Gardening for wildlife

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Helping our non-feathered friends in the garden

    I'm sure many of you are like me: I love the birds in my garden, passionately, but I love all the other wildlife as well, and I love doing things to help give all of them a home.

    Of course, it makes sense to do so, because wildlife isn't independent of each other: all the species fit together as a community, as interlinked foodchains, as an ecosystem.

    There is also a growing realisation that gardens are actually rather important for all sorts of wildlife. This is no better illustration of this than the study by an amazing woman called Jennifer Owen. With incredible discipline, she studied the wildlife in her average, suburban Leicester garden for over 30 years. In that time, she found an incredible 2,673 different types of wildlife, from butterflies and beetles to mayflies and millipedes. 2,673!

    Jennifer's garden was by no means 'special', so if she has all of those species, then you can be sure that yours is home to a fair number as well, no matter how small it is.

    So now, with spring fast unfurling all around us, here are some of the ways you might like to help your non-feathered friends in your garden.

    Amphibians

    When people think of frogs, toads, and newts, they immediately think of a pond, and quite right too. Even a small pond the size of a washing-up bowl may host at a few newts or even a frog or two.

    But if you have the chance to have a larger pond than that, grab the opportunity and you won't be disappointed. (As always with ponds, thing safety first, especially if young children visit the garden.)

    However, amphibians spend much of the year out of water, and what they also need is damp undergrowth in which they can hunt at night, and lots of safe hidey-holes to bunker down in for the winter. Rubble piles, compost heaps, log piles – all can do the trick. If they are part-buried so the amphibians can creep underground, all the better. Here's a guide to building a safe retreat for them.

    Butterflies

    Helping butterflies in the garden is a bit of an art for which your key tool is knowledge. The good thing is that this knowledge can be summed up in three points:

    1) Grow the special flowers that the adults love to nectar at. Bog-standard flowers won't do, and don't trust the symbols in most plant catalogues. Here's my guide to the very best.

    2) Grow the special plants the caterpillars need. No caterpillars = no butterflies. Here are the plants that work best in gardens. For example, if you don't know that Garlic Mustard (below) is one of only two main foodplants of the gorgeous Orange-tip, and you don't have it in your garden, your garden won't be 'growing' Orange-tips.

    3) Grow (1) and (2) en masse, as a habitat rather than as individual plants. Most of our butterflies look for a banquet, not occasional nibbles.

    Reptiles

    I realise that some people may baulk at the thought of snakes, but I love my grass snakes, and who can resist lizards? Once people know that slow-worms are actually legless lizards and that they eat garden pests, it becomes easy to love them, too.

    What they need is safe places to escape cats and other predators, and they require rich hunting grounds through tangled vegetation. A stick pile is perfect (I think they are as important for garden wildlife as log piles), and allowing part of the lawn to grow long will really help. My favourite is the 'wildlife sunbed' under which they are safe and snug. If you haven't got one, you're really missing out!

    Other wildlife

    We haven't even talked about mammals, wildflowers, fungi, worms, millipedes, let alone all the myriad of insects from lacewings to beetles.

    At its most simple, helping garden wildlife comes down to creating habitats. A garden that is full to bursting with well-chosen plants including trees and shrubs is the best starting point and will host a wide variety of happy, healthy creatures (including plenty of birds). A sheltered, sunny woodland glade – that's a great model to follow.

    On top of that, award yourself a gold star for each of the following elements: pond, compost heap, stick-and-log pile, and area of long grass. Oh, and an extra gold star if you don't use pesticides

    The fact that the wildlife then provides us with so much pleasure as a result, well, it's a win-win, isn't it?

  • How to be Plantwise

    I love growing plants. I'm what is known as a plantaholic.

    Like millions of gardeners across the country, many of the plants I grow aren't native, either to Britain or to the area of the country I live in. So I grow dahlias from Mexico, Echinacea from North America, lavender from southern Europe, Verbena bonariensis from South America, Agapanthus from South Africa, Wisteria from China and Acacia from Australia.

    I grow them because they are beautiful, and because all have value to various types of wildlife in the UK (although when it comes to the Dahlias it has to be the single flowers if bees and other pollinators are to gain any value from them rather than the heavily cultivated varieties which are little more than a ball of petals).

