Our gardens are crucial for wildlife and even in the smallest gardens we can all do our part to create better habitats in our own spaces as well as to encourage nature in our neighbourhoods.
As towns and cities continue to grow and developments take over empty spaces that were previously home to nature, our individual gardens have become important for a wide range of species.
Indeed, if we take all our gardens together, they create some of the biggest wildlife habitats you will find – a national network of nature reserves playing a key role in supporting wildlife.
Planning garden elements and selecting plants can sometimes feel like it’s a complicated science but if you learn the right tools and take it step by step, you can make the right choices. Here are my 7 steps to a successful wildlife garden.
Knowing what you have in your garden before you start making changes is really important. Professionals might measure the dimensions of the garden they are working on but they will also analyse what they have already especially in terms of plant life.
It’s even more useful to know what you have already when creating your wildlife garden. Every small detail in your garden, whether it’s a damp shady space behind your compost bin, a pile of old paving or fallen branches can be a useful refuge for wildlife.
So my first step in creating a successful wildlife garden is to assess what resources you already have that are good for wildlife and then discover what wildlife there is already in the garden. It might be very visible such as birds and pollinators like bees and butterflies, but you probably also have insects nesting in the cracks of fences and under leaf fall like beetles and worms and amphibians such as newts and frogs. Spend some time looking at what you might have but be very careful not to disturb them especially mammals like hedgehogs that might still be hibernating through the winter.
I mentioned at the start how our gardens create a network of wildlife habitats. We should always look beyond our garden boundaries and this is even more important for wildlife gardening.
Your garden is part of a larger habitat and so my second step to success is to survey your neighbourhood as well as your own garden. Find out what wildlife exists in your neighbourhood and you can help it thrive.
There are lots of resources available including local wildlife and garden groups that can help us discover an even greater range of birds and insects in your locality than you might find in your garden alone.
By concentrating your efforts first on what is local to you, you can get the most immediate enjoyment. Then, as you develop your garden, you can begin to think about diversifying your efforts to encourage other species.
How much you want to share your garden with wildlife can to some extent be determined by you but the very essence of wildlife is that it’s wild and insects and animals will come in uninvited.
The key principles of gardening for wildlife are to provide:-
Knowing what wildlife needs is simple enough but there are so many ways that you can fulfil this and there are lots of resources out there to help you. These include buying bird boxes, making bug hotels, putting food out for birds, sowing seeds of pollinator-friendly flowers.
One final element which is sometimes forgotten about wildlife is providing places for wildlife to raise their young. More often than not this is forgotten once the pond has been built and plants are planted but you should choose elements and plants that will help wildlife - from butterflies and beetles to birds and mammals - to raise their young. If your garden is small and/or in a town or city, you can still help a huge range of wildlife species.
If you are going to have a successful wildlife garden, you need to balance your needs with those of wildlife and set some ground rules for your creative ideas. How can you balance your needs to have a great garden which might include growing edibles and the exotic plants we love, with the needs of wildlife? Where do you start to take action to change that balance and at what point do you achieve your perfect garden?
For example, you might want to retain a lawn but make it more wildlife friendly with less cutting and introducing early spring bulbs for pollinators. If you have young children, you might want to stay safe and save building a pond, a great resource for birds and insects, for a later date.
Remember your garden is not the idealised garden in a magazine, you are in control of your own garden’s destiny and will be able to balance wildlife with your needs.
There’s treasure to be found every day in a garden - whether it’s noticing the first apple blossom of the year, discovering a bird has made its home there or finding some self-seeded trees. All things I’ve found in the past few weeks in my garden.
Planning new ideas every year - whether it’s a new pollinator-friendly plant I’ve discovered or installing some bird boxes - is good fun. So I’m a big fan of slow gardening where you take one step at a time with an underlying idea of what the big picture is.
Having created many new gardens over the years, I know that designing a garden is not about filling space. It’s actually about looking at your garden in 3D so that you can layer the design of elements and planting to work with your own needs and with the needs of wildlife
You can create exclusively wildlife areas even if it’s the back of a shed. But you can also create space for both you and wildlife. A good example I’ve already mentioned earlier is about sharing your lawn with wildlife. If you plant bee and butterfly friendly bulbs into your lawn, you can leave the grass longer before cutting it back for summer play – a great maintenance saving tip.
I would also encourage you to think about layering plants through the seasons. For bees and butterflies, those spring bulbs can provide early sources of food whilst leaving plants to die back naturally and not being too tidy can give shelter for solitary bees and food for birds.
My 7th step is all about planting the right plants for wildlife, nature and you. Plants can be the hardest part of our garden to source when gardening for wildlife but in my opinion as a horticulturist they are also the most important.
We have to ask ourselves if we should start by choosing native plants but the range of native plants available can differ greatly from region to region. In Australia, for example, you have a rich range of valuable native plants to choose from whereas if you garden in Northern Europe you will have considerably less native plants but have access to many other non-native species that will still be great for wildlife.
I hope that these seven steps have given you a lot to think about. Take small steps and you will be surprised how much more wildlife you can welcome into your garden and live happily alongside.