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Planting for wildlife

Close up on berries and leaves of variegated holly

Image: Andy Hay

A wildlife-friendly garden doesn't have to be wild and overgrown and it can look attractive all year round. Grow a wide variety of plants and you'll offer food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife.

The size of your garden will limit what you can plant, but it's possible to provide something on even the smallest balcony or terrace.

This section tells you everything you need to know about planning your garden and selecting, planting and managing trees, shrubs and flowering plants to achieve the maximum potential for wildlife.

A structured approach

Creating a rich habitat of trees, shrubs and flowers is the key to providing wildlife with year-round food. You might like to think of it as the equivalent of a motorway service station: a place for creatures to stop over for food and a rest!

Include a variety of plants: evergreens, fruit trees, colourful cottage garden plants, annuals and wildflowers to prolong flowering and fruiting times and give a year round food resource.

A well-managed area of trees, shrubs and flowering plants of different structures will support many kinds of wildlife. A range of different structures and ages have many benefits, such as somewhere for birds and insects to breed, feed and shelter.

Be natural

Native species are a rich source of food. However, do not rule out some of our non-native garden plants. Many are closely related to their native counterparts and palatable to most insects. Equally, birds seem to find the berries of non-natives such as cotoneaster or pyracantha just as edible as those of the native hawthorn, for example.

A well-planned garden can provide a mix of vegetation, light, shade and shelter by using plants of different shapes, sizes and growth characteristics, planted in borders with wavy edges. 

A variety of features will attract more wildlife too. For example, different birds and insects use different parts of the tree and shrub canopy in which to feed.

Go wild

Overly tidy gardens are not great for wildlife, but that doesn't mean you have to let your garden run completely wild! Some maintenance, such as regular pruning, is necessary to enhance the benefits a garden brings to wildlife.

Any maintenance should be planned with care. For example, if you tidy up and trim immediately after plants have flowered, birds can't use the seeds, so think about letting plants die back naturally and tidying them up later.

Other ideas include allowing ivy to scramble up a fence at the end of the garden, leaving piles of leaves and fallen fruit, and letting a patch of flowers go to seed.

You'll find you soon create the kind of habitats to attract wildlife.

You might spot blackcaps eating the red berries of honeysuckle in the autumn and common darter dragonflies feeding on the flies that come to feast on the over-ripe juices of the fruit. Blackbirds gobble up cotoneaster berries through winter or forage for insects under the shelter of a humid shrub bed all year round, accompanied in summer by a hedgehog or toad that has also come to feed on the insects.

How you can help

Carder bumblebee harvesting nectar

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