy mixed flower bed, you can bring year-round colour as well as a world of incredible wildlife.
The humble bumblebee is vitally important to our ecosystem. They pollinate hundreds of plant species, including many of our food crops. Unfortunately, bumblebees are under threat due to the loss and degradation of so many of their natural habitats.
Bumblebees look for flowers, so you can support them by planting flowers. Bumblebees need short, open flowers with nectar within easy reach. This includes flowers from the daisy family and alliums, with several small flowers on one stalk. They can also enjoy deeper flowers like honeysuckle.
Butterflies also like to stick their long tongues into tubular flowers, like foxgloves, and take nectar from various colourful blooms, both native and non-native. Some of their favourites include honeysuckle, lavender, knapweed, hollyhocks, cornflower, red valerian and buddleia.
To give all pollinators a year-round feast, an example might be to plant:
Another tip is to grow native plants like arable flowers, such as corn cockle, corn marigold, poppy and cornflower. These provide an attractive splash of colour throughout the summer and are very easy to grow.
Not only are they very colourful and pleasing to the eye, but they attract many diverse insects who come to drink nectar and feed on the pollen.
Their seeds provide a source of food for birds too, and they can even add a small amount of spring wheat or barley. You’ll be giving a home to a type of flower that is very much in decline in the UK.
It’s also a great idea to plant fruit trees and shrubs if you can, as these will offer flowers to pollinators and food for birds, insects, wild animals, and you!
All sorts of animals, bugs and birds need a place to shelter, nest or rest over winter.
This can range from simply leaving a pile of logs in a quiet corner of the garden to building your own bespoke bee hotel or bughouse.
Invertebrates are often overlooked in a wildlife garden yet are key to everything else. Fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals all eat insects, which are the foundation of the food chain. Fish, bats, and birds feed on those annoying mosquitoes and gnats. Insects not only provide food—they provide natural pest control. A single wasp can eat nearly 100 grams of other insects in a garden that's 185m2. Spiders eat 400-800 billion tons of insects a year! A ladybird is a voracious meat eater and may eat as many as a thousand aphids during its larval development, plus several hundred more while an adult is producing its eggs.
Most of our native bees, unlike the bumblebee and honeybee, are solitary bees and do not live in colonies. Some will build their nests in holes in the ground, while others seek out hollow stems or holes to put their eggs in - a bee hotel is excellent for this. These essential pollinators will visit your garden if you can provide sufficient housing for them.
A bug hotel will also serve as a home for other beneficial insects, contributing to your wildlife-friendly garden's natural biodiversity and eco-balance. A natural bug hotel can be created by simply leaving piles of rocks, twigs and rotting wood in your garden. These will build shelter for all sorts of significant insects, such as beetles and spiders.
Whether you choose a bird table or bird feeders, feeding the birds is one of the best ways of encouraging biodiversity in your garden.
In the average urban garden, you can attract many species of birds; in fact, if you look out or sit out for a while, you might see that you already have quite a few passing through. The most popular garden birds in England and Wales tend to be blackbirds, blue tits, chaffinches, coal tits, collared doves, dunocks, goldfinches, robins, sparrows, starlings and wood pigeons. This varies greatly depending on where you live, but all these birds tend to eat different foods and have different feeding needs.
Some birds are ground feeders and eat food sources that have dropped on the ground, like fruits, seeds, or insects, while others rarely land.
Bird tables are better for birds that prefer to eat from the ground and feeders for those who prefer not to.
Many birds eat seeds and are likely to visit your garden if you hang up a peanut or seed feeder. Many different types and sizes are available, made from metal and plastic, and some even have a wire netting around them to discourage squirrels and larger birds from trying to eat from them.
It’s important to feed the birds in winter and early spring, as this is when their natural food is scarce, and you can offer them alternative sources of food. But feeding them in the spring and summer may help them successfully raise their chicks. Remember, always put peanuts in a rigid mesh feeder, as large nut pieces can choke baby birds.
Poor quality peanuts can carry the aflatoxin fungus, which kills birds if they eat it. Make sure you buy peanuts that are guaranteed aflatoxin-free from a reputable supplier.
