Gardening for wildlife

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Could your lawn become a meadow?

    One of the beauties of giving nature a home in your garden is that there are things you can do that are very simple but, if you like a challenge, you can try some pretty tricky things too.

    My blog this week is a tribute to a couple of friends who, I’m delighted to say, have given one of the most difficult things in wildlife gardening a try and delivered superb results. It is like the wildlife gardening equivalent of the quadruple toe-loop in ice dance or doing the splits in Strictly – they have turned their lawn into a wildlife meadow.

    There are three main ways of creating a wildlife meadow, all of which can be mixed and matched. The overall aim is to stem the vigour of grasses which can otherwise overpower all the meadow flowers you were hoping for.

    • Method 1 is to simply let your existing lawn grow long and see what flowers are in there, removing all the cut grass each rare occasion you mow to gradually reduce the fertility. You can boost your efforts with a few plug plants of favourite meadow flowers.
    • Method 2 is drastic – it involves removing all of your turf and taking it somewhere else! This gets you down to subsoil where you can sow your meadow from seed and add plug plants.
    • Method 3 involves using nature’s own magic grass-suppressor – Yellow Rattle. Once found in meadows across the UK, this annual ‘weed’ taps into the roots of grasses, helping itself to some of the water and nutrients the grass is trying to use and so sapping it of its brutishness.

    And it is a combination of Methods 1 and 3 that my friends tried, with the following wonderful result.


    Now I should quickly explain that in midsummer this would have been chock full of Yellow Rattle flowers, an excellent nectar source for bumblebees. What you see now are the dried seed pods of the Rattle in what I think still makes a pleasant and interesting tapestry.

    You can hopefully spot there is barely any grass to be seen because, in amongst the Rattle, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Lady’s Bedstraw have prospered. The former is the foodplant of the caterpillars of the Common Blue butterfly and, sure enough, there in the meadow were a couple of males, a little tatty at the end of their season but still gorgeous.

    There’s the chance too that Six-spot Burnet Moths, whose larvae also feed on the Trefoil, will take up residence, while Hummingbird Hawkmoths may breed on the Bedstraw. The 'meadow' also has glorious Cowslips in spring and Harebells in autumn.

    The Rattle, being an annual, needs the turf scuffing a little each year to let the seed make contact with the soil. but then can be left to do its thing, topped up with a bit of supplementary seed each spring.

    The next goal for this meadow is to plant Horseshoe Vetch; it is the foodplant of Chalkhill Blue and Adonis Blue butterflies which breed within half a mile of the garden. Wouldn't that be something?!

    Have you given wildlife meadows a go? Once established, the management regime is quite simple, mowing only from July through to the end of the growing season (for a spring meadow) or from September (for a summer meadow), and removing the cuttings for compost after they've lain on the ground a couple of days.

  • De-decking the world, bit by bit

    Today's story of a little bit of the world becoming a better home for nature comes from one of my colleagues, Jenny Sweet, who is the RSPB's Volunteer Officer in South East England.

    She and husband Mark moved into their new house in February, which meant a shift for Jenny from her upper-storey flat with 'wildlife-balcony' to a much larger garden, about 40 foot long, down on terra firma.

    "In one way it was 'Oh my word - what are we going to do with this?" Jenny says. "It was so poor for wildlife. The garden had just a piece of rough grass, one Magnolia tree and a couple of small shrubs that were no good for wildlife. But on the other hand, it was an exciting blank canvas."

    This spring and summer, Jenny and Mark put in bird feeders, enlarged the paltry flower beds, transferred all the potted wildlife-friendly plants from their previous balcony - Chives, Marjoram, Thyme, Lavender, Ox-eye Daisy - and planted some plug plants such as Verbena bonariensis.

    In have come Red Admirals, House Sparrows, a Dunnock, a Robin and loads of Starlings (up to 25 at a time, wolfing the sultanas).

    But in the past two week it has been time to take a deep breath and deal with 'the monster'. The thing that saps the garden of half of its potential. (Cue dramatic music). The Decking.

    Yes, Jenny and Mark had inherited an expanse of the stuff at the bottom of the garden next to the garage.

    I understand why decking is so desirable, so useful. But here we are with our little bits of this precious planet that we can call our own and it seems such a shame that so much of it has been buried under what is lifeless desert. Great if you manage to resuscitate life there with some potted plants. But so often it is left as a piece of wildlife 'no-man's land'.

    So here is the moment when Jenny and Mark started to 'de-deck'.

    And the satisfying moment once it was all ripped up.

    And, ta da! Barely a few days later with a new flower bed planted up, water butt in place, and some of the decking turned into a double compost heap (the ideal sort with slatted sides that wildlife can clamber in and out of).

    We're promised an update next year. Can't wait!

    But have you released part of your world from its wooden or concrete prison and then seen wildlife able to move in? If so, we'd love to hear.

  • Count Skoffalot - The Movie

    Given that I am down with a darned cold and sore throat this week, I am hugely indebted to Mary Payne who, with immaculate timing, sent me an update about the goings-on in her garden. You will hopefully recall Mary's story earlier in the summer about her Robin with no tail, Mrs No-Tail, and her ravenous Blackbird, Count Skoffalot. Well, the saga continues - enjoy (as I know so many of you did previously)! And there is a little YouTube treat in store for you so make sure you get to the end of the story.

