Making your garden an oasis for wildlife this winter
PUBLISHED: 15:18 18 February 2016 | UPDATED: 15:18 18 February 2016
It may seem as though this is the one time of year we don’t have to feel guilty about neglecting the garden. But Sebastian Oake says that it’s the perfect opportunity to make it an oasis for wildlife
It might seem there’s less to occupy the mind of the gardener this time of year but if we want a truly living garden next summer – an inspiring place teeming with wildlife – now’s the time to start planning.
While the birds squabble at the feeders, it’s a good opportunity to try to see things their way. Once we understand their needs – and those of all the other creatures we share our gardens with – we can turn our outside spaces into better places for nature over the coming year.
If our garden is relatively small, perhaps in an urban area as well, we might think that even the greenest of fingers are not going to make a lot of difference but the Sussex Wildlife Trust would disagree. Jess Price, its wildlife gardening expert and Sussex Life columnist, says: “It’s tempting to think that because gardens are associated with houses and people they are generally devoid of wildlife, but that’s not true. A garden might be visited by 40 kinds of bird and also play host to literally thousands of invertebrate species. You may not be able to replicate an ancient wood in your back garden but it could become a good reservoir of species. Gardens have the potential to be more diverse than the countryside itself.”
And with familiar birds such as house sparrow, greenfinch and starling in long-term decline nationally, pressure on natural habitats mounting and climate change bringing additional threats, there’s never been a better time to lend nature a helping hand.
“In Britain we’ve long had special places for wildlife like nature reserves,” says Jess, “but having islands of wildlife in isolation is now just not enough. Wildlife needs to move around, especially as it tries to adapt to climate change. It’s important to have corridors through which things can pass and gardens can play a big role in that.
“If all the gardens in Sussex were managed well for nature, it would add up to a great deal. And we’re lucky here, we’re in one of those places where you never know what might turn up. You could find a hummingbird hawk moth outside your back door, for example.”
So, while the days stay stubbornly short, we should perhaps take the opportunity to draw up some resolutions for a year outdoors. The starting point goes back to that understanding of what works for wildlife and what makes wildlife work. Many birds, for example, need a multi-layer garden. Trees act as observation posts, thick hedges or thorny bushes provide vital cover while ground-level offers feeding areas.
“Create variety in structure and edges,” confirms Jess. “As well as low-growing plants, shrubs and trees, consider adding climbers like honeysuckle to link them. And a manicured lawn can still be part of a garden for wildlife. Indeed, the short turf helps make soil creatures accessible to birds. A garden good for wildlife doesn’t have to be unmanaged and messy.”
But the basics do have to be in place. The right mix of plants is needed to draw in insects and other invertebrates, which go on to provide food for many birds and other animals.
“One thing to do is aim for a range of flowering plants that are able to collectively provide nectar right across the season,” advises Jess.
Traditional cottage garden flowers can be a rich source of nectar – flowering currant and lungwort in spring, lavender and buddleia in summer, and sunflower and Michaelmas daisy later in the year. As well as cultivated flowers, native wild plants are vital because they are the ones many insects prefer. Foxglove, marjoram and teasel and especially those plants with long flowering periods, such as common comfrey and dead nettle, are worth squeezing in.
Establishing a garden meadow of wild plants is worth considering. On summer days it will be alive with bees and other pollinators while in the evening moths will love it. And so will the bats that feed on them.
Sowing a seed-mix of old corn field annuals such as cornflower, red poppy and field forget-me-not can give fast results and create a stunning display. It’s worth starting with bare ground and even removing the topsoil because these plants prefer low fertility.
Alternatively, we can get nature to do the brunt of the work by allowing it to reclaim part of the garden by itself, perhaps a patch of lawn or a garden corner. We can just let it grow and see what comes up or help the process by adding plugs of native plants such as small scabious and birdsfoot trefoil if the soil is lime-rich, or perhaps foxglove and tormentil in more acidic conditions. And if the ground is damp, putting in some snake’s-head fritillary bulbs in autumn gives a real treat the following April.
Addition of extra features to a wild area could draw in other creatures. Slow worms might take up residence in a mound of grass cuttings left undisturbed in a sunny spot, and a rock-pile next to it could become a basking spot for lizards on hot days. Over in the shade, a log pile makes a good home for shrews, beetles and centipedes.
One wild animal worthy of special mention is the hedgehog. It’s frequently cited as one of our favourite garden visitors but nationally the population has dropped by perhaps a third over the past decade. We can do our best to entice one into our garden by making sure there is some thick ground cover, even a small patch of undergrowth.
Helping wildlife has benefits for us too. Jess explains: “The pleasure of seeing birds, butterflies and other animals is often underestimated. Having a connection with nature contributes to our wellbeing. Ponds in particular are great for children as they watch them being colonised by frogs and dragonflies.”
There are other paybacks too. With nature’s input, the whole garden works better. If we manage to entice hedgehogs, frogs, toads or slow worms into our garden, they will help to deal with the slugs for us. Hoverflies and ladybirds help keep aphids under control. And, can you imagine it, swallows are happy to eat the wasps! In a living garden everything becomes connected and there are advantages for all sides.
Dos and don’ts for wildlife
• Don’t collect wild plants from the countryside (it’s illegal and, not least, counter-productive). Buy organic stock from a good garden centre.
• Embrace unexpected allies… Stinging nettles are vital for butterflies like the red admiral and peacock, while finches love thistle seeds. Ivy provides shelter for birds all year round, nest sites in spring, nectar-rich flowers for solitary bees as summer fades into autumn and berries for birds in winter.
• Avoid slug pellets. They are indiscriminate and can pose a threat to birds and hedgehogs.
• Go organic by avoiding chemicals and enriching the soil with kitchen compost instead of fertiliser. And if you’re buying in compost, insist on peat-free.
• Lastly if you haven’t got a garden, don’t despair – you can still do wonders with window boxes, hanging baskets and bird feeders!
For further information, visit www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/gardens or call the Susssex Wildlife Trust WildCall information line on 01273 494777
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