Supporting wildlife - Gardens With a Conscience - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Gardens With a Conscience

Supporting wildlife


Water bodies of varying depths, interspersed by beach areas and lush planting, are colonised by all sorts of wildlife, creating a major habitat in this urban garden, as well as a beautiful feature to admire.


NATURAL HABITATS are under pressure and many are rapidly diminishing, but gardens can help alleviate this problem, providing refuges, food and water for wildlife.


Gardens have been identified by scientists as important sanctuaries for wildlife, with both country, town and city plots contributing habitats that intensive agricultural practices and urbanisation have erased. Research suggests that no particular garden style is better than another, with those comprising a strong, geometric, but well-planted layout able to cradle just as much wildlife as naturalistic or freeform schemes. What is important is the diversity and density of the gardens in any given area. Collectively, they create a host of opportunities for sheltering and feeding birds, animals and insects, as well as providing the right conditions for breeding. You can make your garden more wildlife friendly with plants that help sustain and support birds, insects and small animals. Recent research has also shown that many exotic species are equally or even more beneficial to wildlife than indigenous flora, particularly at the beginning and end of the year when native food plants are scarce. So, simply create a range of habitats, provide water and the right plants, and wildlife will follow.

“Ensure wildlife can access the garden easily; a hole just 13cm (5in) square at the base of your wall or fence is big enough for a hedgehog. Grasses also provide cover and ideal nesting materials for many mammals and birds.”


Tips to make your garden wildlife-friendly

A small pond or water feature will dramatically increase the range and abundance of visiting wildlife, especially amphibians, insects and birds. Try to use rainwater to fill ponds and include a shallow beach to allow creatures easy access in and out of the water.

Shrubs, trees and evergreen climbers provide shelter and places for birds to roost and nest. Also include nest boxes of various sizes to attract a range of bird species.

Create areas of longer grass to provide nesting sites for butterflies, bees and other insects.

Make piles of logs and branches to act as refuges for beetles and other wood-dwelling insects.

Don’t be too quick to repoint brickwork in old walls as these make ideal overwintering sites for solitary bees.

Leave herbaceous plants intact in the autumn and winter, rather than cutting them down. Seedheads provide sources of food for birds and hollow stems offer overwintering sites for insects, such as ladybirds.

Try to use organic or wildlife-friendly methods and products to tackle pests and diseases, or spot-treat problems as they occur.


The key to sustaining a wide range of wildlife in your garden is to provide a variety of food. This will help to establish a natural food chain, with insects and invertebrates that feed on plants and other tiny animals also attracting larger omnivores, such as birds, frogs and hedgehogs, that feed on them.

Birds need different foods to suit their changing needs through the year. Insects are critical for raising young chicks, while berries and seeds are important in autumn and winter to add to birds’ fat reserves, sustaining them through the colder months. Holly and cotoneaster attract thrushes and blackbirds, red wings and field fares can be lured with hawthorn, and teasel seeds are loved by goldfinches and buntings. Supplementary foods can include dried mealworms in spring, seeds and fruits in summer and suet and fat balls in winter.

Other types of wildlife have different food requirements at various stages of their life-cycles. Butterfly and moth larvae eat different plant-parts to the winged adults, which feed on nectar from flowers while their young consume the leaves of native plant species. As bees and pollinating insects, such as hover and drone flies, take nectar and pollen from a variety of plants, provide a succession of flowers throughout the year, especially in late winter and late autumn, when blooms are in short supply.

Ponds and pools attract a wide range of wildlife, which uses them for drinking, bathing and breeding. You can also provide fresh water in shallow containers, ensuring they are cleaned out every few days to prevent disease.


Bees are among the most important plant pollinators, and without their activities most of our fruit and vegetable crops would not exist. This is why the recent decline in honey bee populations, known as colony collapse disorder, is causing international concern and the reasons for it are being urgently researched. All garden owners can help to support bee populations by providing food and habitats for a whole range of species, of which there are around 250 in the UK alone, made up of 225 species of solitary bee, 24 types of bumblebee and one form of honeybee.

Some bee species are gregarious, living in colonies, while others are solitary, living alone or in small groups. The various types also have different habitat needs. Ground-dwelling bees inhabit abandoned rodent holes, areas under sheds and compost heaps, while other species nest in grass, trees, bird boxes, or crevices in brick walls, so by including some of these features you can increase the variety and number of bees that take up residence in your garden.

Plants that attract bees are rich in pollen and nectar, with different flowers attracting different kinds of bee. However, those with single flowers are best, as plants with double flowers have no pollen- and nectar-carrying parts. Bee-friendly plants often exhibit labels with a bee logo to help you identify them at the garden centre. You can also keep bees yourself by joining the British Bee Keeper’s Association, or support the charity Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which undertakes research and conservation.


Whether formal or informal in design, a pond will always attract wildlife. Where possible, include a slope or beach area on at least one side of your water feature to allow small animals and birds easy access.



Provide a succession of nectar- and pollen-rich flowering plants for bees and other pollinators throughout the year; seeds for birds in the autumn; and dead stems for beneficial overwintering insects.



Even temporary sources of fresh water, such as dips and hollows, will attract amphibians in spring, but also try to create other damp spots for them to hide in at other times of the year, such as dense planting or log piles.


Fresh water attracts birds to drink and bathe, but remember to clean out dishes regularly. Birds also need a range of seasonal foods, such as grubs in spring to feed their young and fat-based food in autumn and winter.


Insects, such as solitary bees, live and overwinter in holes in the ground or in plant stems. So-called ‘bee-hotels’ can be bought ready-made or created with bundles of plant stems tied together and hung up in full sun.


While trees, shrubs and hedges provide sites for birds to roost and nest, bird boxes will still prove attractive to many; the size of the holes at the front influences the species of bird that will use them.


Walls created from rustic logs not only provide a textural screen to subdivide your space, but also offer homes for wildlife, including amphibians, bees, beetles and burrowing insects.