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Gardening for Wildlife

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I love animals in all their myriad forms and having wildlife in the garden is so exciting for me. I suppose it’s like an extension of pet-keeping: a wild hedgehog in the garden suddenly becomes ‘my’ hedgehog and any wild animal that so much as steps foot over our boundary gets a name (usually ‘Bob’).

I’m a very ‘live and let live’ sort of person and as far as I’m concerned they’re all welcome.  I won’t even kill slugs, because what right do I have to do so?  Added to that, trying to kill every last pest is a very misguided thing to do.  Anyone who has studied population dynamics will know that when you kill a so-called pest, the predator of that pest also suffers a decline.  When the predator declines it gives the pest a chance to explode in numbers, so your actions might actually make the ‘problem’ worse.

My view is that creating a garden where predators and prey are allowed to live and keep each other in check is the best way forward in gardening terms, but the best part is just being allowed to be in the presence of wild creatures going about their business who have chosen your garden to be their home!

The two best things you can do attract wildlife is: A. to plant a tree and B. to dig a pond.  We have plans to dig a pond this year if possible, but that will feature in its own blog post.  As for trees, planting a British native is the best option as our wildlife have adapted to benefit from them, but otherwise just about any tree will do to provide shelter.  We are lucky in that we already have a fully-grown hawthorn and a relatively youthful alder in our garden.  The hawthorn provides shelter and berries for birds and the flowers in May provide nectar for insects.  Hawthorn (Cretaegus monogyna, below) also comes in red and double pink-flowered forms if you fancy a change from the usual white.  It’s as tough as old boots and makes a lovely tree for smaller gardens.

 

Hawthorn among bluebells at Rannerdale, Cumbria

Hawthorn among bluebells at Rannerdale, Cumbria

 

Trees are also great for hanging up bird feeders!  Birds are perhaps the easiest (and definitely the most colourful) animals to attract to your garden.  Feeders can be picked up cheaply and hung at a suitable height so that cats will find it difficult to catch their prey.  My husband made me a hook on a long pole so I can get my feeder high in the branches. Unfortunately domestic cats will always pick off wild birds, but you can lessen the chances by planting dense shrubs near the feeder so the birds can flee to relative safety.

Most shops sell a wild bird ‘mix’, but often this has lots of less nutritious ‘filler’ seeds in it.  You can attract a wider range by selecting better quality mixes or making your own mix from ‘straight’ seeds.  Niger seed, for example, is great for attracting goldfinches.  I find that straight sunflower seeds / sunflower hearts attract a wide variety of birds too.

Many people claim that birds should only be fed during the winter but I enjoy feeding them all year round.  Winter is hard on them, but trying to bring up baby birds in the spring and summer and then recover during autumn also takes its toll and I like to give them a helping hand.  I feed ‘my’ birds at a similar time each day as they often time their daily rounds to coincide with when the feeders are filled up.  The feeder itself should be cleaned regularly, but other than that there really is nothing to it!

Not all birds enjoy seed and some are ground-feeders and will not use a hanging cylindrical feeder.  Blackbirds and robins will take some seed but they much prefer insects, and the young of most bird species require insects.  So what can you do to help those of your flock who are missing out?  You can buy specialist bird food and even dried insects, but you can also use your garden to help them out by planting species that attract insects for as much of the year as possible, and avoiding replacing lawns with paving, or my personal pet hate, ‘plastic grass’.

Apart from that, it’s also important to provide water for ‘your’ birds in the form of a bird bath or pond and make sure it’s topped up in the summer and free from ice in the winter.  The birds love my compost heap to gather nesting materials, and I also provide them with guinea pig fur to build their nests with in a little wire feeder (I have a Peruvian guinea pig called Truffle whose hair grows about 10 times as fast as mine!).

 

 

Flowers are basically just insect landing-pads.  The best types are those with daisy-like flowers (above), or flat ‘umbels’ made up of many tiny flowers such as Achillea, or tubular flower such as foxgloves.  Plants with double flowers are less attractive to insects as the nectar is harder to find or sometimes non-existent.

Below I’ve made list of those species that I know to be irresistible to bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths.

Achillea – the tiny clustered flowers of this plant are collectively called ‘umbels’ and provide landing pads for insects and encourage butterflies.

Alliums – these bulbs are having a massive surge in popularity at the moment with good reason.  Each of those little flowers that make up their spherical heads are loved by bees and they add height and structure to borders.

Asters – daisy-like flowers produced in the autumn on perennial plants which extends the season for attracting insects.

Borago officinalis – borage has intense blue flowers and is an absolute bee magnet, as well as being a culinary herb.  Hardy annual.

Buddleja – commonly know as the ‘butterfly bush’ for very good reason.  They have an unfair reputation for growing tall and lanky, but this can easily be remedied by chopping the bushes down to a couple of feet after flowering.

Calendula officinalis – ‘pot marigold’.  This is an edible hardy annual and is mostly visited by bees and hoverflies.  Comes in mainly orange shades.  Ridiculously easy to grow.

Centaurea – cornflowers in both their annual and perennial forms are attractive to bees.  My current favourite perennial Centaureas are Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow’ (white with purple centre) and ‘Joyce’ (pink).  Annual cornflowers are very easy to grow from seed.

