Wildlife gardening has many benefits. By growing plants, digging a pond and creating other habitats, such as log piles and compost heaps, we can provide homes for wildlife that would otherwise be homeless. There are around 30 million gardens in the UK. Potentially, if enough of us garden with wildlife in mind we can help slow down or even reverse declines of some species, like hedgehogs, right across the country.
Wildlife gardening is good for us gardeners, too. Watching birds visit the trees we’ve planted for them, bees buzz into flowers we’re growing and hedgehogs foraging among the long grass and leaf litter we’ve left for them, makes us feel better. There’s no doubt about it – caring for wildlife is good for our mental health.
The new year is a great time to take stock and see how you can make changes to your garden for the better. Here, I’ve listed 10 New Year’s resolutions to help make you and your garden a little wilder.
More on creating a wildlife haven:
- Carol Klein’s favourite plants for wildlife
- Garden habits you need to break to help wildlife
- 10 ways to work with nature on your veg patch
- Monty Don on gardening for wildlife – Podcast
Plant one tree
If you do one thing for wildlife in the New Year, make it tree planting, which not only benefits wildlife, but you and the planet, too. And nothing beats the feeling of watching a bird land in the tree you’ve planted.
Take advantage of bare-root planting season (from November until early March) by planting fruiting trees such as rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), hawthorn and crab apple, or seed-bearing trees like birch and alder (Alnus glutinosa). Small garden trees include Amelanchier and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). If you don’t have room for a tree then a shrub or climber can be the next best thing: guelder rose, European spindle, pyracantha, hip-bearing roses, holly and English ivy are all great for wildlife.
Take a look at our list of 20 trees for small gardens
Let an area of grass grow long
It may seem trivial, but even a small patch of long grass can provide a haven for all sorts of species. Moths may lay eggs on the blades for their caterpillars to eat – they’ll use the clump for both food and shelter. Small mammals may hide in the grass, if it’s large enough a hedgehog may sleep there during the day. Wildflowers may seed into the patch, providing nectar and pollen for pollinators, and any seeds – including grass seed – will be eaten by birds such as house sparrows.
If you leave the grass long over winter, lots of species will use it for hibernation, including caterpillars and beetles.
Stop using pesticides
If you’re still using pesticides then it’s time to stop. Pesticides is the term used to describe a group of chemicals including herbicides (weedkillers), insecticides (bug sprays) and fungicides (anti-fungal treatments).
Bug sprays are particularly bad for wildlife as they are designed to kill and they kill indiscriminately: if you spray a flowering plant you will undoubtedly harm bees, while if you spray an aphid infestation you will more than likely harm the ladybird, lacewing and hoverfly predators that are already eating them.
Weedkillers remove wild plants from gardens, which some wild species rely on for food, while fungicides can make bees more susceptible to disease. Use organic methods of dealing with pests instead, or just learn to relax – we’ve all lost plants to pests at some point, it isn’t the end of the world, and you will find that natural predators such as birds and wasps keep numbers of pests in check.
Grow more plants for pollinators
We all know that flowers provide food for pollinators, including bees, butterflies and moths, hoverflies and some beetles. But do you grow enough? Take a look at your garden and see what’s in flower, and when. Can you fill gaps in the growing season with single, open flowers where you can see the centre of the bloom? These are the reproductive parts that the bees need access to for pollen and nectar. Another goal to work towards is trying to have something in flower every day from March to November. This is not easy to do, but it will cater for pollinators for as long a season as possible.
Set up a compost heap
If you’re still sending green waste to council compost schemes or even landfill, now’s the time to make the change. An open heap is best for wildlife as it provides the most access – you’ll get everything from beetles and other detritivores, to bees, mice, hedgehogs and birds using the heap. Otherwise a slatted, wooden bin will provide access to most species. Plastic bins, while not as accessible to as many species, are popular with slow worms, which use the warm pile for breeding in summer.
Be nice to dandelions
Dandelions flower very early in the year when there’s little else in bloom, providing an early source of food for pollinators. Their leaves are eaten by caterpillars of several species of moth and their seeds are eaten by goldfinches. Yet they remain the bane of many gardeners’ lives. Rather than digging them out or – worse – spraying them, try to be more tolerant of even a few dandelions growing at the back of your border. Don’t let them seed if you can’t bear to, but do let them flower, and make sure you take time to watch bees visit the blooms so you know how well they serve local pollinators.
Be less tidy
Many gardeners view wildlife gardening as messy. It doesn’t have to be, but a little relaxation around the edges can make the world of difference. Simple things like letting leaves pile up behind plant pots or not cutting back spent perennials until spring, can provide hibernation spots for invertebrates such as green shield bug, ladybirds and caterpillars, meaning more food for others species further up the food chain. Making small changes are likely to go unnoticed by you, but will make a big difference to wildlife.
Put up a nest box
Birds start looking for the perfect spot to start their family in winter. You might have already seen blue tits and great tits darting in and out of nest boxes to find the right one for breeding in. They typically nest in holes in trees but these tend to be in short supply in gardens. Replicate this habitat by erecting bird boxes on fences, walls and sturdy trees, so they can raise the next generation safely.
Fit the box 2-4m from the ground in a north-easterly direction. Robins and wrens use open-fronted boxes, which can be 1-2m off the ground, ideally tucked into a hedge or behind a climbing plant. House sparrows tend to nest beneath the eaves of houses.
A pond is one of the best habitats you can create for wildlife, providing a huge variety of wild species with water for drinking, bathing and breeding. You’ll be astonished how quickly some species turn up to your new pond, and nothing beats the feeling of finding your first blob of frogspawn. Don’t have room to dig one? Use an old tin bath or butler sink to make a container pond. Smaller still, a bird bath will provide drinking and bathing opportunities for a variety of birds.
Talk to your neighbours
You might be the best wildlife gardener, with the longest grass and the most berry-laden trees, but do your neighbours know? And do they care? Make a resolution to reach out to your neighbours this year and tell them why and how to care for wildlife. You might encourage them to set up a Hedgehog Street or put up nest boxes for swifts. Perhaps you could organise a plant swap day for budding wildlife gardeners? However you do it, get the message out there; wildlife gardening is important and makes you feel good. Everyone should know!