Gardens in the UK cover more land area than our National Parks, so we have a huge opportunity to help wildlife. The soil and plants are vital carbon sinks, helping towards the fight against the climate crisis. So we can help with loss of habitat, with declining numbers of pollinating insects, with pollution issues and with reducing carbon dioxide levels that contribute to global heating.
We have entered a phase of having gardens as outdoor rooms – so many outdoor spaces now are paved, decked or astroturfed, leaving no room for nature. To give an idea, just one in ten of our neighbouring gardens are not almost completely paved over or astroturfed. Increasing numbers of people locally are putting in drives and paved or astroturfed back gardens. The remainder are largely mown throughout the year.
We work very hard to keep nature out in fact – weeding and putting down pest prevention measures. The effort involved in this is huge and has impacts far beyond our little patch of garden (removing places for rainwater to soak in, adding to flooding, adding pesticides and weedkillers to food chains and water supplies, even the noise of lawn mowers and hedge trimmers affect species beyond our boundaries).
By comparison, wildlife gardening is about working in partnership with nature, learning from nature and letting things grow. The pinnacle of wildlife gardening is ecosystem creation – adding elements such as ponds, log piles, meadows, wilder, scrubby areas etc. However, it really doesn’t have to be big or grand – we have a “flowerpot meadow” which is literally a flowerpot with seeds for pollinators. It is drought-hardy and has given months and months of interest and colour for both us and visiting pollinators. Our first pond was basically a washing-up bowl with frogspawn!
Our top tips for your wildlife garden are:
- Don’t use harmful chemicals (no weedkillers or pesticides). Ensure the plants you buy have not been treated with pesticides etc. Organic plants are a safe bet.
- Go peat-free – ideally make your own compost in a compost bin/heap, wormery etc. We also buy peat-free compost. Note: if the compost does not say it is peat-free in big letters, it will contain peat. Also watch when buying plants that these are not in peat.
- Don’t mow more than once or twice a year – let it grow – especially during the late spring/summer months – or at least don’t mow all of it – leave a patch for the grass and flowers to grow
- Instead of weeds, you now have wildflowers – it’s just a change of mindset – dandelions, brambles, green alkanet are all wildflowers and are loved by bees
- Have wild patches – let nature take over a corner of the garden, providing shelter and undisturbed patches
- Think in terms of ecosystems and habitats – good soil (no digging, no chemicals), right plants bring seeds and insects which attract birds and mammals
- A wildlife pond is probably the biggest impact habitat you can provide (try Kate Bradbury’s book for more about this)
- Think circular – don’t be too tidy – allow the dead things to decompose and put the nutrients back and provide food and habitats for a large number of species
- Choosing the right plants – pick plants for pollinators (not sterile hybrids or double flower varieties), plants with berries and fruits e.g. holly, ivy, fruit trees etc. (Highly recommend Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle for more on this)
- Go in layers – have plants at all levels from the ground up, paying attention to how they work together (useful clues from nature – look at how a deciduous woodland is structured)
- Provide shelter – ground level cover and trees, hedges and shrubs
- To maximise your beneficial impact on the climate, have as much soil packed with plants as possible – remove as much path, gravel etc. as you can live with
- Have a hole in your fence for hedgehogs etc. to travel between gardens or better still replace the fence with a hedge
- Put away the hedge trimmers, chainsaws etc. – at least during bird nesting season
- To a certain extent, the wider range of species the better – think wildflower meadow rather than monoculture lawn
- Even a window box with wildflowers can be a wildlife garden – you do not need acres to make a difference
- Avoid invasive, non-native species (our local woodland/riverside is filled with bamboo and Himalayan balsam)
- If nature is eating your garden, then you have a successful wildlife garden! We use some non-harmful measures to keep our fruit and vegetables from being eaten, but we also take the attitude that slugs are food for hedgehogs and song thrushes etc. so sharing our food is a small price to pay!
- Finally, encourage your neighbours to join you!
We are creating a series of videos to share the story of our own suburban wildlife garden and some of the tips we have learned along the way. Click the links to watch the videos:
- Wildlife pond
- Leaving things a bit messy
- Soil and wildflowers
- Overview of how your garden can help in climate and nature crises
See the resources page for more information on places to get advice.