    However, what is always in the back of my mind is the need to be wary of the potential impact that some non-native plants may have on native flora. With so much attention focused – rightly – on the impacts that Invasive Non-native Species (INNS) can have on native wildlife and habitats, there is a need for great care when it comes to growing non-native garden plants.

    In particular, the one group that has proved to include particularly invasive species are non-native pond plants. Brought in to embellish garden ponds and aquariums, their perniciousness comes in part from to the speed with which they can grow, but also the ease with which they can be transported long distances along waterways.

    I have seen for myself the devastation it can cause to at a place near me here in Sussex called the Pevensey Levels, an internationally important wetland. There, a plant called Floating Pennywort went from a standing start to choking 30 miles of ditches in little more than a decade.

    It is a brute; freed from the natural controls of its homeland, it can grow 20cm a day, blocking out the sunlight from the ditches and its wildlife and muscling out native plants. Look what it can do!

    Another plant called, variously, New Zealand Pigmyweed and Australian Swamp Stonecrop has proved as difficult to control as its names are to remember. It creates mats of tiny succulent leaves growing on waterside mud and spreading out across the water. It can propagate from the tiniest of pieces.

    But what has that got to do with your garden pond, you might be asking? Well, one problem is that we all hoick pondweed out of our ponds each year as it grows. Maybe we put it on the compost heap or in the greenbin, but it doesn't take much for a tiny piece to make it into a drain or a ditch, and then it's laughing!

    Another problem is that many of us don't actually know whether our pond plants are native or not, for they can be rather tricky to identify. Telling your native hornworts (below) and water-milfoils from non-native Canadian Pondweed and the various Elodea pondweeds isn't a skill you tend to hone very often.

      

    It is why we are working with the national Non-native Species Secretariat to promote the Be Plantwise campaign as part of Invasive Species Week (23-29 March 2018).

    I particularly like the Know what you Grow pages, which lead to lots of information and identification sheets about some of the worst offending plants.

    The website also gives you advice on what to do if you find invasive aquatic plants in your pond, including how to compost them.

    One piece of advice I like to give is not to share pond plants with friends and relatives unless you are really sure you know what the plant is and that your pond doesn't have non-native invasive plants in it.

    I do realise that dealing with a rogue plant in your pond can seem a right faff. However, when you think that the biggest cause of extinctions of wildlife in recent times is us – Mankind – moving invasive wildlife around the globe to places it otherwise would never reach, you realise that we've just got to do it.

    Being Plantwise is the part we gardeners and homeowners can all play in stemming the tide.

  • Welcoming a winter baby

    Well, it has been some winter, hasn't it? And it looks like it hasn't done with us yet, with another icy blast in the offing.

    All the more amazing, then, given that my garden looked like this barely ten days ago with powder snow swept in modern-art-like streaks across my deeply frozen pond...

    ...that this bird came and sat right outside my study window this week:

    You probably recognise it as a Collared Dove, but look - it has no collar.

    It is a young bird, recently fledged from the nest, and still young enough that its parents were still coming to feed it on 'pigeon milk'.

    Unfortunately I wasn't able to get a photo of that in action, but it is where the young bird reaches inside the parent's mouth and drinks a rich, milky fluid that is formed from the cells in the parent's throat. Penguins do it, flamingoes do it, and pigeons and doves do it, but that's all.

    Here is one of the adults nearby, and you can just make out the black slash across the neck from which it is named.

    So, by my reckoning, the young Collared Dove probably hatched in early February, and the egg was probably laid in mid January.

    It's not unusual for Collared Doves to breed at any time of year, but I still admire the determination of this pair in bringing one chick through such awful weather. I find it all the more amazing given that in the early 20th century this species was basically a desert bird in the Middle East. It's incredible spread west and north was one of the bird phenomena of the 20th century, and now of course it is a familiar face in many a garden.

    However, in very recent years, its populations have beguin to wane. It will be interesting to see the latest figures from the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch when they emerge soon, for this is one of the species that I predict will continue to decline. The rise of the Wood Pigeon is firmly implicated, for they are dominant over their smaller cousins, but we'll see.

    For now, however, there is still plenty of chance to enjoy this rather humble little dove, and maybe in your garden too it will provide you with your first baby of the spring.