How to attract wildlife into your garden

Butterflies, birds and other creatures add colour and joy to your garden – landscapes aren’t quite complete without them. Encouraging wildlife into your patch goes a long way towards protecting their survival within the wider environment, too. There are many small steps you can take to bring more wildlife into your garden – read on for some great tips and take a look at some our products that can help you turn your garden into a home for wildlife.

Gardening for wildlife

Think about the needs of birds and insects, and choose plants that produce nectar, seeds, seed heads or berries that will attract them. You can also improve the garden environment for wildlife by adding a pond, hedge or nest box.

Change the way you garden, too. Put down your chemical spray gun, let the lawn grow and don’t be too quick to tidy up – that pile of leaves and old wood is home to many insects! Read on, and learn how rewarding wildlife gardens can be.

  • Garden ponds: Introducing a garden pond encourages tadpoles, frogs, toads and water insects such as dragonflies and waterboatmen. See our leaflet on ponds and water features for more information.
  • Grass: Let your grass grow longer with only the pathways mown close so that food and cover is provided for many creatures.
  • Chemicals: Try using biological control and banish pesticides and weed killers, or at least reduce their use in your garden as they are natural enemies to wildlife. (See section on organic gardening, below.)
  • Hedges: Hedges provide food and shelter. Think about growing a hedge rather than using fence panels. (See section on hedges, below).
  • Food sources: Compost heaps are full of insects, worms, mites and other small creatures, providing a valuable food source for birds and animals as well as assisting the composting process. Seed-eating birds appreciate any flowers that have been left to produce seed. Log piles provide winter homes for all sorts of small creatures.
  • Care for your wildlife: Once a collection of wildlife is established, give further help by providing nesting boxes for birds and additional winter foods for birds and animals, such as fat balls and seed mixtures. Remember to fill bird feeders during the winter when food supplies may be scarce. The joy of having your own colony of butterflies, frogs and even hedgehogs is a joy in itself, at the same time supporting wildlife that modern day development is destroying.

Wildlife in hedges

Apart from giving privacy and security, hedges are more attractive than fence panels, and have much to offer wildlife. Hedges planted with Crataegus (hawthorn), Corylus (hazel), Ilex (holly), Fagus (beech) or preferably a mixture of species, provide nectar from their flowers, food sources of fruit and nuts, as well as a protected nesting environment for birds.

  • Formal hedges: Trimmed back from an early age and encouraged to grow in a neat, compact habit, many plants adapt to formal hedges, but they produce fewer flowers and fruit than informal hedges.
  • Informal hedges: Informal hedges are left largely un-pruned to give a natural habitat that is suitable for wildlife.
  • Plant choice: Choosing the right plant for your chosen type of hedge is important. Consider height, spread, soil type and its position – in sun or shade.
  • Width: Few hedges require an ultimate width of less than 1m; even the very smallest, such as lavendula (lavender), will reach 60cm in width. To achieve height, the base spread has to increase and a 3m-high hedge, such as taxus baccata (yew), will have a base spread of 1.2m+.
  • Planting: The best way to prepare soil is to dig a trench up to 1m wide and 25cm deep, adding plenty of organic material such as well-rotted farmyard manure, garden compost, spent mushroom compost or a proprietary planting mixture.
  • Planting distances: The distance between each plant is important and with most varieties 60cm is about right. Be sure to space conifers at least 1m apart in the row.
  • Staggered rows: Hawthorn, hornbeam and beech (pictured below) grow best when planted in two staggered rows with each row 40-50cm apart.
  • Fertilising: Conifers, including yew, respond well to a dressing of dried blood in mid to late spring; other hedging plants prefer a general fertiliser.
  • Mulching: A mulch of organic material used for planting plus cocoa shell or even gravel will help growth by cooling the soil in summer and protecting the roots in winter. Always keep the mulch directly away from the stems of the plant.
  • Pruning: Prune young formal hedges in early to late spring. Reduce all growth by about 25% from the top and sides. Trim back deciduous plants such as beech and hawthorn in late spring to early summer, conifers in mid to late summer, and broadleaved evergreens such as laurel in early to late spring and again in mid to late summer.

