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!
  • Give your butterflies a boost

    Didn’t Mother Nature have a moment of genius when she created butterflies? What a brilliant idea to put flat, tissue paper wings in glorious, colourful symmetry onto little cigar-shaped bodies and let them take flight. They seem to encapsulate natural beauty and grace.

    So I bet you wouldn’t mind seeing lots more butterflies in your garden (perhaps with the exception of ‘cabbage whites’!)

    Most people realise that to do that you need to plant flowers so that butterflies can sup away at their drink of preference – nectar.

    But what isn’t as well known is how picky butterflies are when it comes to which flowers they will visit. Of the 70,000 or so garden plants grown in the UK, I’d say about 20 stand the test as being high on butterflies’ preferred drinking list. Begonias, petunias and other bedding plants might be colourful but they offer zilch to butterflies.

    It means that, if you work hard to find those special plants, your chance of success can skyrocket. And that's what we'd love everyone to do this summer - give their butterflies a boost.

    My top choices of native flowers are marjoram (below, with gatekeeper), hemp-agrimony and fleabane; each is magnificent for butterflies, and all look good in a flower border.

    I then augment them with Verbena bonariensis (below, with comma), single-flowered Dahlias and Echinacea, and maybe some field scabious*.


    Almost as important as flower choice is where and how you plant them. You need to grow them in groups in a sheltered, sunny spot for your chances to be boosted. In large pots is fine, but keep them well watered.

    There is an important caveat to this story: if we all planted lots of the flowers that butterflies like but didn’t do anything for their caterpillars, populations wouldn't increase. So we do need to think about growing the special plants the caterpillars need, too. But that’s the next step on your Giving Nature a Home journey.

    For now, go on a mission to a good garden centre, seek out some of those special flowers, plant them, water them and you should be ready for the main butterfly season in July and August. You’re just in time to get your flowery cafe open!

    Have a go and let us know how you get on, or tell us about what you've already done for butterflies where you live – Giving Nature a Home is all about sharing your experiences as the nation pulls together to improve our world for wildlife. There's more advice about this activity on our Giving Nature a Home pages, and it's one that should make your garden look a treat, too

    *I bet some of you are also thinking of Buddleja davidii as being good for butterflies. It is, but it is also proving to be invasive. If you have one, you don't need to cut it down, but dead head it after it has flowered so the seed doesn’t spread. And if you don''t have a buddleja, maybe try one of my suggested alternatives.

  • Over at the pond, Steve Redgrave and Torvill & Dean have arrived

    One of the wonderful things about putting in a new pond is watching to see which creatures come and set up home there.

    My new pond was filled last December, and as expected it sat quietly for the first few months, apart from the stream of birds that quickly took to their new deluxe bath.

    Now, with temperatures rising, it is prime time for smaller creatures to begin to arrive, and a new pond is like a red carpet waiting to receive its guests.

    Sure enough, I now have three Whirligig Beetles which career across the surface at speeds that should not be possible for such tiny creatures, barely visible themselves but easily picked out by the wake they leave behind.

    I also have vast shoals of what must be hundreds of thousands of Daphnia, which are sometimes called water fleas but this hardly does them justice for they have none of the more unpleasant qualities of fleas. Each one is tiny, but in their swarms they look as if pepper has been shaken into the water.

    And a couple of pond-skaters are now doing a 'Torvill and Dean' routine across the surface.

    But I knew things were really moving on when this arrived last week:

    You'll probably recognise it, for it is a backswimmer, common in ponds across the country. They do exactly as their name suggests using their long, flattened, hair-fringed back legs to propel them like champion rowers.

    You can also see the small front legs poised to grab onto any prey it finds, for these are carnivores, and indeed can give humans a painful nip.

    They always cling onto a bubble of air on their belly, and they have to come to the surface regularly to top it up.

    So how did it get to my pond? Well, flipped the right way over, the adults have a fine pair of wings and are good flyers, and hence can head off to find new ponds as and when they need to.

    The females then lay their eggs underwater at this time of year in among weed, and the youngsters (larvae) when they emerge will look rather like the adult, only small and rather pale and greenish.

    There are just four species of backswimmer in the UK, which some people call water-boatmen. However, I like to keep that term for a different group of aquatic bugs which have long, hairy hind legs but swim the right way up. There are about 35 species of 'water boatmen' in the UK and they all tend to be smaller and spend much more time down at the bottom of ponds.

    So the first lodgers have arrived, and the stage is set for whichever other pond celebrities feel like dropping in.

  • Ah, so that's where they come from!

    At the end of March, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the Algarve, my first ever trip to Portugal.

    Just a short walk from my hotel I was able to enjoy wild Flamingoes...

    and gorgeous birds we almost never see in this country such as Little Bitterns... (although they have been starting to colonise the Somerset Levels in recent years, where the RSPB has some brilliant nature reserves)

    But one of the things I really wanted to see was some of the Algarve's gorgeous wildflowers.

    Why is that pertinent to gardening for wildlife? Well, as anyone who has visited the area will know, the cliffs and dunes and mountains are full of things that we love to grow in our gardens.

    So I was wandering among 'garden plants' growing in their natural home such as Borage and Peony, Rosemary and Anchusa, Lithodora and Tassel Hyacinth.

    Or how about French Lavender...

    Wild Snapdragon...

    and Hoop-petticoat Daffodil.

    Seeing them growing in the wild is useful for two reasons. Firstly, it helps you understand them from a gardening perspective. The Hoop-petticoat Daffodils, for example, were growing in almost pure sand under Umbrella Pines, and no wonder French Lavender likes full sun in poor soil with great drainage.

    But one of the things we are learning about garden plants is that it seems that the best ones for wildlife are usually a mix of native and 'near native' plants. 'Near native' means from Europe and similar climates in the Northern Hemisphere. The insects and other wildlife that visit the wildflowers of the Algarve are often the same, or very closely related, to our wildlife.

    And as our climate warms up (and I realise that has seemed a distant prospect this spring, but just remember how mild the winter was), then growing plants like these may become more and more necessary in our gardens.