Wildlife Friendly Gardening
Lee and Laura are a young couple, interested in the natural world, who moved to the village two years ago. They asked their neighbour, Margaret, for gardening advice and she came up with the bright idea of involving two more people which culminated in a talk to the Diggers and Dibblers, Forncett’s garden club. My transcript below is aimed at beginner gardeners and those regular gardeners who would like some ideas about how to increase biodiversity on their own patch. The original talk was illustrated by twenty slides which there isn't room for here. However, many of the photos have been used elsewhere on our website if you want to browse around.
I was asked to give a half hour talk tonight as a representative of Forncett Nature Matters because Laura and Lee want to garden with wildlife in mind. Gill was also invited for her artistic and design talents, though in reality she also gardens for wildlife, and I also have a strong interest in garden design and planting. So there’s quite a crossover, typical of the current approach to gardening. You only have to watch Gardeners World, read gardening magazines, or follow top designers to know there’s a massive change afoot, with an increasing emphasis on biodiversity in our gardens.
To begin, I’d like to talk generally about gardening for wildlife, and show you some photos, and hope that Laura and Lee, as well as the rest of you, will be inspired to take up some of the ideas and make them your own.
First, I’d like to dismiss the idea that gardening for widlife always involves a tangled messy plot. That can be more accurately described as rewilding - where everything is allowed to go back to how nature intended, with scrub gradually taking over, then pioneer trees that eventually give way to mature woodland. It’s very valuable habitat in the right place but you need acres of land and probably a few bison and beavers to crash around in it! We’re talking here tonight of a garden scale way of managing our spaces, of providing a variety or mosaic of habitats to allow in as much biodiversity as possible - probably tolerating a bit of what used to be thought of as untidiness, but that is still compatible with having a beautiful garden - for instance, there’s true beauty in the form of the seed heads and stems we nowadays leave over winter for the birds to feast on and for the insects to shelter in.
We’re all aware by now that many species are in decline - from the loss of our native wildflowers and the insects that depend on their nectar and pollen, to the birds that depend on the insects and seeds and berries for food, and so on, all the way up the food chain. If you’re gardening with wildlife in mind the main thing is to
Provide food, shelter and water ALL YEAR ROUND
You also need to avoid pesticides which kill off the very pollinating insects you’re trying to attract.
So…… for the pollinating insects try to have something in flower in every season.
Plant mostly single flowers. Their pollen and nectar are more accessible… though long tongued bees can access tubular flowers such as foxglove and honeysuckle.
Include some native flowers. Here are some examples:
COWSLIPS These have spread on a large scale, but of course this lovely scene could be scaled down, or combined with other spring flowers such as here:
SPRING MEADOW This spring meadow starts flowering in February with naturalised snowdrops and aconites, followed by wild daffodils, our two native species, Wordsworth’s Narcissus pseudonarcissus and the Welsh Tenby daffodil, N. obvallaris ( a good, cheaper lookalike for the former is N. ‘Topolino’) Then come the primroses, cowslips, oxlips, celandines, snakeshead fritillaries, bugle, anemone blanda, ladies’ smock, camassia and spring snowflake. Cow Parsley takes over in May. White comfrey is allowed in the hedge bottom - bees love it, but it needs managing. Garlic Mustard is on the shady side of the hedge and is an important food plant for the orange tip butterfly. This whole area gets cut in June, allowing all the bulbs to die back naturally. It then reverts to a family picnic area.
HAWTHORN makes up 70% of the boundary hedge in this rural garden and is the best and most natural looking choice, especially if you live alongside farmland. Its flowers support a huge variety of insects as well as giving shelter, nesting sites and berries for birds. The other varieties in this native hedge are spindle, field maple, holly and hazel.
A SUMMER WILDFLOWER MEADOW. A perennial meadow is best developed on poor soil in sun. Here you can see birdsfoot trefoil, one of the best wildflowers for pollinators, and knapweed. The oxeye daisies are just finishing, and the yellow rattle is going to seed. All this will be followed by scabious, wild carrot, lady’s bedstraw and purple and yellow vetches. The oak you can see was planted as an acorn 40 years ago and obviously needs more space than most people can provide. But it is the best native tree for supporting biodiversity, with well over 2000 species associated with it.
BY THE POND If you have a damp area, purple loosestrife looks lovely by water and attracts a host of insects. The yellow flower you can see with it is yellow fleabane.
