RSPB Dovestone, planting wildflowers at the base of a Memory Tree, Derbyshire

Wildlife garden ideas & planning your design

Before you plant you'll need to plan and prepare. Decisions about when, where and what to plant can help build a diverse and thriving garden.

Starting to plan

Planning and creating a wildlife friendly garden doesn’t have to be daunting. There are simple things that we can all do, and work can be spread out over several months or even years!

Sitting down to plan your nature friendly space is an exciting moment. It’s a chance for us to create our own mini nature reserve and the possibilities and potential are huge. 

Use our gardening section, and begin to consider the different ways your garden could become a home to wildlife. Start to think about different plants available, the space you have and resources you have at your disposal. Nurseries, garden centres, books and magazines can also be great sources of information and inspiration!

Sketch your ideas out, marking where shrubs, trees and larger structures like a pond may go. Think about how you might be able to make use of existing features and plants and experiment with the shape and layout of your space. Look to nature for inspiration!

Trowel and fork in soil


The larger the variety of habitats you create in your garden, the better home for wildlife it will make! 

Having a combination of taller more structural bushes and trees in one spot for example, will provide shelter and nesting sites for birds and mammals. But also introducing lower flowering plants and shrubs, or patches of uncut grass and wildflowers in another will provide good ground cover for others, as well as food for birds, bees, butterflies and other insects.

Bringing an area of water into the garden, big or small, can provide a home for a big range of wildlife, from the insects and amphibians that directly use it as a home, to the birds and mammals that simply visit it to feed and drink.

You should also think about time as well as space! Choosing plants which flower, seed and bear fruit at different times of the year will give year round benefit for the different animals which live in your garden. 

The important thing is building a space which has variety and gives different things and at varied times. Everything is connected - if done well each will benefit from the presence of the other.

Choosing plants

Choosing the right kind of plants for you, your garden and the wildlife in it, is an important part of building a successful nature friendly space.

Find out as much as you can about the soil, and whether your garden is sunny or shady. Many plants need specific soil and light conditions. Look around and find out what grows well in your local area, or find plants that require similar conditions to those already thriving in and around your garden.

Think about foliage as well as flowers, try to include leaves of different colours, shapes and textures, and mix evergreens with deciduous plants. Check in a gardening book or on the label to find out how large the plants will grow and what maintenance they need and when.

Look at possible plants choices from all angles. For example, not all ornamental fruit trees will produce fruit, but they may be valuable in other ways. Varieties susceptible to insect attack for instance, are valuable to birds and other insects which feed on the offending insect.

Have foresight and build for the future and not just the present. It’s important to remember that many plants often take several years to mature. For example, you are not likely to see a song thrush feeding on ivy berries for at least five years.

You may also choose to remove plants from an existing garden, but careful consideration should be given in mature gardens before removing an established plant to replace with a new one. Think about how it might impact existing wildlife, and whether what you're looking to replace it with will bring the same value and thrive in the same place.

Buying plants

There are many ways to buy plants, but here are a few things to think about and look out for when you hit the shops. 

You may find that different plants are packaged up and sold in various ways.  

  • Trees and shrubs are available as bare-rooted plants (trees as ‘standards’ or ‘feathers’ and shrubs as ‘whips’), root-balled with a small amount of soil around the roots and wrapped in hessian sack or planted in a plastic pot with compost (usually peat).
  • Hedging plants are available as bare-rooted ‘whips’ or container-grown plants.
  • Flowering plants can be purchased as root corms or tubers that are either bare-rooted or, most often, pre-planted in a plastic pot with a peat-based compost.
  • Biennials and annuals can be purchased as seeds for self sowing or already pre-grown in a small pot or container.

The most economic way to purchase plants is as bare-rooted or as seeds. This avoids buying plants which have been potted using peat. 

Check the roots of potted plants are not tightly wound round inside the pot. This indicates that the plant is potbound and has been in the nursery for some time.

Consider the environmental implications of bedding plants. They may have been raised on an industrialised scale in huge heated glasshouses and shipped here from the continent. The containers they are grown in do not usually recycle or biodegrade well and the plants are usually grown in peat.

Go native!

Using native species can be hugely beneficial and important to wildlife that may rely on them for food and nesting. 

Although many non-native plants and flowers can be just as beneficial, native species can play an important part in creating a sustainable and flourishing home for nature in our gardens. Many native species, such as holly and hawthorn, are key habitats for certain animals and it’s good maintain their presence in our gardens. 

Native wild flowers too, are crucial homes and sources of food to a huge range of creatures. Areas of wild flower meadow in countryside and in decline as well, so introducing these to our spaces can be a key part in keeping species alive and keeping insects like bees in business. 

If you’re buying a native species, make sure you source plants of local provenance which compliment local habitats. Make sure they’re from native stock. 

Many plants believed to be native and brought in good faith may be of continental origin. Their leafing and flowering times can vary greatly from our own and may not coincide with times when our insects emerge to feed on their host species of plant. This can upset the balance of timing for insects reliant on them to complete their life cycles and the birds that time breeding to be able to feed their young on these insects.

First year arable reversion Winterbourne Downs RSPB reserve (Manor Farm). Wiltshire