A garden good for wildlife - Do's and Don'ts
Updated: Feb 24
In these times of climate crisis many of us gardeners are looking for ways to do our bit for the environment. There are many sources of inspiration available, and I’m particularly fond of the work of Sheffield-based botanist and gardener Ken Thompson, who has long been explaining the science behind sound wildlife friendly gardening. This quick guide is based on his writings, as well as the RHS web advice.
Good for wildlife
Aim for different types of plants in the garden: grass, trees, flowers, shrubs...etc. Mature trees are more important for wildlife than any other type of plants, as they provide food, habitat and places to hide for a lot of wildlife. If your garden is too small to have a big tree, support your neighbourhood in planting and protecting large trees in public spaces.
Mow your lawn less to create areas of long grass to provide shelter for small mammals, frogs and beetles.
Choose plants that will be good for all kinds of pollinators, whether bees, bumblebees, lacewings, hoverflies, ladybirds...etc, and which will flower at different times of year from Spring to Winter. This means avoiding highly modified or double flowers, that have little pollen or nectar.
Build a pond. No matter how small, a pond will benefit wildlife even if it is just for birds to drink and bathe. It will also support many invertebrates, dragonflies and damselflies and amphibians such as frogs and toads.
Create a compost heap. This is a key element of wildlife gardening. Rotting organic matter is used by worms, fungi and bacteria. Slugs, insects and other invertebrates also feed on the composting materials. They in turn attract birds which feed on insects. Some animals may also use the heap as shelter during the day (e.g. common newts, mice).
Plant a hedge. Hedges provide habitat, shelter and food for birds and small mammals (e.g. hedgehogs!). If birds are nesting, it is recommended that hedges are not cut between March and August during the main breeding season.
Embrace old walls or rockeries, which can shelter a variety of wildlife. Even a small patch of moss on a wall will attract several invertebrates. The perfect wall is not too new and not so old that it is collapsing. Cracks may be used by woodlice, beetles, snails, spiders, ants, some species of bees and even butterflies. Cavities created by rock gardens can be a suitable habitat for mason bees or other insects.
Bad for wildlife
Lots of hard surfaces (e.g. paving, decking) - if this can’t be avoided, have plants growing in pots on hard surfacing or in cracks in the paving to attract insects. Artificial grass is another form of hard surfacing, with no benefit for wildlife, it is like having a carpet fitted outdoors. The demise of front gardens, which are increasingly turned into drives are also a major loss for wildlife.
Tidiness - Try not to tidy up dead stems and seed heads until spring, as many insects hibernate in dead plant debris over Winter. Leave piles of leaves or rough areas in the garden to create habitats for animals. A pile of dead wood can provide a much wanted habitat for specific wildlife such as stag and bark beetles. Our obsessive cleanliness in our houses often spills onto our gardens. Remind yourself that this is outdoors and cannot be cleaned into submission in the same way as your kitchen floor. Don’t blow or pressure wash every single bit of debris or dirt in your garden, wildlife will thank you for it.
Slug pellets and other harmful pesticides kill more than ‘pests’, travelling up the food chain from slugs to birds or hedgehogs, or damaging other invertebrates coming into contact with the chemicals (e.g. earthworms and slug pellets).
Chemical fertilisers and herbicides. Their manufacturing process has its own environmental impact. There is also evidence that some herbicides such as glyphosate (found in Round-up and other weed killers) contribute to the harm of honeybees - see The Guardian article https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/24/monsanto-weedkiller-harms-bees-research-finds
High sided, closed off garden boundaries such as fences with no gaps in them stop wildlife from moving around to access the food and shelter they need to survive. Wildlife such as frogs and hedgehogs need to be able to travel from one garden to the next in search of food or a mate, so create safe corridors in between gardens.
The bigger picture
Although there are many things we can do to make our gardens a better place for wildlife, we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture and of the impact made by our consumer and transport choices, these have a huge impact on our climate, our environment and our wildlife.
No matter how many bug hotels you build in your garden, the real challenge is about making fewer journeys by cars and planes to limit their harmful emissions and their spatial impact on our landscape, and shopping in a way that doesn’t lead to more pollution (e.g. avoiding the goods produced by fast fashion and intensive agriculture).
On the garden front, choose responsibly sourced garden products, whether timber, paving stones or plants. Avoid peat-based composts. Use water responsibly.
Quick guide prepared by Séverine Cochard / firstname.lastname@example.org
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