It’s also important to offer birds a place to drink and wash, so having a birdbath is important to your biodiversity garden. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; the birdbath itself can be anything that will hold water, such as an old large dish or a terra cotta plate that comes with your planters.
Encourage birds into your garden by providing plenty of places to nest. A nestbox, or bird box, is an excellent substitute for a tree hole. The species you attract depends on the entrance hole's location, type, and size. The RSPB guide on making nest boxes shows you the right type and location for particular bird species.
Creating a pond in your garden is a significant boost for local wildlife. You don’t have to spend a fortune digging out a big hole; a pond doesn’t have to be huge.
Simply burying a bucket or trough and filling it with rainwater will attract wildlife such as frogs and newts to your garden.
Frogs and toads also provide another form of natural pest control. These hungry amphibians are spectacular at keeping down the slug population, meaning the end of decimated home-grown fruit and veg and no nibbled plants.
Any pond should have a sloping edge so animals can access the water easily, and it helps to have branches or rocks in or around the pond to make it easy for garden wildlife to climb out and avoid locating it in full sun or full shade.
Local wildlife will benefit significantly if you leave out a tray of water that you regularly renew, especially if you add some stones to allow insects like bees to a dry area to perch while they drink.
A compost pile is a win-win situation. Your soil will be naturally enriched by making and using your own compost. Worms, woodlice, and a variety of other insects, including frogs and slow worms, will use it as a home.
This is another idea that you don't need to buy anything fancy, to begin with. Start with a heap of vegetable peelings, grass cuttings, old tea bags and coffee grounds covered with an old rug, and you have built your own compost heap. This will soon rot down to a lovely nutrient-rich mix you can use to feed your garden.
By composting your raw kitchen scraps – always uncooked unless you want rats to visit – you’re doing your bit for the environment by helping to cut down on landfill use and pollution, as well as providing a nutritious meal for hedgehogs, toads, slow worms, insects and other wildlife in your garden.
This is the part that may be difficult for many proud gardeners; the best thing you can do for nature is to leave, at least parts of your garden, alone.
One change you could make is to learn to relax about weeds. Many plants that we have decided to call weeds -such as nettles, daisies and buttercups - are important food sources for many insects, including butterflies and moths. They flower for a long time, whatever the weather. And so provide food when other sources might be absent. Allow nettles, one of the best sources of food for caterpillars and some butterfly species, to grow in unseen areas.
Avoid using chemical pesticides and weed killers. The fewer chemicals you use, the more attractive your garden will become to wildlife. Try switching to organic seeds and fertilisers to make your patch even more wildlife-friendly and support the natural ecosystem.
Allow long grass to grow in certain areas where flora and fauna will thrive. When you leave your mower in the shed and allow long grass to grow, you create one of the rarest garden habitats. By letting some or all of your lawn grow, you will make space for many plant and insect species, including butterflies and wildflowers.
Try mowing the lawn only once every four weeks, which allows ‘short-grass’ plants like daisies and white clover a chance to flower in profusion, boosting nectar production and giving food and shelter to many insects. Though some consider them weeds, they offer food, shelter and breeding ground for insects that in turn provide food for birds and small mammals like hedgehogs.
Plantlife recommends ‘No Mow May’, where they encourage you to ‘Just lock up your lawnmower on May 1st and let the wildflowers in your lawn bloom, providing a feast of nectar for our hungry pollinators.’ Maybe that's something you could follow along with this year as part of your commitment to gardening for wildlife.
Don’t ‘deadhead’ your flowers in the Autumn; wait till Spring. Leaving seed heads on plants provides food for birds and insects during the leaner months.
Allow nature to take its course in creating a more appealing environment for all wild things. You don't have to leave your plot to become a mini jungle — even a small area, border, or planter will be appreciated by wildlife.
We recommend that you check out the Wildlife Trust’s page, which has a lot of resources, tips and suggestions on making a wildlife-friendly garden - from starting a wild garden from scratch to creating a container garden for wildlife and everything from bat boxes to bee hotels.
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