MAY – Don’t forget the birds and the bees…

Catherine Thomas sings the praises of nature gardens and explains how to create a welcoming haven for wildlife.

One of the delights of gardening is the wildlife that shares our gardens with us. There are few sights more joyous than that of the first brilliantly golden Yellow Brimstone butterfly fluttering through early daffodils. We all know that we can support our declining wildlife through sympathetic gardening practices. Many people may not realise that they can have a stunningly designed and beautiful garden as well.

Gardening for wildlife need not mean an untidy, ill-kempt look. The garden should be full, varied and richly textured – a tapestry of plants with layers and depth. Nor will it consist only of plants – different materials will create habitats and shelter for nesting birds, slow worms and creatures we may barely discern with the naked eye. The tiniest and most insignificant creatures will undoubtedly form a vital link in the garden food chain. Indeed, a variety of insects, amphibians, birds and mammals will help to keep our gardens healthy and balanced.

It has recently been shown that domestic gardens are richer in wildlife than many areas of the countryside. This is because our gardens are microcosms of the wider landscape. Usually, the only monoculture in a garden is the lawn and – especially if you can bear to allow some ‘weeds’ to increase its diversity – even this is not as poor as an arable field. After all, a weed is only a plant in the wrong place and that is entirely a matter of judgement. White clover is a lawn ‘weed’ but it stays green when a drought browns the grass. Yarrow does the same. Both are hard wearing, tough species and should be valued as such. One of the best things you can do for your lawn and for wildlife is to let it grow just a little bit longer before mowing. A very simple and effective design intervention is to mow a tranquil circle and allow the outer edges to grow into a wildflower meadow. Inviting paths can be mown through the meadow and, hey presto, you have an instant redesign. An area of wildflower meadow can be made to look intentional and cared for by mowing just a metre or so around its edge.

Pond life

Water in the garden has many functions such as reflecting light, creating movement and sound. Designed well, it can also be a wonderful resource for wildlife. It is ideal if you can find space to plant up an area of marginal plants, such as yellow flag irises, water forget-me-not, marsh marigolds and purple loosestrife, as these will take up nutrients in the water and keep the water clear of unsightly algae. One of my favourite solutions is to make use of a slope to create a semi raised pond. The front edge can be a wall, perhaps topped with a wooden seat so you can enjoy your newts, frogs and damsel flies in comfort, whilst the rear and sides are planted up with marginal plants. Tall plants are ideal for dragonflies and the lower marigolds and trailing brooklime create cover for crawling creatures such as frogs, toads and hedgehogs. Remember that hedgehogs can drown in garden ponds if they can’t climb out easily – a strategically placed rock or plant pot can prevent this.

Over the hedge

Our gardens are vital wildlife corridors, enabling animals to travel from place to place to find food or a mate. Hedges allow them to pass unimpeded, besides providing shelter, food and nesting sites. A hedge is a very strong design feature, creating structure and enclosure. There are many exciting ways to use a hedge, not merely following the garden boundary but making secluded spaces within the garden. They can be trimmed in sculptural peaks and troughs, curvaceous billows, even labyrinths and topiary, whilst providing habitats. If you must have a fence, and sometimes it’s essential, allow a hedgehogsized hole or two at ground level.

We all know that bees are in decline, not only honey and bumble bees but myriad species of wild bees, all of which pollinate our fruit crops. Flowering plants are clearly essential to bees and most of us think they are essential to gardens (they aren’t – think of Japanese and Italianate gardens). Double flowers are lovely but useless to bees and hover flies. Natural single flowers usually have subtle, intricate designs which guide the bee, or other nectar loving insects such as butterflies, to the nectar. Daisy flowers, pea flowers and umbellifers like cow parsley are especially attractive to insects and, of course, buddleia is known as the butterfly bush. A good design will include flowering plants throughout the year, providing valuable energy to hibernating insects woken by a warm day in winter.

And finally, trees create height and structure, essential in the design of most gardens – they also provide flowers for insects, often highly ornamental fruit, and they even support birds and animals through the winter