    2 August

    Count Skoffalot has initiated a change of tactics. Instead of eating on the spot every mealworm and looking at me hoping for more, he is now collecting every single one that I scatter on the patio in his beak and flying off with them. This afternoon, his record number was TWENTY! He carefully picks up each worm and if he drops one, as is inevitable when trying to retain such a huge mouthful of wrigglers, he just picks it back up again.

    Since he wasn't feeding any offspring previously because he simply scoffed all the worms himself, I can only guess that this is his latest method of preventing other birds from getting any worms at all. Either that, or the Count is in training for the World Beak-cramming Championship.

    This is what he does now, every time he arrives to be fed. Sometimes he will disappear into the bush leaving a few worms behind, but if Mrs NT dares to venture on to the patio to take them, back he comes, beak still crammed, to add the rest of the wrigglers to his collection.

    We are intrigued as to where the Count goes next and what he does with his food. If he is taking his cache somewhere that he considers safe in order to dine on them, we can only guess that he must be forced to put the worms down on the ground to consume them. If he opened his beak to swallow the lot in one go, surely he'd drop most of them? He flies in the direction of the rear of our neighbour's back garden. Maybe he's opened an exclusive Blackbird gourmet restaurant there? He usually returns very swiftly for another beakfull.

    Mrs No Tail is having even greater difficulty getting any worms now, with the Count busy vacuuming them all up, but I managed to put some far enough away on the patio to ensure that she was able to eat some close to the garage while he was preoccupied with picking up the others. She is now growing a fine new tail and soon, I shall only recognise her by her boldness.

    I shall still call her Mrs NT, but will have to rename her Mrs Normal Tail.

    3 August

    This new collecting behaviour by the Count was fascinating, so I asked Chris (my husband) to shoot some video footage of him.

    The Count was a little unsure about being a film star, but he took to the role of matinée idol quite well. He came, out several times till he had eleven or twelve in his beak, but he seemed to become unnerved by all the attention. He decided to satisfy himself with a smaller haul than usual and left some behind.

    4 August

    Count Skoffalot's beak-cramming record this morning: TWENTY-SIX worms! Mrs NT waited in the bush till the Count had flown off with them all and I was free to scatter some for her to enjoy in peace. Later, I went to peg washing out and in swooped Count Skoffalot to perch in the yellow buddleia next to the patio, where he was sure I couldn't miss seeing him.

    I decided to experiment and see if he would take worms from me if I knelt down just inside the garage door and extended my hand on the ground. This is how I have persuaded birds to take food from me in previous years. He wanted those worms very badly, but he would run a little way towards them, change his mind and run back a bit. He started making scolding noises, which I am convinced were becoming increasingly irritable. I'm sure he was saying, "You're not catching me out like that! I know as soon as I came near enough, you'll grab me and put me in a pie with 23 other blackbirds that you've lured in. I've heard all about it!" The Count does not know that Chris and I are vegetarians.

    I relented and scattered the worms on the patio for him as usual.

    5 August

    This morning, I scattered some worms for Mrs NT and Count Skoffalot swooped straight in out of nowhere. I've no idea where he had been watching from, but I think he must have binoculars. Poor Mrs NT. No matter how many worms he's picked up already, the Count is not going to let her have the rest. If she makes a move towards them, he chases her back into the bush. Eventually, he decided he'd got every last wriggler and flew off with them, leaving me to sort out Mrs NT's breakfast.

    6 August

    I sat out in the garden for a short while this afternoon and Count Skoffalot was around the bird food quite frequently, picking up dropped morsels from under the hanging feeders. He came close to my chair, giving me The Look with his laser eyes and, when I stood up, he rushed to the yellow buddleia, hoping I would follow to fetch worms - which of course I did. How could I resist the charms of the Count?

    I spotted the Count wrestling a giant earthworm on the lawn, so it seems he will deign to eat 'inferior' bird grub if there's nothing better on offer. Unlike many other Blackbirds we've encountered, he seems unimpressed by pieces of fruit. He clearly hasn't read his Wikipedia entry, " The Common Blackbird is omnivorous, eating a wide range of insects, earthworms, seeds and berries." A female 'Blackie' has appeared and she seems to be enjoying the fruit, but Count Skoffalot does not react to her at all. He does not seem in the least bothered by her presence, or the fact that she is eating food from 'his' bird table. The Count's antics to draw attention to himself are quite comical. He keeps hopping in close to me, giving me The Look. Then he flies in low over my head to perch on the nearby gutter to peer down at me.

    7 August (don't read if eating)

    I spotted the Count on the lawn struggling manfully to wrestle a huge slug into submission. He kept trying, but he was having enormous problems with the slime and was frequently wiping his beak on the grass fastidiously before going back to have another go. In the end, it all got too much and the slug defeated him, but it remained where he left it, rather than slinking off, so I imagine it was probably an ex-slug which had ceased to be.

    11 August

    No sign of The Count! I went back to the garage over an hour later and some of the worms left by Mrs NT were still on the path. This is unheard of! I have to conclude that he moved on, as I can't bear to contemplate anything else.

    Are you ready to see the movie? One minute and eight seconds of genius! Mary and Chris proudly present, Count Skoffalot, The Movie.