Wildlife gardening: It’s good for all

Posted on: 10 August 2010 by Mark O'haire

Inviting wildlife into your garden isn’t just good for the planet - it’s also good for our gardens too and can save us time, effort and money according to Maxine Farmer.

wildlife gardeningWhy do we bother inviting wildlife into our gardens?  After all, they damage our plants, eat our fruit and veg, sometimes even make a horrible mess. Okay, so I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I often think that people pay lip-service to the whole idea of wildlife-friendly gardening, without thinking about the bigger picture and more to the point, what’s in it for us. 

Yes, we know that we need to do our bit for the planet, but I’ve got some good news for you: it’s also good for our gardens too.  And it can save us time, effort and money.

What do I mean? Well, take my dear old mum. She’d never heard of organic gardening, but she knew that if she let the ladybirds have free reign over the aphids and didn’t use insecticides, then those pretty little bugs would do the job pretty well, without any cost or labour on her part. She was a proper old-fashioned gardener who knew that nine times out of ten, if you let nature have a chance to redress her own balance, then it will. 

So making our gardens attractive places for wildlife – whether birds and amphibians keeping down the slug numbers, or bees and hoverflies ensuring effective pollination of our crops – makes a lot of sense.

So, what can we do to make our gardens more attractive to wildlife?  It is very simple.  As a first step and as I’ve already alluded to, go easy on the chemicals. Look at it from the wildlife’s perspective: imagine you go to your favourite delicatessen, with rows of lovely cheeses, breads and cold meats.  Then as just as you’re about to buy some of these delicious goods, you find out that they’ve just been sprayed with – say, for example, antiseptic. You don’t want to eat the food any more, do you?  Neither does the wildlife in your garden.

Keep off the chemicals

Does it really make any difference?  Scientific research says yes, as does personal experience. When we first moved into our plot 16 years ago, the previous owners had used so many insecticides and pesticides that it must have been like a nuclear waste site to the local wildlife, of which we saw very little. 

After three years of pure organic gardening, they came back and today, visitors comment on the wide variety of birds and insects we have had in our garden.  And the wildlife works hard, each playing their role in the food chain to keep each other in check.  This isn’t to say that there are times when the wildlife doesn’t win the day and we have to step in.  I freely admit that I keep a bottle of Rose Clear on hand, just in case I need to administer some emergency aid.

The right plants

Of course, we have to give the wildlife some incentives to keep the wildlife keen on staying put, the first of which are tempting plants that are rich in nectar.  Last weekend, I counted four species of bee on our lythrum salicaria ‘Blush’, plus a whole host of hoverflies and other unidentified insects.  Bergamot (aptly called Beebalm) and borage are just two of the many species that attract flying visitors. 

I’ve written about bee-friendly plants for 50connect before,  so if you want a quick reminder of which plants to choose, you can find the article ‘the bees needs’  in the 50connect archive here.

Choosing plants that have attractive and persistent seed-heads is another easy tactic and one that is overlooked: I grow both sunflowers and teasels (easy to grow from seed – try Suttons), not just for their statuesque impact, but because the birds love to pick the seeds in the later summer months and autumn.  One of my favourite sights in the garden is watching goldfinches swaying on the top of the teasels, desperate to get the last of the hidden seed treasures inside.

Well fed & watered

The current advice on attracting song-birds back into our gardens is to ensure a source of food all year round.  This may seem strange advice, when surely our gardens are rich in food in the summer?  Well, natural food sources are going to vary from week to week and it can take time to build up natural food stores in the garden, so it makes sense to ensure a consistent supply. Plus, the more the amount and variety of food,  the more the amount and variety of wildlife. 

And parents with young chicks will definitely welcome some handy food: I know that our local moorhens are pretty keen on the fat balls we provide during the nesting season.

In the same way that fresh water can be scarce when the temperature is frozen, the same is true in the hotter months.  Ensure that there is plenty of fresh water, whether a simple bird bath or better still, a small pool, which will be a magnet for all kinds of wildlife. No room?  Invest in a watertight container, treat yourself to a solar fountain and a few water plants and hey presto, an attractive and relatively low-cost water feature that is also a lure for insects, as well as a water-station for birds. 

Keep Britain untidy

A final piece of advice and one that I find not everyone likes but this really does make a lot of sense: don’t be too tidy in the garden. Twigs, logs and plants that are dying back all provide habitats for all kinds of wildlife.  Don’t be too hasty to cut and clear back the herbaceous plants in the autumn. 

I also advocate leaving a patch of nettles somewhere hidden from view: they are a particular favourite of caterpillars, but according to the Henry Doubleday Research Centre, nettles are home to over 100 different species of insect.  Worried about the impact of caterpillars on your cabbages?  Well, I can’t pretend that they won’t treat your garden like the deli counter at Tesco’s, but ‘live and live’ and what are a few vegetables between friends?  As well as helping you to have a better, healthier plot, I think that a garden without rich wildlife lacks a vital dimension.  And of course, you’re doing your bit for the environment too, so what’s not to like about wildlife gardening?

Further Reading

For more help, good books on the subject include ‘RHS Wildlife Garden’ and ‘How To Create a Wildlife Garden’ by Christine Lavelle (also available from Amazon and other booksellers).  Plus, four of the RHS gardens around the UK -  Wisley, Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall and Rosemoor  - have summer wildlife trails between now and the end of August.  

By Maxine Farmer

Garden writer and consultant Maxine Farmer writes specialises in writing about garden challenges and people who have fascinating plots.  She has written for The Daily Telegraph, Housebuilder & Renovation, and the RHS’ members magazine, The Garden.  Maxine has also published ‘Wet and Dry’, a book of advice about helping gardens to  survive the extremes of hot summers and wet winters. 

For more information please visit www.thefloodedgarden.com or contact maxine@thehenleygardener.com.

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