Wildlife friendly garden tips

November 15th, 2020
Posted In: Wildlife & eco

A wildlife friendly garden is an important part of sustainable living today.

Urban gardens have a real part to play. I’ve been talking to Fern Alder, an award winning garden designer who has designed gardens at the top flower shows such as The RHS Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court Garden Festival.

Fern's garden

Fern’s garden is a long thin town garden, but it’s unusual because it ends in a strip of ancient woodland. This photograph was taken in September.

A wildlife garden impacts on so many issues.

Firstly, there’s ‘insect armageddon’, for example, which is the extinction of insects. Many insect populations are a fraction of what they were. As insects are at the bottom of the food chain and we’re at the top, the loss of so many insects has serious potential consequences for our food supply.

And other wildlife is also struggling. Common garden birds and pollinating insects are widely suffering from falling populations.

Then there’s the loss of soil fertility, caused by over-farming.

And there’s flash flooding, mainly caused by the ever-growing carpet of concrete and brick covering the earth.

Fern’s garden has been described by experts as ‘the future of gardening, sustainable, all about the wildlife and a complete joy to spend time in.’

Wildlife friendly garden tips

Fern’s garden has been described as the ‘future of gardening’ in Gardens Illustrated.

The number one wildlife friendly garden tip

A wildlife friendly garden should have at least one source of water, says Fern, however small. Insects and birds need to drink and bathe. Fern has a small stream running through her garden but also has a mini pond tucked in by some pots and a bird bath.

A birdbath is essential for wildlife friendly gardening

Fern has a mini pond and a bird bath as well as a stream running through the garden.

Having water in different places means that bigger and smaller birds don’t have to compete with each other. ‘Make sure you have different depths,’ she says. Different sizes of creature have different needs and also it makes it easier to get out.

I have a mini pond made of a high sided barrel, so I’ve put a smaller dish, plus planters inside so that there are lots of different depths. See how to make a mini wildlife pond here.

Fern suggests that you can use anything, even an upturned dustbin lid as a bird bath. Funnily enough, that is exactly what I have and it provides a good watering can full of water.

In mosquito prone countries there are issues with leaving standing water. Check local advice and regulations, but stocking the pond with fish or keeping water moving with a pump can help a lot.

And if you have space for a full size pond, here are ideas for 11 different pond styles.

Minimise your use of chemicals

This is Fern’s number 2 tip for a wildlife friendly garden.

And I’ve interviewed to a number of head gardeners this year. I’ve been surprised at how few chemicals many head gardeners use.

Neil Miller of Hever Castle Gardens talked to me about growing roses. He says that aphids cover the roses for a few weeks in early summer but he doesn’t take any action. The predators soon build up and after three weeks they’re gone.

Using pest-killing chemicals or weed-killers doesn’t always make your gardening easier. It’s a fiddle to buy and store them, for a start and there’s always the risk of damaging plants or wildlife you don’t want to harm. There’s more about creating an easy, sustainable garden here.

Gardening is no longer about eradicating pests

Thirty years ago gardening was about controlling pests. Now there is much more awareness of the part each insect has to play in the eco-system. For example, the Royal Horticultural Society suggests that you simply leave ants if you’ve got them in the garden. If you don’t the ants nest to be there, spray it with water to disperse the ants rather than to kill them.

You don’t have to be hard and fast organic about this. Just see what happens if you don’t do anything. For example, both viburnum beetle and black spot on roses are unsightly. But they don’t do the plant a great deal of harm. It may take a while for predators to build up, so if you don’t have instant success, don’t give up.

Also, as Fern says, plants are more likely to get pests and diseases when they’re not happy. Healthy plants don’t get such bad problems or if they do, they’re less noticeable. For example a big healthy dahlia might get a few leaves eaten by slugs, but you won’t really notice, but if slugs eat a few leaves of a plant that’s struggling then it may not even survive.

Head gardener Steve Edney stopped all use of chemicals when he moved to Canterbury Cathedral Gardens. These are visited by thousands of people each year, so borders have to look their best. Read about how he controls slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids without chemicals in this post

Soil is living matter and needs looking after…

I used to think of soil as an inanimate substance, but it is actually a living organism. It’s one huge ecosystem.

Fern told me that, there are more micro organisms in this teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth. And you can confirm this on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture.

The importance of soil

That includes bacteria, algae, microscopic insects you can’t see as well as the ones you can, such as beetles, ants and mites. There are funghi, microbes, nematodes and more. They all need feeding, which is why adding garden compost, mulches and manure improves your soil.

They also all have their own inter-related structure. Digging breaks this up and can damage many of these. The US Department of Agriculture study said that often a farmer’s healthiest soil was to be found by the boundaries where there hadn’t been digging or cultivation. You can find out how to adapt no dig/no till to your garden in No Dig For Flower Borders.

Soil fertility is dropping fast, all over the world. This ultimately endangers our food supply every bit as much as the loss of pollinating insects.

I interviewed Sally Nex about her book, RHS How To Garden The Low Carbon Way. She said that there were three top ways to make your garden eco-friendly. One of these was to stop digging, except to take a plant out or put one in. Read 3 very simple things you can do to create an eco-friendly garden now.

Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.

A light hand with hard landscaping…

And soil also stores water. It’s like a sponge that soaks up rain and keeps it there. So when it’s covered with tarmac or stone or concrete, it can’t do that. Heavy rainfall will roll off and into our drainage systems which flood.

