What makes a good wildlife garden?
What do you consider to be a ‘wildlife garden’?
Do you think it means weeds and untidiness? Or a great deal of hard work?
In fact, a wildlife garden can be smart or scruffy. It can be easy to garden or high maintenance. It can be any kind of garden you like.
With a few small changes, your garden could make a big difference to wildlife. Without really looking any different.
‘Much of what we do to improve our own homes makes life more difficult for wildlife,’ says Simon. ‘Insulating our houses means that bats can’t roost in the roof.’
‘New fences with concrete gravel board at the base means that small creatures, such as hedgehogs and toads, can’t roam across enough territory.’
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Four major issues: access, shelter, food and water.
Firstly, access. This isn’t a problem for birds and pollinating insects because they can fly. But hedgehogs, toads and other small animals are really suffering from the way our gardens are becoming more closed off at ground level, due to modern fencing.
If you are putting in a new fence with a gravel board base, Simon suggests you cut a hole or holes for hedgehog/toad access – 13 x 13 cm or 5” squared will make all the difference.
Access is also an issue when thinking about water. We recently made a mini wildlife pond out of an oak barrel. We ensured that there are lots of ways for frogs, toads and even hedgehogs to get in, and more importantly, out of the pond. Small creatures can drown unless there is some kind of step or gradient – even in the tiniest pond.
Insulated roofs mean fewer places for bats to nest, but you can put up bat boxes to compensate. If you’re building a new extension, you can even find bricks built for bats or swallows.
You can find out more about gardening for bats from the Bat Conservation Trust. Download their Bat Information Pack before buying or putting up a bat box.
Amazon’s best-selling Wildlife World bat box also comes with full instructions on putting up bat boxes – for example, it’s a good idea to site three together with slightly different aspects.
Wildlife World also do a best-selling hedgehog home, too, with the most 5* star reviews of any of the hedgehog houses.
(note: The Middlesized Garden is an Amazon Affiliate, which means you can buy directly via some links. If you do, we may get a small fee.)
Bug hotels have become the new fashionable must-have for gardens, and they are very pretty. You can either get mixed bug hotels or specific ones for individual species, such as solitary bees or ladybirds.
You can also just leave hollow stems, pine cones, leaves and twigs at the backs of borders, as a low-cost, low-effort ‘bug hotel’. I thought that if there were high winds then leaves stowed at the backs of borders might blow around the garden. However, Storm Angus didn’t dislodge any of the leaves at the backs of our borders, so don’t worry about that.
There are also good instructions here from the RSPB for building an insect hotel.
Or if you’d rather buy one, I’ve researched what’s available and the Natural Insect Hotel by Trixie is the bug hotel with the most 5* reviews on Amazon. £24.99 or Westwoods Insect/bee/bug shelter which is £16.99.
There are also lots of bird box options, including the RSPB sparrow terrace nestbox (£23.99) long nesting box for 3 sparrow families.
And Scott & Co Wooden Sparrow Nesting Box (sparrow terrace for 3 sparrow families) are the brand on Amazon with the most 5* reviews £18.99
For individual nest boxes, the most popular was the (Chapel Wood Wild Bird Classic Nestbox – for one bird family, many species). £9.99.
Simon says that Simple Life Ltd always site nest boxes around 8ft high and facing in a South East facing direction, because it won’t get too hot or too draughty. ‘All our nest boxes have been used.’
There’s more advice from the RSPB on choosing, siting or even making nestboxes here.
And also in the book: BBC Gardeners World: 101 Ideas for a Wildlife Friendly Garden.
Food for a wildlife garden
Food in a wildlife garden starts with what you plant. In the excellent RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines, he says that layers of trees, hedges and shrubs provide wildlife with both food and shelter.
Hedges are more wildlife-friendly than fences. Mixed hedges are more wildlife-friendly than single species hedges. Best4Hedging have an RSPB-approved hedging pack, for example, with 10 different species from hawthorn to guelder rose.
Flowers and their seeds provide food for birds and insects. Try to have something in flower for as much of the year as possible. Choose flowers that have easy access to nectar, such as single-flowered flowers rather than double-flowered.
Pollinating insects often like to feed on blocks of the same kind of flower, too, so try to plant several flowers not just single specimens. This ties in with general garden design advice to plant in drifts, blocks or group.
And then there’s your veg patch. I try to distract butterflies and caterpillars from the kale and chard by companion planting nasturtiums. It more or less works. And there’s netting, which is essential in high summer. But it’s nice to allow the birds and insects to share a bit of the bounty, and I don’t mind nibbled leaves.
Finally there is the food you buy, which helps wildlife especially in winter. Each species (bird, hedgehog, etc) has different requirements and these get updated with every scientific advance. So white bread is out (for both birds and hedgehogs) and whole grains (birds) or meaty food (hedgehogs) is in.
There are lots of options for bird food. We have discovered, through trial and error, that the better-quality bird foods are more popular with the birds and attract a wider range of species. We’ve particularly liked the Peckish range (and it’s got 382 mainly 5* reviews on Amazon).
Water in a wildlife garden
There are really two main things to know about water. One is that you must have water for wildlife.
The other is that small creatures, babies and toddlers can drown in even very shallow water. Ponds, however tiny, must have stepped access in and out. And they must be guarded or positioned so that a small child cannot fall in.
We made a mini wildlife pond out of an oak barrel and things that are easy to buy or adapt. Find out how here.
There are more easy tips on helping wildlife in your garden here.
And you can join your local wildlife trust if you live in Britain (there may be equivalents abroad). Some wildlife trusts, such as the Kent Wildlife Trust run an awards scheme so that gardeners with even the tiniest plot can achieve a ‘Gold’ wildlife gardening standard.
So if you’re doing any building renovations or changes to the garden this year, ‘think wildlife’. We love seeing the birds outside our window and the beds humming with happy pollinating insects.
Collectively, domestic gardens make up a huge amount of the green space in towns and cities. So what we do does make a difference.
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