IVY As we move into autumn and winter this is the very best plant for supporting wildlife over a long season, with its flowers attracting late pollinators such as the ivy bee you can see here. These small bees were first spotted in the UK in Dorset in 2001 and they have since made their way over to Norfolk and can be seen here in Forncett on their only food plant. Between 1 and 1.5cm long, they have orange fluff on the thorax and a distinctly striped, smooth abdomen. The ivy also provides berries for birds and vital shelter. You can clip it to keep it under control and this is best done in late January or early February before the start of the nesting season.
There are also many familiar garden plants that are an excellent source of nectar and pollen. Though bees fly mostly from March to September, they will also emerge from October to February on mild, sunny days, and we can extend the season for them at both ends if we plant for winter bearing this in mind. So just as you might provide nourishing food for the birds at this time of year, you can support insect life in a similar way.
Here are some good winter food plants:
There’s the winter flowering shrubby honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), and a good flowering climber for a sheltered spot is Clematis cirrhosa (varieties ‘Freckles’, ‘Wisley Cream’ etc).
There’s a self seeding native one, with green flowers (‘foetidissima’) and many other lovely varieties in pink, white and maroon, some with speckles.
MAHONIA An old fashioned shrub coming back into favour. It has cheerful, mostly scented yellow flowers and handsome, glossy, leaves with prickles. You can have them in flower from late autumn to mid spring and they enjoy a semi shady position. The varieties, ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ are good hybrids.. Also, there’s a variety, ‘Sweet Caress’ with elegant non-prickly leaves if you want to plant one by a doorway
From early spring
CROCUS. Needs sun, and well drained soil. This early flowering variety, C tomasinianus, will spread around in grass, but might eventually take over a border. Bumblebees will sleep in crocus flowers overnight, ready for a nectar breakfast when the sun wakes them.
Honesty (Lunaria) and Lungwort (Pulmonaria) are happy in shade.
Then for sun there’s the perennial wallflower ‘Bowle’s Mauve’, rosemary, lavender, catmint (Nepeta) and marjoram (Oregano), all long-flowering, and will buzz all summer long with pollinators.
There are some self seeding annuals I’d like to recommend:
HONEYWORT (Cerinthe purpurescens) and POACHED EGG PLANT (Limnanthes douglasii), BORAGE, and brassicas gone to flower are also loved by insects.
SHRUBBY PLUMBAGO (P. ‘willmottianum’) is a hardy, sun loving plant for a sheltered spot. Its succession of cobalt blue flowers from June to October attract many pollinating insects, and hummingbird hawk moths feasted on mine all through September. Later its leaves turn red and the seed heads are also attractive. One of my long term favourites.
In autumn, you can extend the flowering season with Michaelmas daisies and all the big yellow daisy-type flowers: heleniums, rudbeckia, sunflowers. Golden rod (Solidago) in modern cultivars such as the elegant ‘Fireworks’, are easier to control in a border than older varieties. The single flowered dahlias such as the Bishops Children series, are also excellent, along with salvias, sedums, verbenas and penstemon.
Trees and shrubs
Fruit trees of all kinds are productive and have beautiful spring blossom.
If you only have room for one tree, a crabapple is a great choice.
MALUS FLORIBUNDA is good for early pollinating insects and is also a suitable pollinator for most other domestic apples. Its own fruit is small yellow.
MALUS ‘RED SENTINEL’ holds its dramatic red crabs until Christmas when they soften ready for the blackbirds’ midwinter feast.
And finally, a mention for Pyracantha, a large shrub which can also be trained on a wall. It is dense and prickly, providing cover for small birds and a safe place to nest. It has masses of white flowers in spring, followed by red, orange or yellow berries, loved by the birds.
My message is that if you plant the flowers the beneficial insects will arrive surprisingly quickly, followed by the birds and bats. Then, to encourage even more wildlife diversity on your patch consider taking some of the following measures:
Provide different lengths of grass. Cut down a bit on the mowing. Shortish grass is great for some birds to peck around on and you’ll need some short grass if you have children or dogs or want to entertain on a lawned area. Cutting it once a fortnight at 40mm is environmentally friendly. Just don’t scalp it!
TAPESTRY LAWN If you leave an area to grow to around 80mm you can have a beautiful tapestry of low growing wild flowers which are drought proof. Birdsfoot trefoil, yarrow, white clover, self heal and daisies will grow in this way. Mow on the highest setting around once a month.
Then it’s also great for the wildlife if you can have some undisturbed longer grass in a quiet corner, with a background of shrubs for cover or A ‘DEAD HEDGE’ which can be tailor made to fit the space and a
BUG HOTEL - or a woodpile; if you ‘plant’ some of the logs upright the rotting ends make a perfect habitat for stag beetles. You can also include a pile of stones, and tuck dry leaves and twigs under a hedge or shrub. A bit of old corrugated iron on the ground will warm up in the sun and provide a hiding place for lizards and slow worms.
