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!
  • 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.

  • May in the wildlife-friendly garden

    Whether I have my wildlife hat on or my gardening one, May brings with a tremendous sense of expectation.

    Whether it be migrant birds arriving back in their droves from Africa, the hum of insects or the unfurling of a billion leaves, we're now hurtling at full steam towards summer, with so much to do and enjoy.

    I say this knowing that we're only slowly emerging from the grip of these northerly winds that have held us all in suspended animation. What was that all about?! (Yes, the British weather has spring a surprise yet again. I sometimes get the feeling that gardening, wildlife and weather are so interrelated as to be almost indivisible.)

    But imagining that it is now going to steadily get warmer, this is the peak season for birdsong in all its life-affirming glory. Soon there will be an exuberance throughout the garden, and gorgeous spring freshness all around.

    This month we're encouraging people to have a go at making what we call a Wildlife Sunbed. Maybe you have one already, for all it is is a sheet of corrugated roofing material, be it iron of - even better - the modern material called Onduline which won't rust. If you do, you'll know what a brilliant yet simple device it is for attracting Slow-worms, Common Lizards and a surprising range of other wildlife where they can stay safe, dry and soak up the warmth. Check out what I have under mine!

    Here are some of the other things to do or try in the wildlife-friendly garden this month, if you needed any encouragement:

    • It's really the last chance to get annual flower seeds scattered if you want a radiant display later in the summer. This is me sowing a bed earlier this spring - it's such a strangely satisfying activity, knowing that all those tiny seeds just tossed onto the earth will make such a great show.

    • Once you see the Chelsea Flower Show on the telly, you know it's time for the Chelsea Chop where you cut back many of your late summer flowering plants by a third, so they will get less leggy and then bush out to have even more blooms for wildlife.
    • Any new trees or bushes you planted bare-rooted last winter won't yet have much of a root system to draw up the moisture they need, so keep them well watered.
    • If you have planted out any herbaceous perennials, they too are only just 'getting their feet down', so make sure you show them the watering can.
    • The time to prune spring flowering shrubs is now as the flowers fade. It actually helps prolong their life, and keeps them compact and less prone to wind damage. Shrubs to attend to include Flowering Currant, Mock Orange (Philadelphus) and Weigela. Take out about a fifth of old stems, and trim back stems that have flowered to fresh new shoots.
    • Oh, and dare I mention weeding? As you pull them up, think of what you could plant there next year that will mean they are pretty much smothered by flowers you DO want!

  • Make this and everyone will want to peer under it!

    I love those things you can do in the garden to help wildlife that you might never have thought of and yet turn out to be really simple and fun.

    And here's one of them. It's a brilliant way to help reptiles thermoregulate...

    Or to put it another way, it's something to help your wildlife can warm up!

    The best materials to use for your Wildlife Sunbed are called Onduline (above) or Coroline - they're the black, corrugated sheets you'll have seen on many a shed roof. You can get them from any big DIY store and really the only issue is that it normally comes in a 2m x 1m sheet; that's certainly too big to go in my car, so you may need to get it delivered.

    I then cut a sheet in half, using a Stanley knife rather than a saw because otherwise the bitumen surface will clog your saw blades.

    Punch a couple of holes in one side and attach a bit of rope and that will give you a simple handle to lift it gently up with. I advise you only look once a week so that any residents don't get scared off.

    Then just lay it on the ground in a sunny, quiet position in the garden, maybe near longer grass or a log pile or compost heap.

    Slow-worms love to shelter beneath them where they are dry, warm and safe, with lots of lovely tunnels to wriggle under.

    And it's not only reptiles; you might find nests of sweet Field Voles or Bank Voles or all manner of fascinating creepy crawlies.

    Let me show you what were under mine this week:

    A millipede

    An ant nest (notice how it is the shape of a corrugation)


    The nest of a Short-tailed Field Vole (again the shape of a corrugation)


    And some young Field Voles!

    Have a go and let us know how you get on - we think you'll be amazed what turns up!