Centranthus rubra – red valerian.  I often see this perennial inhabiting hedgerows after it has escaped from a garden.  Available in red, pink and white (below).

 

Centranthus rubra - red valerian

Centranthus rubra – red valerian

 

Cosmos – tender annual often found as bedding plants in garden centre which attract bees and butterflies.

Dianthus barbatus – sweet williams are easy to grow from seed and are often grown as a biennial.  ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a lovely variety.

Digitalis purpurea – foxgloves are beautiful but poisonous hardy biennials.  They are adored by bees.  My favourite is ‘Pam’s Choice’ which is a colour variant of our native foxglove.

Echinops – globular blue flowerheads attract bees.  Perennial.

Eryngium – blue flower heads with a spiky ruff.  Perennial.

Erysimum – perennial wallflowers are relatively short-lived – two or three years is common – but they’re very easy to take from cuttings.  Butterflies and bees love them and they come in a variety of colours, with many new varieties having several colours on the same plant!  One of my favourites, they are one of the only plants I can say will reliably flower for months on end if deadheaded.  They have been my top plant of 2017 for attracting butterflies, along with hebes and sedums.

Gaillardia – bright shades of red, yellow and orange adorn this perennial plant.  Likes full sun where it will attract bees.

Geraniums – the hardy varieties are great weed suppresent with open, cup shaped flowers.  My parents have Geranium x magnificum in their garden which is always covered in bees when in flower.  This year ‘Rozanne’ has performed well for the bees as it is a repeat flowerer.

Hebes – great little shrubs which are covered in masses of pink, mauve and white flowers.  I had lots of butterflies on my hebe ‘Nikka’ this year.

Leucanthemum – large daisy-like heads in yellow or white.

Lysimachia atropurpurea – loostrife.  I particularly like the variety ‘Beaujolais’.

Lythrum salicaria – purple loosestrife is an excellent perennial for bog gardens and bees get very excited about its purple flowers (below)!

 

Lythrum salicaria - purple loosestrife

Lythrum salicaria – purple loosestrife

 

Monarda – this plant’s common name is ‘bee balm’!  Does what it says on the tin!

Origanum vulgare – marjoram / oregano.  If left to flower the bees will come flying!

Phacelia – often grown for green manure but makes a beautiful garden plant in lilac shades.  Bees adore this hardy annual.

Pulmonaria – lungwort.  I often catch the bees feeding on these early-flowering perennial plants when there aren’t many other flowers around for them.  Quite happy in partially shaded areas.

Sedums – ‘Autumn Joy’ is a popular variety which flowers in late summer and so extends the season of nectar for insects.  The butterflies loved visiting my sedums this autumn.

Symphytum officianale – comfrey.  Can be invasive, but try ‘Moorland Heather’ which is a nice dark purple form that doesn’t spread as much.

Trifolium rubens – red clover is a perennial with pink flower plumes.

Verbena bonariensis – this plant has been very popular in recent years for its  ability to give an ‘airy’ feel to gardens.  Butterflies love this tall perennial plant.

 

This list is by no means exhaustive.  If you wish to know more, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust have lots of useful information on their website regarding bee-friendly plants.

 

I also highly recommend leaving a patch of your garden overgrown.  In a previous garden I had a patch with stinging nettles, aquilegia (columbine) and red campion growing in it which had its own wild beauty.  I loved it and so did various insects and small mammals.  I also kept an old rotting log there which provided an extremely important, but often ovelooked, habitat for insects.  Piles of stones will also shelter amphibians and reptiles and work very well beside a pond.

You can now buy insect ‘homes’ which I thoroughly recommend, but you can just as easily make your own and their are loads of examples on the internet.  Here’s one I spotted at Harrogate Flower Show (below):

 

Insect house

Insect house

 

‘Wild’ areas like this may also attract larger mammals to your garden, such as hedgehogs, who like places to hide and find food.  When we first moved here the garden was neglected and I had an old unused rabbit hutch outdoors.  To my amazement I just happened to check inside one day and there was a hedgehog all curled up in some old hay!  You can now buy expensive hedgehog ‘houses’, but an old rabbit hutch works just as well, as I can attest!

 

European hedgehog - Erinaceus europaeus

European hedgehog – Erinaceus europaeus

 

One of the myriad problems facing hedgehogs is their inability to access modern gardens.  In fact most modern houses now only come with postage-stamp sized plots, all neatly bordered with fences that reach the ground with no access for ‘snufflepigs’.  You can create gaps in fences for them by simply sawing a couple of hedgehog-sized holes at the base of one or two of the panels.  You can disguise these by planting in front of them, or leave them on show so visitors will ask why there are holes in your fence, and then you can promote hedgehog welfare!   Our own fencing is post and wire mesh, but in a couple of areas there is enough space for hedgehogs to get underneath and we have since found hedgehog droppings around the garden.

If you already have a hedgehog in your garden and want to encourage it, don’t feed it milk and bread as was often encouraged in times past.  Cat food is a better alternative and they should always have access to water.  You can actually buy ‘proper’ wild hedgehog food nowadays!

 

I hope this has given you a few ideas for attracting wildlife into your own patch.  Watch out for a future blog post about our new pond!

 

Kelly.

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