A SMALL POND or other source of water is a most important feature in the wildlife garden and will attract many species to drink, bathe or breed. You can bury an upturned dustbin lid, or use any suitable container, eg a half barrel or an old sink. Create a a shallow end with bricks or pebbles for small creatures to access or escape safely.
If you have a sunny space nearby to make a mini wildflower meadow you can cut a winding path around and through it and cut the whole thing in August or September. If you use a strimmer for this, check very carefully for hedgehogs, frogs and toads before making a start.
Of course, if you have enough space and you want to go a bit wilder, an area of scrub will attract even more diversity.
So that’s just an outline of some things we can all do fairly easily, and if we can possibly join up with our neighbours to provide a link betweenthese flowery, grassy, shrubby and watery habitats, the more easily all the wildlife can feed, shelter and move around safely.
Laura and Lee’s garden is well situated between two gardens where the owners prioritise encouraging biodiversity, so it’s ideally placed for becoming part of a wildlife corridor which is what FNM is aiming to encourage all around the village.
After visiting Laura and Lee for the first time I wrote some brief notes about how they might think about developing their garden and Gill is going to come up with some other design ideas. But we both agree that Lee and Laura should feel free to express their own creativity in whatever way inspires and pleases them .
Here’s what I said:
Laura and Lee are young, keen, active and strong! That’s a great starting point. They are very interested in wildlife and want a garden they can share with creatures great and small. They want their garden to be mostly manageable by the two of them. They like to entertain too.
The usual advice is: In a garden new to you, leave everything for a year so you can see what you’ve already got - Laura and Lee have already followed this advice and are ready for the next steps. While you’re observing how the garden develops over the year, work out how you want to use it, how much time you’re able and willing to devote to its creation and maintenance, and consider the ‘spirit’ of the place as it gradually reveals itself to you.
To set the scene . . .
Laura and Lee inherited a well tended garden of around an acre; their predecessors planted many choice trees which are now mature, and the central area is exclusively grass and trees with some bulbs in the grass for spring interest . But they also had some areas of unwanted concrete and when we paid our first visit they had made a start on clearing this. I thought the garden lent itself naturally to retaining the lovely open grassy spaces and trees that first attracted them to the property. The views from the house are stunning - it’s like having their own personal parkland! The large paved sitting out area by the house had been recently constructed and they were happy with it - plenty of space for entertaining and some shade provided by a large pergola under which were a table and chairs. There was scope for more planting up and over, and I believe they’ve now planted some climbing roses there. The inherited beds between the terraced area and the lawn were too small and out of proportion with the rest of the garden. So if they wish there is scope here to substantially enlarge the beds or create a design of several linked beds, and fill with a mix of structural and more ephemeral planting for year round interest. Choose species that are beneficial to pollinating insects, as well as some of your favourite flowers. As these beds face due south and our summers are getting hotter, make sure you choose drought tolerant plants, and consider installing an underground automatic watering system, which is easier and more efficient than a hosepipe. A gravel garden here, if initially well prepared, could survive without further watering (see Beth Chatto’s excellent books).
The garden also lends itself to further development all around the perimeter- behind the trees - and this could be done bit by bit. I would suggest areas of changing seasonal interest to enjoy at different times of the year as you wind through this long walkway. Keep a fairly wide mown grass path ( so two or three people can walk side by side) and include seating areas for shelter, sun and shade. There is one area half way round where small bulbs have been planted and this could be further developed as a Spring garden for example. And what about a hideaway near the bamboo area to watch the birds?
As L and L want to encourage biodiversity, they can plant wildlife-friendly flowering and berried shrubs to border parts of the walkway so that there is plenty of food and cover for birds, as well as also choosing some native wildflowers for pollinating insects.
It’s also important to include water for the wildlife somewhere in the garden - in view of the house is good so that they can watch their visitors. Could start with a nice container of some kind and progress to a larger natural pond when they have the time and ambition!
These suggestions shouldn’t involve massive expense or unreasonable work, can be spread over time and would complement what they’ve already got.
Spend as much time as you can looking at other people’s gardens around the village, as well as visiting some National Garden Scheme ‘Yellow Book’ gardens around Norfolk and Suffolk. It will help you to get a feel for what you like.
I wish Laura and Lee all the best for their exciting gardening journey and welcome them to the growing community of Wildlife-friendly Gardeners.
To supplement the personal suggestions of plants for pollinators in my transcript,
The Wildlife Trust has a basic seasonal guide, and
The Royal Horticultural Society has the most comprehensive lists and advice.
You will find other sites online but I have found the two below cover the subject very well.
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