Preserving the environment is an important element of gardening. One way gardeners can get to grips with the ecological as well as the aesthetic value of their plots is by catering to the needs of their local wildlife. Creating an eco friendly garden provides a refuge for many critically endangered insects and birds, whilst also offering families a valuable opportunity to spend time together.
A garden ecosystem requires diligence and ambition and it won’t flourish overnight. During the winter, however, it’s entirely plausible and now in autumn is the ideal time for planting those seeds to see results next year!
Whether you’re an avid green thumb or just the occasional gardener, below is a basic guide on how you can attract wildlife into your garden, get the kids involved and provide shelter for bugs and animals.
Hedera helix is a good starting point. The common English ivy is easy to grow and quickly lays a durable green foundation to flat surfaces, covering unsightly new, orange fences and softening dominating outbuildings. The evergreen ivy will attract and protect insects and a variety of plants that will bear fruit in the spring which will entice blackbirds and thrushes. The tiny Jenny Wren also likes to nest among the ivy’s network of branching stems.
Natural hedgerows house and sustain a myriad of different insects as well. You can replicate them by providing boundaries to your garden- an early incentive for autumn starlings!
Here are a few plant suggestions to introduce into your garden:
• Hazel – if you’re lucky the squirrels will leave some nuts for you!
• Rosa rugosa, or Japanese Rose, is both hardy and gorgeous, giving pink-purple blooms in March with which to encourage early bumble bees, followed by large juicy hips for the birds
• Hawthorn – pretty blossom in the spring followed by red berries in summer
• Viburnum opulus – large flower heads in spring followed again by clusters of tasty red berries for the birds
Most plants that produce edible berries will encourage birds into your garden, but you can also grow much more ornamental specimens such as Callicarpa, which has unusual, polished-looking purple berries. Another option is the evergreen Pyracantha, which can have yellow, orange or red berries and is also very prickly so can be good in protecting your garden boundaries.
Other forms of wildlife can be attracted in different ways. The shrub Hebe, or ‘Great Orme’, is also evergreen and has attractive pink flowers which release a scent in the evening attracting moths. Moths are also an important food source for bats, so you’re not just supporting the moth population, but the bats too. Verbena bonariensis has the same effect and both this and the Hebe are also a magnet for bees and butterflies during the day.
The aptly called ‘Butterfly Bush’, or Buddleia, is very easy to grow and very nectar rich. On a warm summer’s day it will be covered in butterflies.
The bumblebee is having a particularly hard time surviving at the moment so it is crucial that we do our bit to ensure its survival. When we think of the bees our main thought is honey, however bees effectively act as farm staff without wages! Alfalfa, one of the world’s essential cattle foods, is 90% dependent on the cross pollination by bees, not to mention many of our domestic produce like soft fruits, runner beans, carrots, cabbages and cauliflower. Bees love Lavender, Ceanothus and Cistus – all very simple to look after and make colourful additions to any sunny garden.
Get the kids involved
If you have children, they too can help you plant and maintain your garden. To manage their eagerness to see fast results, sow some plants they can see grow from seed to flower in a season.
Nasturtiums grow really quickly from seed which are big enough for children to handle easily. They make a colourful and low maintenance addition to any temperate garden, as they are self sustaining and their petals make a spicy addition to summer salads. The Cabbage White Butterfly loves to lay its eggs on the undersides of the leaves and your children can watch the wriggly caterpillars hatch from them!
Another speedy grower is the Sunflower, shooting up to dizzy heights in a single season. Leave the smiley seed heads on after the flower has faded to provide a feast for the local birds.
The Poached Egg Flower, or Limnanthes, is another easy one for children to grow and it will be covered in bees all summer.
Create homes for wildlife
There are also plenty of DIY tactics you can use to attract animals, birds and insects. A bee box is a great start and requires only a pair of two by four planks cut to a rectangular frame and a dozen bamboo canes cut to half inch tubes. Cut another plank as the backing to the box and tilt the tray backward to pack the space with the bamboo tubes, discarding any that are malformed. It is best to use untreated timber and dot larger tubes among the smaller to accentuate the box’s aesthetic appeal.
A nesting box for small birds is a similarly easy project, but make sure you mount it on the shady side of a tree or structure so that the chicks don’t get too hot!
Arranging a log pile will attract the local stag beetles. It’s best to place these some distance from seating and play areas as they can also attract the Devil’s Coach Horse – a large beetle which emits a foul-smelling fluid from both ends when threatened and also capable of delivering a painful bite! The size and proximity of the individual logs is inconsequential so you can position them in whatever style suits your creative talents.
Hedgehogs will also be attracted to a log pile. Introducing earthworms to your garden will provide the hedgehogs with food, whilst also providing natural aeration of the soil. The hedgehogs also eat garden pests such as slugs and snails, so are very valuable guests to have. It may even be possible to adopt a family of hedgehogs- try contacting your local rescue centre for details. However, never feed hedgehogs with bread or milk- they can’t digest them and will make them ill. The presence of hedgehogs is very likely to attract foxes, completing your garden ecosystem- all at the price of a little green work!
The lazy gardener
If the above tactics are too time consuming, a simple way to encourage some wildlife into your garden is to just let a little part of it grow wild. Let the grass grow and see how many native reptiles start to appear, or let the stinging nettles grow and watch insects and butterflies flock into your garden to set up home. Even the lazy gardener can support local wildlife!
Most importantly, get yourself and your children outside and interested. It will feed the whole family’s curiosity and provide a fascination and love of all things green that will stay with you for the rest of your lives.