Gardeners have a vital role to play in securing the future of our wildlife by designing gardens to be eco-friendly havens, thinking of the needs of the insects and animals that come into their gardens, and by creating a balance between pests and their natural predators.
Natural habitats are shrinking and changing, which is putting increased pressure on our wildlife. With a few simple changes in gardens big and small, we can make a difference and create a network of wildlife refuges across the country.
Once you've discovered how to make your garden more wildlife-friendly, head to our dedicated feature on designing a garden from scratch more garden-related advice and ideas.
What does wildlife need to flourish?
Wildlife needs two fundamental things:
- Habitat – somewhere to breed and shelter
- Sustenance – somewhere to forage throughout the year
Get the balance right and your garden will flourish, creating a food chain that manages the eco-system of your garden. Keep in mind the benefits of natural pest control: for example, birds and frogs will take care of slugs and snails, and ladybirds love to eat aphids, greenfly and blackfly.
Reducing pests the natural way
The RHS recommends preventing and reducing pests and diseases by ‘good cultivation, cultivar selection, garden hygiene, using biological controls, avoiding pesticides where possible, and accepting the presence of some pests that can provide larval food for pollinators.’
Did you know that fewer than one per cent of British insects are garden pests? All the more reason to embrace the mini-beasts. Wildlife-friendly is sometimes thought of as a messy garden, but this doesn’t need to be the case. Attracting an abundance of pollinators will ensure our garden plants and crops continue to flourish.
How to encourage biodiversity in your garden
Biodiversity is key to a healthy, wildlife-friendly garden. There is a rich diversity in our gardens, often with more pollinators than in our countryside, but there are lots of simple things we can do to encourage further visitors to our patches and create a green corridor for wildlife.
Most gardeners already think about growing a diverse spread of plants encompassing groundcovers, climbers, trees and shrubs, as well as a floral mix of perennials and annuals, so it’s just a case of also considering their use for food and shelter.
When selecting plants, spare a thought to including an array that will provide pollen or nectar for bees and other pollinators over as long a season as possible, from early crocus and mahonia to winter-flowering viburnum and ivy. Select open flowers rather than double or highly bred cultivars for the best pollen, and to make easier access for bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects that have the absolutely essential task of fertilisation.
Find out more about choosing plants for your garden.
Grow a range of both native and introduced species, in mixed hedges, add trees that have both blossom and berries, and look closely at labels such as the RHS Perfect for Pollinators symbol. A note, though – if you are looking for plants for bees and pollinators, they should have been grown without synthetic pesticides. For assurance, it’s worth hunting out an organic nursery and remembering not to spray open flowers.
Other easy steps include leaving some seedheads through winter before cutting down the borders completely in early spring, adding a log pile tucked out of sight, providing clean water in a birdbath or shallow dish, keeping a patch of grass long or planting a meadow of wafting flowers mingling with parchment grasses. A patch of nettles is a magnet for beneficial insects, in particular ladybirds for egg laying, and they are considered key to the survival of butterflies as a food source for many caterpillars such as peacock, tortoiseshell and comma.
Increasing your garden’s plant diversity and encouraging more wildlife to stop by will make a more interesting and healthy haven for you, too.
The importance of bees
It is estimated that 80 per cent of the Western diet is dependant on bee pollination, so it is important that we do what we can to help the health and survival of our British bees.
The prime reason for the waning bee population is the parasitic varroa mite, but we can do our bit by adding pesticide-free nectar and pollen rich flowers. If in doubt about which plants to choose, check out this handy list of bee-friendly plants from Urban Bees.
Bees focus their pollen collecting near the hive, returning to the same source until it is depleted, so it is important to plan a succession of choices from early spring to late autumn, and even into winter. Provide long-flowering, single open flowers, old-fashioned cottage plants and native choices for food, water to drink and habitats for shelter.
Bumblebees may nest in tussocks of grass or moss on a bank of long grass at the edge of your plot. Planting catmint and clover should encourage them into your garden. White-tailed bumblebees now survive our milder winters so planting winter-flowering nectar rich plants will help them do even better.
Solitary bees are not at all aggressive; bumblebees and honeybees are unlikely to sting unless disturbed, so enjoy watching them and leave them to forage in your garden.
- Replace some of your lawn with a meadow area or some British wildflowers.
- Clumps of bee-friendly plants, planted in sunny positions are more attractive to bees than scattered or shady spots.
- Honeybees like saucer-shaped flowers as they are easier to get into with their short tongues.
- Different species of bumblebees have different lengths of tongue, which means they feed from different shaped flowers.
- Large shrubs and trees are a vital food source as well. Five established winter-/early spring-flowering trees supply a similar amount of pollen and nectar as an acre of meadow.
10 tips for a wildlife friendly garden
- Choose plants attractive to native wildlife
- Grow a diversity of wild and cultivated plants
- Plant single, broad flowers to attract bees
- Allow some plants to go to seed
- Cut shrubs on a rotational basis
- Make space for mini-beasts to provide the whole food chain
- Use organic methods for pest control
- Include water, in a container, birdbath or a pond
- Place a pile of logs in a quiet corner of the garden
- Plant a perennial or annual meadow
Top garden plants for wildlife
Sunflower – Select single forms. Bees love them in summer and it’s a seed buffet for birds later in the season. Sow in a sunny protected spot in spring, early summer
Foxglove – Digitalis purpurea, our native form, is a biennial wildflower loved by bumblebees. They do best in light shade. Ideal in borders and woodland
Teasel – Architectural, spiky seedheads that last through winter. They provide food and shelter for a myriad of creatures, including bees and birds. Best in clay soil that doesn’t dry out in summer
Echinops – Herbaceous perennial that is a magnet for bees and other insects. Easy to grow in well-drained soil
Sedum – Easy-to-grow succulent that provides nectar late in the season, and is a haven for bees, hoverflies and butterflies. Does best in full sun
Honeysuckle – Fragrant flowers on a vigorous vine – great for nectar-loving insects, and berries for birds. Full sun or part shade
Pyracantha – An evergreen shrub with clusters of white flowers in spring and red, orange or yellow berries in autumn. Birds enjoy the berries and shelter it provides, and the nectar is enjoyed by bees and butterflies
Malus, crab apple tree – Native and exotic varieties suit all sizes of gardens. Birds enjoy the autumn fruits and bees love the spring blossom
Berberis – Easy-care shrub for all but dry soils. Provides nectar for butterflies and moths, plus shelter for caterpillars, and thorns create a barrier for safe nesting sites
Euonymus, spindle – An easy-to-grow native tree, leaves are eaten by caterpillars and attract aphids and therefore their predators such as hoverflies and birds. Flowers provide rich nectar and pollen for insects; berries are poisonous to us but loved by finches. Sun to part shade, well-drained soil
Echinacea – Prolific flowers adored by bees and butterflies. Once established they are very robust and long-lived. They need fertile soil so add some compost when planting and choose a sunny spot
Buddleja – The nectar-packed flowers in summer and autumn are a real butterfly magnet. Fast-growing deciduous shrub. Grows in most soils, in sun to part shade. Prune hard in late winter. Choose a variety that won’t become invasive