Gardening For Nature

      Kevin Costner, (yes 'that' Kevin Costner), once said, 'If you build it, he will come." He may have been talking about the imminent arrival of a dead baseball player, but that old adage is equally true for wildlife. Attracting wildlife to your garden is deceptively easy, and a hell of lot less hassle than building a baseball stadium. With very little effort, you too could have your own field of dreams. Remember that you don't need a field, or a large garden. In fact, you don't need a garden at all. Windowsills and balconies are great spots for flower tubs. Plant flowers and the insects will visit.

    Here are some of the things we've done in our garden. Each year we are seeing more and more species visiting so we must be doing something right. (In fairness, my partner does the vast majority of the gardening. I can't claim credit for her efforts when I tend to just sit and watch the garden grow.)

1) Plant a variety of different plants and shrubs.  

     As different creatures like different plants, the greater variety of flowering plants you have in the garden, the greater variations of wildlife that will eventually visit. Native plants are particularly good. Different flower shapes attract different insects. Hoverflies love feeding on the open centres of the daisy family, but I never see them feeding on the bell shaped flowers of sage or foxglove. Those flowers are the territory of the bees. Lavender and Sea Holly seem to be a favourite for just about every insect visitor. Try and plant shrubs and flowers that bloom at different times. Not only do you get colour pretty much all year round, but the insect food kitchen remains open for longer.  Shrubs that produce berries are great for the birds. The same can be said for sunflowers and teasels when they go to seed. It's also easy to just scatter some wildflower seeds around the edges of the garden or in a tub. Wildflowers not only add colour and shape to a garden, but the insects absolutely love them. Even better, don't chop off all the dead heads and they will reseed themselves. We get our wildlife flower seeds from Nicky's Seeds but you can get them elsewhere.

 2) Create a compost heap. 

    This is so easy.  Find a discreet, and preferably shady corner, and leave your grass cuttings and pruning offcuts to rot down. If you're going to put into the garden when you've made compost, be mindful of when you 'turn' it. I once disturbed a nest of bees in some old grass cuttings, so now I leave compost heaps well alone throughout spring and summer. Insects love compost heaps. As a result, birds also love compost heaps. In other areas, hedgehogs, slow worms, and grass snakes visit compost heaps. (Unless it's your intention, avoid putting things like bindweed onto the heap or it just becomes a bindweed mound.)

3) Create a log pile.

   Another reasonably easy one. Find logs, preferably but not necessarily from native trees, and leave them in a shady corner.  They don't need to be huge. The bigger the better but branches are more than adequate. You don't need to go out raiding the woods. Windfall does occur, but never take it all. You could speak nicely to your local tree surgeon, or your neighbour. (Our logs came from our neighbour as she pruned her apple tree. My favourite rotting log, (yes, I have a favourite rotting log) came out of a Peckham skip.) Beetles and, more importantly, their larvae love rotting logs. Wasps will also chew on old logs. This knowledge could help preserve any wooden structures you have in the garden, the shed, that lovely pergola and bench, structures that you don't want pulped and moulded into a wasp nest. If you can part bury some of the logs, all the better. Half buried upright log piles become more like a natural sculptures than an obvious wildlife habitat.


4) Don't be too tidy. 

   If you really want to get more wildlife into the garden, don't be too tidy. If you have more formal areas in the garden, try and leave other areas to run a bit wild. Whilst a food supply is important, places to shelter and roost are equally essential. Patches of long grass are great for grasshoppers and crickets, and those dropped leaves are great worm food. Contrary to popular belief, the 'wild' look does take some maintenance so that no single plant claims dominance over the others. If you ask me, not that you did, it's well worth the effort to be untidy.

5) Create a pond. 

   To my mind, one of the best things in the garden is a wildlife pond. I can spend many a happy hour just watching the damselflies hunting. A wildlife pond is a very different thing from a fishpond. Fish, being fish, will happily gobble up that wildlife you've worked so hard to attract. (That said, fishponds are very good for attracting herons.) A pond doesn't have to be big, and it doesn't have to be dug into the ground. An old plastic tub will suffice. As long as you seal the plughole, it's one use for an old basin or bath. Lots of plants and some patience, and a pond is a wonderful thing. Here's a very good guide to digging a pond, planting, and maintenance.

6) Aim high.

    Climbing plants, such as honeysuckle, ivy, wisteria, and clematis, are great editions to the garden for a number of reasons. They're good food sources for wildlife.  The denser foliage of ivy can be great cover for nesting birds. Many of them smell really rather nice, and who wouldn't prefer looking at them than a plain fence or brick wall. We share a grapevine that grows over the neighbours fence and into our garden. Whilst the hoverflies use the leaves as basking spots, it offers us much needed shade.  It also gives us grapes for wine and jam, fresh vine leaves for dolma, and as autumn approaches the blackbirds go crazy for the leftover grapes that are becoming currants.

7)  There's no such thing as 'weeds'.


Herb Robert - a local 'weed'
    It's true. There's no such thing as a weed. There's only plants growing where we don't want them to grow. It seems to me that plants are only considered weeds when we don't plant them ourselves. I prefer to think of them as naturally occurring delights or 'wildflowers'. It's easy to weed these things out of the flowerbed, usually because we have absolutely no idea what it is. However, as soon as we started leaving things to grow (almost) at will, we started seeing some very pretty plants indeed. For us, or more to the point, for the bees, that we leave some of the 'weeds' to grow is a very good thing. For instance, the Primula flowers very early and most things seem to love that. Dead nettles (not to be confused with stinging nettles) flower long throughout the spring and summer, and bumble bees love those. This year we've had very pretty miniature heathers growing for the first time.
   We keep all these plants reasonably contained in certain areas of the garden where they're free to grow as they like. However, we do remove certain things. Bindweed we try and keep to a minimum. And as for Annual Mercury... Well that seems to serve no purpose whatsoever so it gets wrenched out at the roots and chucked on the compost heap. Japanese Knotweed is also a pain. The main patch isn't in our garden but, as knotweed does, it's determined to spread in our direction. The best we can do is keep chopping back what we can, all in the futile hope that we can stunt the growth. However, when Japanese Knotweed flowers, it is beautiful and the bees adore it. That's its only redeeming feature.

8) Don't be Greedy. 

Egg laying
     I understand why vegetable growers put a net over many of their crops. We don't want caterpillars, cats, pigeons, foxes or zombies destroying our horticultural efforts overnight. I've been known to shed tears over the demise of a humble cabbage plant. However, I'm beginning to think that broccoli is a super plant. Why not plant a couple of broccoli plants outside the nets, and insects will be happy all summer. Not only is it great for butterflies to lay eggs but, if you can bring yourself to leave it to flower, difficult I know, the insects absolutely love it. Incidentally, it's also a great snail magnet. They're easy to just collect off the stems and leaves, all ready for their relocation, preferably to Mars.





9) Think inside the boxes.

     Bug boxes that is. These can be a valuable hibernation spots for many different insects. Here's a good starting guide to building your own. If you really want to go to town and spoil those little critters, then THIS delight is a five-star establishment. I've yet to build one of these but I can assure you that it's on my list of things to do.
  Of course, it's not just the bugs that would appreciate a box - the birds wouldn't say no either. Many of our birds are suffering because a lack of appropriate nest building sites. If you're able to, putting up bird boxes isn't too much of a faff. Here's a guide to bird boxes that should answer any questions you might have.

10) Enjoy yourself.

  The best encouragement you can receive to 'garden for nature' is just to sit and watch the garden. The more you watch, the more nature you will see, and the more changes you'll be encouraged to make. Be warned - It can become quite addictive.


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