Planning and creating a wildlife-friendly garden
13 October 2007
A good wildlife garden is more than just a corner of a garden left to go wild. Whether you are creating a new wildlife garden, or have an established one, think of it as a nature reserve and you are the warden.
Soil type, drainage and climatic conditions play a big part in what can grow in your garden. The way it has been managed in the past also influences what lives there. If it has been intensively managed, or has less green space and more concrete, it is likely to support less wildlife.
If you are creating a new garden, look at what grows locally in the wild and in other gardens for ideas. You cannot force plants to grow where they don’t want to, so look to see what flourishes where in your garden. If you find something growing naturally and wish to keep it, leave it where it is instead of trying to move it.
The dilemma of finding what will grow where will largely have been solved if you have an established garden. Major changes are harmful, so work with what you have. If any major pruning or removal is necessary, undertake it over several winters to give wildlife time to adjust.
Provide as many habitats as possible, but avoid cramming too much in and focus on what can be done well in the space you have. A lawn, trees and shrubs, flowers and water are key habitats. Look to create smaller microhabitats within these. Here are a few examples:
- Long grass provides habitat for egg laying and over wintering of caterpillars and leather jackets. Blackbirds and starlings search for leather jackets (cranefly grubs) in short grass.
- Different species of tree and shrub and flowering plants provide nectar and other food sources through the year.
- Rotational shrub cutting creates different structures and ages of growth, benefiting different wildlife at different times.
- A water feature with different depths is great for wildlife. Shallow areas are used by bathing and drinking birds, emerging dragonflies and somewhere for amphibians to lay eggs. Deeper areas help aquatic insects survive cold spells and are good places to watch newts swimming.
Somewhere to breed and shelter
Wildlife requires two fundamental things: somewhere safe to breed and shelter and somewhere to forage throughout the year.
- Grow climbers against walls to provide shelter and roosting and breeding sites for birds.
- A thick, well-developed, thorny shrub bed or hedge provides nest sites and shelter for wildlife.
- A bat box provides roosting sites for bats, a pile of leaves may be used by a hibernating hedgehog and a bird box provides somewhere for house sparrows to raise their broods.
- Leave tidying of borders and shrubs until late winter or early spring to provide shelter for insects through winter.
- Honesty and hedge garlic provides somewhere for orange tip butterflies to breed. Brimstone butterflies breed on buckthorn bushes.
- Short lengths of drinking straws, hollow canes or plant stems, tied in bundles are excellent nesting sites for beneficial lacewings and ladybirds.
- Dead wood is good for beetles and other specialist beneficial insects, fungi and mosses.
Somewhere to forage and feed
Creating a range of habitat niches provides different areas and opportunities for wildlife to feed at different times of year.
- Early and late flowering plants provide nectar for insects at critical times - just after emergence or prior to hibernation.
- Tidy borders and cut shrubs in late winter and early spring to help retain seeds and fruit for birds and small mammals throughout winter.
- Ivy is a late source of autumn nectar for insects and late winter fruit for birds.
- Fruiting bushes are a good source of food for birds and mammals during the autumn and part of the winter.
- Annual plants that produce many seeds in late summer are a good source of seed for birds through autumn into winter.
- Many baby birds need insects - a good source of protein - if they are to grow strong and healthy and survive the winter. A variety of garden plants encourages these insects.
Many of our actions have an impact on wildlife beyond our gardens. Consider this when choosing or using your materials when creating your wildlife garden.
- Save rainwater for watering your garden and only top up your pond when necessary.
- Avoid using peat and use alternative forms of compost – peat extraction destroys vital wildlife habitats.
- When planting native plants, ensure they are of genuine native stock and not of continental origin. Also, ensure ‘wild flowers’ have been cultivated from legally collected seed and not dug-up from the wild.
- Buy FSC accredited garden furniture and charcoal for barbeques.
How you can help
The RSPB's online shop has lots of products to help make your garden more wildlife-friendly
Visit the RSPB Shop