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A wildlife-friendly garden - ponds, baths and natural pest control

Andy Hamilton

20th August, 2010

Making a garden attractive to winged wildlife means more than just leaving out food during the winter months - here are some top tips on gardening beyond veg!

On the whole, most people are pretty switched on when it comes to looking after our feathered friends in winter. Bird tables are ladened with nutty gifts, hollowed-out coconuts are packed with fat, and we even manage to break the ice on our ponds so that drinking water is available. During the summer months, however, when there are vegetable plots to weed, barbecues to light and deckchairs to loll around in, we tend to forget our two-legged twitterers. Yes, we might marvel as they hop around our lawns, hunting for worms, but we fail to notice whether they are getting enough water.

For birds, water is essential; like us, they need it for drinking and for bathing in. Small and seed-eating birds need to drink at least twice a day as they don't get all of their water from their food. Bathing helps keep feathers in good condition by loosening dirt, making them easier to preen and helping the birds spread oil across their wings to keep them waterproof.

Washing on the wing

One low-tech and free solution is to provide birds with an upturned dustbin lid filled with water. If you do so, ensure that the water is regularly changed and wash the lid with disinfectant every week or so in order to control any diseases, which can pass from bird to bird.

If you entertain in your garden or have it prettier than a peacock's tail then a dustbin lid might not be the most aesthetically pleasing thing to have sitting around. Luckily there are far prettier methods of providing water for our flapping friends.

To make your own bird bath, first find a plant-pot saucer. To liven it up or to help it match your shed/garden furniture, paint the outside using non-toxic paints. Draw a cross on the bottom of the saucer and carefully drill a hole at each point, ensuring you don't crack the plastic. Cut four pieces of string and thread a piece through each hole, then tie together at the top and hang on a tree in such a way that it is impossible for cats to access it. Ideally, it should be placed on a long branch. Fill with water, remember to keep topped up - this is imperative in hot weather - and clean ever week to stop the spread of any avian disease. Hopefully you should be blessed with the sight of birds bathing and drinking to their hearts' content.

Pond life

Another way to create a little oasis in your garden is to dig a pond - not only will you be providing our dawn-choristers with a watering hole, but also helping a whole host of mammals, amphibians and insects. A pond should be positioned away from overhanging trees, which will fill it with leaves and debris. It should also be positioned away from anywhere that vermin such as rats will visit. Shade can be an issue: too much and your pond will be full of algae; too little and the water may evaporate over time, leaving an empty hole. Mine has low-level shrubs on one side and this seems ideal.

The easiest way to put in a pond is to sink an old bath tub, hard plastic paddling pool, baby bath (preferably without the baby) or any other container that will hold water. This method is adequate but do be aware that if the sides are too steep you will need to put in an escape route for amphibians or mammals that may fall in be unable to climb out. It defeats the object of helping wildlife if you have dead frogs floating around the pond. A stick or plank of wood that leans on one side of the pond and out of the water will suffice.

If you plans are for something a bit bigger then you could be rewarded with bigger birds: we occasionally have ducks swimming around our pond on their way back from munching on bread in the park, which is a delight to see. Start with a hole which is at least 60cm deep on one end and have the other end comes up at a slope of 20 degrees, much like a swimming pool with a deep end and a shallow end. The slope means that hedgehogs can come for a drink without fear of falling in at the deep end.

Flattening out

You can also incorporate the odd flat area inside the pond, submerged just below the intended water level. This gives a good area for birds to paddle.

First measure the area of your dug-out pond for pond liner, allowing for an overlap of approximately 30cm. Pond liner can be bought from your local garden centre or online. Choose ones that are recycled or made from rubber as these will have a lower environmental impact.

Add a layer of soft sand to the bottom of your pond and remove any sharp stones or roots that could pierce the liner, before laying it and pushing down so that it fills the space. Place a few rocks around the edge of the shallow end so that mammals can lean off them to drink the pond water. If you want to attract frogs as well as birds plant some long grass seed around the deep end as this gives them a spot to hide from predators and shade from the suns heat. Fill the pond with rain water if possible, but if you have no alternative but to use tap water leave for two weeks before adding any plants to allow any chlorine or other chemicals added by the water company to evaporate.

Leave a flower or two

I am all for colour - and I am sure our bee population will thank you for deadheading and thus allowing more flowers to grow. However, there are fewer bees at the end of the season and birds are far more needy. Therefore, before you deadhead all your flowers, think ahead to the winter months, when food can be a little scarce. Sunflowers, for instance, might look attractive indoors for a week or so, but they are going to look especially attractive to our beaked beauties when there is nothing else around to eat. Leave them standing outside as they are and watch the birds slowly strip them clean of their seed. Some will scatter and next year you should have some self-seeded sunflowers popping up across your garden/plot.

That warm, fuzzy feeling

Creating this kind of garden not only means being rewarded with the sight of birds enjoying it and a warm feeling inside that you are improving the diversity of your environment, but also that you are helping keep pests under control. Since turning our backyard into a little nature reserve we have that found the population of garden snails has been greatly diminished, and caterpillars too are being munched upon.

Andy Hamilton is co-author of The Selfsufficient-ish Bible (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)

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