Gardening for Wildlife

My husband and I recently moved house, and we were lucky enough to move to somewhere with a fairly big garden. In fact, the huge oak tree in the front garden was a big reason I wanted the house! We moved in January, and I thought I would wait and see what came up in the garden before I started messing around with it – I didn’t want to go digging and find a bed already planted. So I waited. And I waited. Nothing. So far, all that has come up is a couple of brambles and some ground elder. Pretty uninspiring. And then it dawned on me – I had a whole garden to play with! Nothing had been planted, there were no mature shrubs or trees (except the oak tree of course), the whole thing was a blank canvas. That’s when I started to panic. Previously I have had teeny tiny gardens, where most things had to be in pots to stop them getting out of hand. I confess to being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of space I had to fill. I needed a goal. What did I want out of my garden? The answer was blindingly simple: wildlife. Any size, any shape, insects, birds or mammals, I didn’t mind. I just wanted a garden that would encourage wildlife. So the research began.

Bumblebee feeding on flowering clover in our very over-grown lawn!

Bumblebee feeding on flowering clover in our very over-grown lawn!

Initially I was not overly hopeful – what could I do for wildlife in one garden, isolated in the middle of the largest cul-de-sac in Europe (I believe it still holds that dubious title!)? But the more I read, the more I found that I could make a difference, that although seeing deer grazing on my fallen acorns was pretty unlikely, there was plenty I could do for the smaller beasties – butterflies, birds, moths and bees.

My first and most useful resource was a booklet from Butterfly Conservation called ‘Gardening for Butterflies and Moths’. It starts off simple (grow nectar rich flowers, don’t use pesticides) and moves on to detailed plant lists and plans for butterfly-friendly herbaceous borders. One piece of advice I was delighted to find was ‘Don’t be too tidy’. I am somewhat of a garden dilettante; I like plants that will do their own thing and don’t need fussing over, and I hate tidying a garden (I also actually quite like that scruffy, more natural look). Now I have a better justification for it than gardening laziness – insects need piles of undisturbed leaves and wild areas to overwinter in, and to find protection and shelter from predators and the elements. One thing that a lot of people (myself included) tend to forget is that butterflies need food plants for their caterpillars as well as nectar for the adult butterflies. Some of these are not overly appealing as garden plants (stinging nettles, anyone?) but others such as honeysuckle, violets and holly make for a beautiful garden, as long as you can put up with a few holes in the leaves.

Flowering thyme providing nectar for bees

Flowering thyme providing nectar for bees

Many of the nectar plants for butterflies will also provide nectar for bees. However bees need nectar throughout the winter as well, as they will fly out in search of food whenever the temperature at the hive entrance reaches 10oC or more. The raft of crocuses on my lawn (the one thing that did come up when I was waiting) will be great for bees in February, and I have planted snowdrops for January, sedums and heather for autumn and hellebores for winter. I have tried to make sure that I get at least some white plants of each type, as these are the colour most easily seen by moths. Moths can be just as pretty as butterflies, and I hope that by planting comfrey, red valerian and jasmine I will get to see more beauties like this one (he was on the doorstep in my last garden):

Another resource I found helpful was the Friends of the Earth website. My attention was drawn to the work they are doing to save bees by a TV advert, where they were offering free wildflower seeds. Admittedly I had to endure a bit of a hard sell, but I got my free seeds, and part of my garden plan now includes a mini wildflower meadow. Thanks to my husband failing to cut the lawn at all this year, we have grown what is essentially a fairly large meadow. Unfortunately so far it is mainly tall grasses, and not many wildflowers, but I have my plans for next year, and my husband can only approve as it means less mowing for him!

Clover in flower in our 'meadow' (lawn!)

Clover in flower in our ‘meadow’ (lawn!)

Of course I couldn’t neglect my lovely birds in planning my wildlife garden. As we are often away for a few days at a time, I will not put up bird feeders in our garden, as I don’t want them to become dependent on us then suffer when we go away. That said, we have one massive advantage in our current garden – the mature oak tree. Taller than the house and totally ravishing, this tree is home to hundreds of insects, which provide a natural, seasonal food source for birds. In fact, the English Oak provides a habitat for more insect species than any other tree in the UK. So far I have counted 6 bird species at one time in the tree…I am keeping fingers and toes crossed for a woodpecker next! There are also all sorts of nooks and crannies for birds to shelter or nest in, and I am pretty certain that at least 2 broods of blue tits have fledged this year. To supplement all the food provided by our oak tree, I am going to be planting things with berries – honeysuckle, Cotoneaster, rowan, holly and Pyracantha. It doesn’t hurt that these are all beautiful, and fairly low-maintenance!


Sarcococca – a lovely evergreen shrub with strongly scented white flowers.

A final and completely indispensable resource in my garden-planning that I cannot omit is my mother-in-law. She is an utterly stupendous gardener, and has nurtured a garden in Berkshire that would put Kew and Wisley to shame. She has given me plants (the five Sarcococca, one of which is shown above, and which are wonderful winter nectar plants for bees, are from her garden) and invaluable advice on what should be planted where, and she has also curbed some of my more extravagant plans (“Jenny, those are very difficult to grow” became a common refrain in our discussions). Most of my macro shots of flowers were taken in her garden, and it was there that I saw my first comma butterfly. As an inveterate lover of wildlife, her garden could be a model for all wildlife gardeners. If it weren’t quite so much hard work that is – no good for a negligent gardener like me!

So far, my wildlife garden is very much in its infancy, and I am sure that there are many, many errors which I will commit and have to rectify. But if it means I get more wildlife on my doorstep, then surely it will be worth it? And it is not just farmers who have a responsibility for land management. Whether we have a window-box or dozens of rolling acres, we can make our gardens a haven for wildlife. And the more of these havens there are, the more connections there will be between the big wildlife reserves and national parks, helping wildlife populations to grow and spread. Hopefully you will be seeing more wildlife photos from my garden in the future!

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