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Super nature: creating a wildlife garden

Hazel Sillver

22nd March, 2011

From birds to dragonflies and butterflies to bees, Hazel Sillver explains how to turn your garden into a haven for wildlife

No garden is complete without wildlife. Who would be without the gentle hum of bees as they meander from one flower to another and the evening song of the robin perched on his apple tree. If you’ve had a rotten day, the sight of butterflies dancing in the late sun will cheer you up as you sip your G&T on the terrace, as do the daredevil antics of squirrels playing in the walnut tree. It’s a myth that a manicured garden doesn’t attract wildlife. You don’t need to live in a field or cultivate a jungle of nettles and rambling plants to have a garden that provides a habitat for a diverse range of birds, animals and insects. However, it’s true that if you pave over most of your garden, you will end up being the only living thing in it. Wildlife prefers vegetation to patios and decking. Likewise, chemicals and wildlife don’t mix, so it’s best to garden organically where possible. Butterflies, bees, birds and dragonflies all need specific plants and conditions to feel at home in your backyard. Here’s how to encourage them to take up residence in your garden.

Butterflies

A butterfly can smell the flowers in your garden from five miles away and if they’re the right plants, it will come fluttering towards you. It checks the nectar source using taste buds in its tiny feet and then inserts its long tongue into the mouth of the flower to drink the sweet-tasting nectar.  They find the butterfly bush (Buddleja) completely irresistible but many people are reluctant to plant it since it grows to a huge size. Happily, there are now dwarf hybrids available.  The ‘Blue Chip,’ for example, only reaches 90cm high. If you fancy a big buddleja, the pale purple B.alternifolia is very beautiful.

While buddleja is their favourite, there are many other plants butterflies will flock to. Ideally have a display of nectar-laden flowers from March to November. The spring flight (which includes Orange Tips and Brimstones) will thank you for early bloomers, such as primrose, aubretia and bluebell, while the late summer flight (which includes Peacocks and Red Admirals) will gorge on ice plant (Sedum), coneflower and aster.  The contemporary ‘prairie’ garden composed of perennials and grasses is ideal for butterflies, as they like long grass. At Kwekerij, the original prairie garden in Holland, huge flocks of butterflies take flight from the flower borders as you walk the paths between them.

You can echo this at home by planting grasses and violet clouds of Verbena bonariensis. Even better, you could sow a mini meadow. This doesn’t mean your garden will start to look like a field; it need only be a small patch and it will be a delight year after year. Don’t sow annuals such as cornflowers, instead, buy a ready-mixed bag of perennial meadow seed that contains species such as knapweed and scabious. Butterflies love native meadow grasses but make sure your meadow mix only contains a few grass seeds otherwise the grass will overwhelm the flowers.

Butterflies will only breed in your garden if you provide the right feeding plants for their caterpillars. This isn’t as destructive as it sounds, as the plants are very specific. The majority require nettles, bramble, sweet rocket, buckthorn or grasses (such as fescue and cock’s-foot). Unfortunately the nettles must be in a sunny, sheltered spot, rather than hidden under a hedge. Grow them in a container - otherwise they will knit themselves destructively through your flowerbeds.

Birds

A garden feels empty without song and birds are useful predators, gobbling up unwanted slugs and aphids - they will even smash snails and eat them. Make a few simple changes to your garden and you’ll soon be sharing it with a flock of robins and blue tits. Gardens provide 20 percent of habitat for many small birds. Most like to make their homes in vegetation, and the denser the better to keep them safe from predators such as cats. Thick patches of climbing plants, dense hedges and close thickets of shrubs are ideal.  Dot nesting boxes about the garden too – make sure you buy the right sort for your favourite species and put it in the right spot: robins, for example, like an open box that’s fairly near the ground. If you’re going to attach a box to a tree, buy one that can be hung from a side branch and tied to the trunk - hammering a nail in can damage the tree.

Birds need water, so make sure you have a pond with shallow edges or a birdbath. The pond must be kept clean and the birdbath water regularly replaced to avoid avian diseases. Provide food all year, not just in winter, and spread it about: some birds like to feed on the ground, whereas others prefer a table and some like to peck from a hanging feeder. Give them a variety of food: pinhead oatmeal, black sunflower seeds, mealworms and fat balls are especially good. Avoid mouldy or stale food, bread and bacon rind.

Last but not least, fill the garden with plants that produce fruit, berries, seeds and hips. A hedge of hawthorn or firethorn (Pyracantha) will provide berries, while sunflowers and teasels are full of seeds. When choosing roses, go for species that produce hips, such as Rosa rugosa. The birds are, of course, partial to the same fruit as you – grow your own fruit in a netted cage to stop them stealing it. If you want to grow fruit for them, they love redcurrants, and a currant cordon doesn’t take up much room.

Dragonflies

There’s something enchanting about the azure flash of a dragonfly or a damselfly and it’s not hard to lure them into the garden if you provide the right habitat. Dragons are usually larger than damsels, they have a stronger flight (sometimes up to 20mph) and they hold their wings open when at rest, unlike damsels who close them.

Both will breed in ponds that are in a sheltered sunny spot and edged by a dense border of marginals, such as yellow flag iris and water horsetail. These plants give the dragons something to rest and breed upon. The resulting larvae will live in the water and for this reason it must be well oxygenated by plants such as hornwort. It must also be thriving with submerged waterlife, such as mosquito larvae and worms, for them to feed on. Dragons are more likely to breed in well-established ponds.

The adults will prey on insects such as midges, bees and ants, so growing plants that attract insects, such as tansy and buckwheat, will attract a lot of dragons. If you have the room, sow a small meadow area near your pond to lure even more tasty insects and provide the dragons with a place to roost.

Dragon and damselflies are solar-powered and like to bask on sunny rocks to build up energy to fly. Make sure you have a couple of these in or around the water. The pond should be shallow at the edges and at least 60cm deep in the middle to guard the larvae from predators. Make sure there are enough submerged plants to give the larvae places to hide and don’t put fish in the pond, as they’ll eat them. 

Bees

No garden is complete without the contented, soporific hum of honeybees as they go from flower to flower collecting pollen and nectar. They rarely sting and they’re a crucial part of food production, pollinating a third of the food we eat. Sadly bumblebee numbers have drastically dwindled over the last few years, so it’s important we fill our gardens with nourishment for them.

The University of Sussex, which is carrying out vital research on honeybee health, says that it’s best for gardeners to plant in blocks, as bees will feed on one thing when they forage. They love lavender, so consider edging a flower border with a low hedge of it. It’s also important to provide bees with food all through the foraging season, from snowdrops and flowering currant in spring, through to ivy, sedum and aster in autumn. Once the scout bee has located your pantry-like garden, it will return to the hive to perform the ‘bee dance’ – a tail waggle that shows the other bees the direction of your lavender hedge.
During the summer satisfy them by dotting flower borders with lavender, lavatera, foxgloves, angelica or perovskia. Research from Fordham University in New York shows that bees prefer native plants, so try to include the wild flowers bees love, such as heather or the cobalt blooms of cornflower and viper’s bugloss. Make low walls and paths food sources for bees by dotting them with creeping thyme and pale purple sweeps of aubretia and campanula.

Of course there are all sorts of other interesting bee species who might visit your garden. One of the most entertaining is the Wool Carder bee, who will put on a rather fruity show if you plant lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) by the patio. The females take fur from the leaves to line their nests but one rampant male will hold court at the plant and insist that any female visiting it mate with him.

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