When people talk about natural habitats for animals, they usually think of the countryside. But our gardens are just as crucial as a refuge for wildlife – especially as we can make them a chemical-free zone, free from pesticide, fungicide or anything else nasty. Even though they may seem small, the patchwork effect of many gardens is massive.
They are also a safe haven for birds, mammals and insects, and are much more fun if they’re full of interesting plants. The more you do to encourage creatures in, the more you’ll enjoy your space. Here’s how to do it.
1. Bird box and feed
Put your bird box up in a sheltered site, out of reach of predators. Clean it every year to get rid of mites. The RSPB (rspb.org.uk) can give you information on choosing the right box. Put out protein-rich feed, such as fat balls, in the spring when birds are feeding their young, and seed in the winter. The feeder should be near a dense bush such as a hydrangea or rambling rose, so small birds such as blue tits can dart in and out to feed, safe from cats.
2. Ivy and climbers
The flowers and seeds of ivy are nutritious, and are a good source of pollen. Because ivy is evergreen, it creates a protective habitat all year round – just be careful it doesn’t overtake. Figs, clematis and roses all create good habitats at varying heights, and attract bees and birds to feed.
3. Insect hotel
It’s fun to build proper insect hotels with your kids, but a pile of rocks and rotting wood will do just as well. Find a quiet spot, and pile up rocks, bricks, logs, twigs and leaves. Then do not disturb. This will become home to all sorts of important insects such as beetles and spiders.
All creatures need a constant source of fresh, unchlorinated water. Bury a shallow bucket or stone basin, or dig a proper pond, but make sure there are stones and branches in there so creatures such as frogs can get in and out. The pond should be filled with rainwater, so use a water butt. Build it in a part-sunny, part-shady spot so it doesn’t go stagnant. Grow waterlilies in it to keep it oxygenated.
5. Edible shrubs
Your garden needs different levels to suit the different creatures that live there. It also looks more visually interesting. Blackberry, gooseberry and redcurrant plants will fill your shrub layer, and feed you as well as pollinators such as butterflies, bees and hoverflies.
6. Compost bin
Compost bins use up waste and also feed your soil, which keeps plants healthier. They are also a habitat for worms, woodlice, fungi, frogs, grass snakes and spiders. Put food waste in – raw only unless you have a bin that keeps rats out – and turn it every week with a fork. When it is ready (this can take anything from a few months to a year), spread it across your beds. Never use peat – peat bogs are special habitats and should be protected.
Make sure your fence has holes along the bottom so creatures such as hedgehogs and frogs can pass through your garden.
Pack as many flowers as you can in to your garden – from spring bulbs, to late flowering perennials. Choose flowers that are true to species, not bred for lots of petals by humans. Petals grow at the expense of nectar and pollen, and can make it harder for bees to get inside. Cornflowers, asters, calen dulas, marigolds, nasturtiums, to name a few, are all good. The RHS lists pollinator-friendly plants on its website (rhs.org.uk). Ask at the garden centre for plants which are Soil Association certified.
Weeds are some of the best plants for pollinators – buttercups, daisies and foxgloves flower for a long time, produce a lot of nectar and thrive in bad growing conditions. And don’t be too tidy – insects like spiders and earwigs live under dead plants, and in turn keep aphids in check.
If possible, don’t mow your lawn for most of the summer. Long grass is really important for butterflies to lay eggs in. I think a flowering lawn is exciting, so I let my dandelions flower, which the bees love, then cut them before they turn to seed heads.
11. Fruit trees
Apple trees are good in any garden. They flower for the pollinators, and produce fruit for you to eat.
A good apple tree grower will be able to sell you a tree that will grow to a suitable size for your garden. Plant one or two in autumn.