Crowberry bush in fruit with bright red berries

How to plant shrubs for wildlife

We want...a shrubbery! They can be a beautiful addition to a garden and a fantastic home for wildlife.

Shrubs for wildlife

Shrubs not only provide colour, structure and interest to a garden all year round, but can also be a great home for wildlife. 

Shrubs come in a huge variety of shapes and types, so you we have a diverse selection to choose form, all with their own qualities and value. They’re excellent at filling gaps in borders, covering walls or creating an attractive boundaries and on top of that they make excellent havens for nature. 

Shrub beds where plants form a dense, tight canopy provide valuable protection from animals hiding from predators. If cleverly planted and managed, they can provide an ever-changing variety of flowers, catkins, leaves, berries and stems which are perfect to attract and feed a whole host of animals, from butterflies to birds. 

Dwarf gorse Ulex minor, Ling Calluna vulgaris, & Bell heather Erica cinerea, Farnham Heath RSPB reserve, Surrey, England

Why shrubs can make a great habitat

A border full of shrubs could be likened to a hedge, however the species grown are generally ornamental and not native. 

However, many non-native species are valuable for wildlife, as they produce copious nectar and provide essential cover for nesting, roosting and hibernating. Just as many species will live in the leaf litter underneath as in the branches and leaves above.

Make the most of your garden

  • Choose native species when planting new shrubs, as these support more wildlife.
  • Grow shrubs that flower early and late to attract insects throughout spring, summer and autumn, e.g. Ceanothus and Mahonia.
  • Plant shrubs that have nectar-rich flowers that are good for insects in spring, and berries in autumn that attract birds, e.g. Berberis, hawthorn and spindle.
  • Some shrubs should regularly be cut back to ground level - this can simulate a woodland glade and attract different species for a while.


  • Plant your shrubs around 0.5–1.2 m apart (18 ins-4 ft). To force growth rates, plant densely, but you will eventually need to thin this out and allow the stronger plants to grow on to maturity.
  • Trim off broken or damaged branches. If you are planting whips, trim damaged roots.
  • Dig a hole deeper and wider than the root ball. Backfill the hole, gently firming the soil as you go. Ensure there are no air pockets around the roots. Incorporate plenty of well-rotted compost.
  • Avoid backfilling above the ‘nursery line’. This is an obvious mark at the base of the plants stem, indicating the level at which the plant was originally grown.
  • With pot grown shrubs, check the roots are not tightly wound round inside the pot. This indicates the plant is pot bound and has been lying around the nursery for a long time.
  • Cover the soil afterwards with a mulch such as grass clippings, bark chippings or even old carpet and black plastic bags to keep weeds at bay.


  • During the first year or two, weed around the plants to help them establish quicker. Weeding can be reduced by mulching or underplanting with flowering plants to suppress unwanted plants and retain soil moisture.
  • Where weeding is necessary, carry it out sparingly to reduce soil disturbance and minimise moisture loss. Constant cultivation perpetuates the opportunity for seeds to grow. However, it is worth considering the benefits to birds and compromise with a balanced and pragmatic approach.
  • Many wild annual plants are of great benefit to birds for their seeds and some of the insects they attract, which birds also eat. Weeding infrequently and lightly ensures some food for the birds.
  • After a few years (usually five to ten, but sooner for some species), shrubs start to  require cutting back. Most native and deciduous shrubs, tolerate and benefit from cutting (or coppicing) to just above ground level. Some ornamentals and evergreens, particularly conifers, will die if treated this way. Check any good garden book first if unsure.
  • Without pruning, most shrubs revert to trees or become ‘leggy’, losing their dense structure and their wildlife value. Cut and prune established shrubs over a period of a few years to create a range of ages and structures from bare ground, through young and old growth to decaying wood.
  • Cuttings should be left lying in the border. If you have to move them, place them in a discrete place as near to where they came from as possible. 
  • Where shrubs have been cut back to the ground, there is likely to be a flush of annual plants in the first year. This is nothing to be concerned about as a mature, established shrub will soon re-grow and shade the plants out. In the meantime, those plants will provide seed and insect food for birds, and nectar for insects.
  • Decaying wood is an important part of any wildlife garden as it has great value as shelter and food for wildlife. Wherever possible, retain dead stems on plants and leave standing or fallen dead shrubs. 
  • Shrubs broadly fall into two categories: those that flower on the previous year’s growth (eg forsythia) and those that flower later in the year on the current year’s growth (eg philadelphus). Some groups of shrub, such as the spireas have varieties that flower on either old or new growth. Check any good gardening book, or when you purchase the plant, for details of when to prune.
  • For maximum benefit to wildlife, carry out management in late winter. This is particularly true for native species, such as hawthorn, hazel and dogwood. The best time for pruning and coppicing is during January and early February after birds have eaten the berries and before they start to nest.
  • Avoid trimming and cutting shrubs between late February and the end of August, as this is the main breeding season for birds in the UK. Check for signs of nesting activity prior to cutting at any time of the year as some species can nest all year round.
  • Where plants have been densely planted, they eventually require thinning. After thinning, allow some plants to re-grow from the stumps to create a thick lower shrub layer and understory. You can cut these down every few years in rotation. Those you do not want to re-grow need to have new growth cut off from the stump. Eventually they will give up and die, leaving just the stump to rot.
Haweswater RSPB reserve. Juniper (Juniperus communis) woodland on the hillside above the reservoir - an increasingly rare habitat. Cumbria

Tools for the job

  • Spade – for planting
  • Border fork - for planting and weeding
  • Hoe – for weeding
  • Secateurs – for trimming and pruning small twigs
  • Loppers – for trimming and pruning large twigs and branches
  • Bow saw – for cutting large branches
A spade on bare soil

Invasive shrubs

Cotoneaster berries in gardens at The Lodge

Although these can make great habitats for wildlife in your garden, here are some things to consider.

Recommended garden shrubs

Hawthorn, Crategus monogyna, in flower at woodland edge. Coombes Valley RSPB reserve.

Our recommendations for shrubs that can make great habitats for wildlife in your garden.