The importance of plants

Wildlife gardening brings together a collection of natural and cultivated plants that have a role or benefit to offer wildlife. Most plants have something to attract and sustain a wildlife population, so plant a range of different types to reap the most benefits.

  • Nesting sites: Ensure your garden includes shrubs and trees to provide nesting sites for birds.
  • Plant qualities: Choose herbaceous plants that are nectar and pollen rich, such as scabious, sedums, verbena, michaelmas daisies, lavender, buddleia, thyme, pot marigold, echinops, marjoram, eryngium, echium and echinacea. As a general rule, night-flying moths are attracted to white flowers, butterflies are attracted to blues and pinks and hoverflies to yellows.
  • Food from plants: Birds and small animals feed on fruits and berries. Roses give them nectar and seeds in the form of hips, as well as providing protective cover. Viburnum opulus (Guelder rose) has white summer flowers, which turn into red berries in autumn. Pyracantha, cotoneaster, skimmia, hawthorn and holly provide autumn and winter berries.
  • Set seed: Allow plants such as teasels, red-hot pokers, sunflowers, echinops and grasses to set seed as they provide a good source of food for seed-eating birds. Seedheads also help provide winter interest in the garden. Oak, ash and pine offer large numbers of fruits for small animals.
  • Wild flowers: Native wild flowers are more suited to our climate and conditions, so need less attention and are less prone to serious pests and diseases than many exotic plants. Many ornamental wild flowers can be raised from seed but always buy from a nursery like Dobbies – never take them from the wild. Oxeye daisies, primroses, cowslips, poppies and willow herb are good examples.

Go organic: feeding, soil, pest control and weeding

Organic gardening entails growing plants of all types, particularly vegetables and fruit, without the aid of artificial chemicals for feeding, pest and disease control, soil conditioning or weeding. Some chemicals harm beneficial insects and animals, so organic gardens provide a more attractive home. Use organic fertilisers to ensure that plants receive the right balance of the foods they need. Our leaflet on Watering and Feeding has more information.

The main plant foods are:
  • Nitrogen - for leaf and stem growth
  • Phosphorous - for roots
  • Potash - for flowers and fruit
  • Feeding wildlife: Look out for organic plant foods including bone meal (phosphates and some nitrogen); hoof and horn (phosphates and nitrogen); fish, blood and bone (high nitrogen and phosphates); dried blood (nitrogen); seaweed (root stimulation); wood ash (nitrogen and phosphates); garden lime (calcium); and concentrated animal manures (nitrogen, phosphates and potash). Many liquid organic fertilisers are available, offering nitrogen, phosphate and potash in fast-acting formulations. You need less trace elements such as calcium, iron, boron, manganese and magnesium.
  • Soil improvement: Organic material such as well-rotted farmyard manure, garden compost, spent mushroom compost and cocoa shell are all harmless to wildlife and help to improve the structure and fertility of the soil. For more information on making your own garden compost, see our leaflet on managing your soil.
  • Pests and diseases: There are many organic methods and products available to control pests and diseases. See our leaflet on pests and diseases for more information.

Weeding: There are a number of organic ways to control weeds:

  • Use a hoe to cut off weeds from their roots
  • Dig out weeds using a fork
  • Pull out by hand
  • Smother annual weeds with a 5-8cm mulch of organic material such as well-rotted farmyard manure, garden compost, spent mushroom compost or cocoa shell
  • Smother persistent perennial weeds with old carpet, carpet underlay or black plastic
  • Stop perennial weed roots growing into an area from an adjoining garden by sinking a barrier of heavy-gauge black polythene

What garden equipment will help you attract wildlife?

  • Garden tools
  • Seeds and plants
  • Nesting boxes
  • Bird table and bath
  • Food
  • Organic matter

For hedges

  • Secateurs
  • Hedging shears
  • Fertiliser
  • Planting and mulching material

Fun Fact

Hummingbirds hover in front of flowers while they collect nectar. To expend that much energy we would need to eat the equivalent of 600 hamburgers every day!

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