Creating a Living Garden is about making a space that is good for plants and animals but also good for you. You don’t need to have a big garden, dig a pond or sow a wildflower meadow to create a potential haven for a wide range of species. Even small things, like resisting the urge to ‘tidy’ grass, hedges, shrubs, windfall fruit and leaves can have a big impact.
The essentials of wildlife gardening are based on four things: trees, deadwood, water and a variety of planting. Any one of these features will encourage wildlife to your garden or into your school grounds and help it thrive.
Leave areas of long grass
Close-mown lawns and carefully weeded borders offer few opportunities for wildlife to get a foothold, whereas patches of long grass can provide a refuge for small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates, including caterpillars. If possible, try and leave some grass uncut throughout the year; simply varying the areas left on a three-year rotation to avoid the development of coarser grass and scrub.
Nature thrives on irregularity and although the rises and hollows in your lawn may drive you to distraction, they can help provide a ‘micro-climate’ for a wide range of plants and minibeasts.
Many invertebrates hibernate or spend part of their life cycle in hollow stems, tussocky grass, dead leaves and seed heads. So, by retaining some of these elements, either by not sweeping up leaves or forgoing your autumnal ‘clear up’, you are both providing shelter while supplying food for creatures that feed on insects, such as bats, shrews, hedgehogs and birds.
Leave windfall fruit to provide a valuable autumn food supply for insects, mammals and birds.
Hedges, trees and climbing plants
Hedgerows are one of the most important garden habitats for wildlife and, with the right management; they will support a good variety of birds, small mammals, insects and plants. As well as being vital refuges for native species, hedgerows are key to transforming our urban and suburban outdoor spaces into wildlife corridors, allowing animals to travel between dwindling habitats.
To avoid disturbing wildlife, try to avoid cutting the entire hedge at once and do not cut at all during the bird-nesting season that spans March to July. Disturbing nesting birds is illegal. In the same way, don’t ‘tidy’ trees and hedges unnecessarily and leave dead branches on the tree or where they have fallen if possible.
Old trees can also be a haven for wildlife, with hollow trunks providing a vital sheltered and stable environment for many species of fungi, moss and lichen, as well as birds and bats. Rotting wood is also a valuable resource for hundreds of insect species for laying eggs and feeding larvae.
Climbing plants on fences and walls, such as clematis and honeysuckle, make nesting and roosting sites for birds and are a haven for insects and small mammals. In the winter, evergreen plants such as holly and ivy are particularly valuable for many birds, butterflies and small mammals, so try and avoid cutting them right back in any autumnal tidy-ups. Evergreens also provide an early nectar source for insects, fruit through the autumn and winter, and year round shelter within their foliage.
Natural pest control
In a well-balanced Living Garden natural predators get rid of most of the ‘pests’ for you, without you needing to resort to harmful pesticides or herbicides. A compost heap can provide a refuge and feeding area for insect and slug-eating creatures such as hedgehogs, birds, toads, grass snakes and slow-worms. By making your own compost you will also be helping to protect our precious peat bogs and reduce pollution – as well as saving you money.
If you grow fruit and vegetables in your garden, companion planting can help deal with pests. Certain plants will help to reduce damage by attracting pest predators or by acting as hosts for beneficial insects such as ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies, which all feed on aphids.
For those cases where slugs and ‘pests’ really are on the rampage:
• Slug traps made out of cans of beer are effective
• Circles of sharp sand placed around hostas and lupins also stop slugs
• Marigolds in the vegetable patch attract predatory wasps and hoverflies, which attack caterpillars, aphid and other ‘pest’ larvae
• Epsom salts scattered around garden pinks will prevent rabbits eating them
• Diluted household detergent is effective against greenfly and blackfly, but crucially does not affect butterflies and caterpillars
Encourage wildflowers and think more broadly about plants
It is worth looking again at the plants you might usually pull up as ‘weeds’. Many of them are beautiful and valuable wildflowers and important food plants for butterflies and other insects. You could try creating a small area for wildflowers in your garden.
A clump of rosebay willow-herb left alongside a hedge will provide food and shelter for all sorts of insects and other creatures. You can help to keep a supply of food for birds through the winter by not cutting old seed heads from plants. Thistles and teasels, for example, are a favourite of the goldfinch. Nettles can also be a Living Gardener’s friend if planted and located in the right way and can provide food and breeding grounds for butterflies.
Habitat and log piles
A pile of logs in a shady corner will feed beetle larvae and provide food shelter for amphibians, insects, spiders and small mammals. Hedgehogs often use log piles to hibernate in. Similarly, grass clippings or other ‘waste’ material such as leaves or materials from cutting back shrubs can be used to create habitat piles around the garden.
When building to your habitat pile, try and avoid areas already rich in wildlife as decomposition will add nutrients to the flower-rich sward, so encouraging rank growth. Habitat piles should also not be located where their decomposition may result in leachate entering water courses and not stacked up right against tree trunks or hedges.
Ideally the pile should be situated where it is in sun for part of the day and will not need to be disturbed. The piles need good aeration and moisture content. It’s a good idea to make the base from criss-crossed material such as branches or logs, followed by prunings and grass. This provides an internal structure to the heap which makes it more attractive to reptiles. Habitat piles are used for basking and are particularly favoured by grass snakes for laying their eggs. The same habitat pile can be replenished each year.
If your garden is big enough, you could also put down sheets of corrugated iron to provide places for reptiles and amphibians to shelter.
Encourage more birds to live in your garden by putting up nest boxes on walls, fences and trees. You can buy a nest box from trust centres at Lackford Lakes and Redgrave and Lopham Fen, or you can have a go at making one yourself.Make sure you site your nest box in a sheltered position, facing north-east to south-east, to avoid prevailing wet winds and the heat of the midday sun, and at least 2m off the ground. It should be away from overhanging branches to stop cats getting to the nest. Clean out the box after the birds have finished with it for the year to prevent a build-up of parasites.