So Fern advises ‘ a light hand with hard landscaping’ for a wildlife friendly garden.

Wildlife friendly garden

Fern’s garden has a ‘light hand’ with the hard landscaping. There is a a terrace outside the back door and a single path, made of recycled car tyres, running through the middle. The rest is planting.

The US Department of Agriculture says that to keep your soil healthy, you need to see it as little as possible. That means covering it with plants or mulches and digging it as little as possible.

Friends in Australia use their chopped up garden clippings as mulch. It suppresses weeds and eventually breaks down to feed the soil and we’ve started doing this too with both lawn mowing clippings and shreddings from the garden shredder.

Don’t be too tidy…

Shelter is important for wildlife, especially in winter. Fern says that you don’t always need to need to buy things to support wildlife. Although I think some insect hotels and bird boxes do look rather pretty. We have just bought some bat boxes and Fern has some too.

Bird boxes

One of Fern’s bird boxes – but you don’t have to spend money, she says.

But piles of leaves and old logs will also make good shelter for many wee beasties. And evergreen plants, such as ivy will shelter birds. Fern’s garden is a long thin town garden and it ends in a long section of protected woodland. She’s cleared some brambles and a couple of dead trees to make a place to sit, but has left tree trunks and roots lying there to break down naturally. These offer lots of opportunities for wildlife. ‘Drill into the end of the trunks to make a home for solitary bees,’ she says.

Above all, leave piles of leaves and twigs in corners. Insects will shelter there and birds will enjoy picking through the leaves for insect and slug treats.

It also helps if you can put the mower away or at least leave part of your lawn to grow long. If you’ve tried this but were disappointed by getting just lots of green, floppy grass rather than a wildflower meadow, then read Top Meadow Lawn Mistakes And How to Avoid Them.

Grow flowers all year round…

Winter flowers are important for pollinating insects.

What flowers you have depends on how winter goes where you live, but here in the UK, ivy flowers around in early winter. If you don’t want ivy then Fern points out that fatsia is part of the ivy family and very accommodating in all sorts of shady and gloomy positions in the garden.

Fatsia a wildlife friendly plant

Fatsia is a member of the ivy family and flowers late. ‘A last meal for the bees before winter,’ says Fern.

Fern’s garden includes plants like teasel which have seeds for wildlife at this time of year. And, with her garden designer hat, on she also says they provide lovely structure.

She has also added fruit trees to her garden because the fruit provides fruit for wildlife as well as spring blossom for bees and general enjoyment.

Other winter flowers for a wildlife friendly garden

Other winter flowers in the UK include mahonia (and there’s a new spineless version out Mahonia Soft Caress, which you can see in the video below.)

Winter bedding flowers like pansies aren’t usually much good because they don’t have an open heart to the flower. Pollinating insects need to be able to get into the flower, so look for single flowers.

Fern also comments that plants that flower in winter are often highly scented so as to signal to pollinators. Examples are sweet box and witch hazel, as well as mahonia.

In late winter/early spring, snowdrops, primroses, pulmonaria, hellebores, bergenia and anemones all appear and will grow in much colder climates than the UK. Fern gets many of her plants from local plant swaps, both formal and informal ones, so it’s always worth looking out for one or organising one yourself.

More wildlife friendly garden tips

Find out the five quick and easy things you can do to help wildlife in your garden now, with advice from wildlife garden expert Joel Ashton.

And if you’re thinking of giving up mowing or reducing mowing, read these posts on creating a mini meadow lawn and how to avoid common meadow lawn mistakes.

There’s also another unusual wildlife friendly garden in this post, A Small Wildlife Garden For Towns and Cities.

See more of Fern’s garden in video

See the video and the tips here.

You can also see her clever use of upcycling and recycling in her garden here.

And there is more about how to have a wildlife friendly garden in 12 easy ways to help wildlife in your garden now.

Shop my favourite gardening products, tools and books

I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve put together lists of the gardening tools, books and products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate so I may get a small fee if you buy, but it won’t affect the price you pay and I only recommend products I buy and use myself.

For example, my Wildlife Friendly gardening list has several good books on wildlife gardening, such as Wild Your Garden, the excellent book by The Butterfly Brothers on ‘creating a sanctuary for nature.’

Pin to remember wildlife friendly garden tips

And do join us on the Middlesized Garden every Sunday morning for more tips, ideas and inspiration for your garden. See follow by email here.

4 comments on "Wildlife friendly garden tips"

  1. Deborah L. Mellis says:

    This is quite inspiring. I live in the US, outside the District of Columbia in Virginia (Us Ag Zone 7a). We encourage all kinds of critters, but…. the DEER! Between the deer and rabbits, we are severely restricted. Would you address this in a video some day? Most of your lovely garden ideas simply don’t work with deer pressure.

    1. Oh, dear I do sympathise. I did ask plant breeder Rosy Hardy and she said that the only option was high fences, though she didn’t look as if she thought even those would be wholly effective. I will definitely bear it in mind, thank you.

  2. Sarah says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you. I have gardened in an environmentally sustainable way since 1970 and STILL get raised eyebrows and critical comments from disapproving neighbours. Any hints as to what’s a good response

    1. Hm, difficult as they might easily get defensive if you say anything. But public opinion is definitely moving your way, so they may slowly come round to your way of thinking. A cheery smile, if you can manage it, is probably the best response. And I think you’ll have the last laugh.

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