Gardening for Wildlife – April

Linda Bingham

Gardening for Wildlife

We have had a beautiful start to April and the sunny weather brings hope for the year to come.  As lockdown eases, we will have more freedom to enjoy the outdoors and to invite friends into our gardens.

Some of you may have visited garden centres over Easter but if you bought any young, tender plants, be sure to watch the weather and either keep the plants indoors or cover them with fleece if they are outside.  Despite our warming climate there can still be hard frosts in April and even May.

Hopefully, you will be seeing more signs of wildlife in your gardens or on your balcony as the days get warmer.  Ladybirds are out and about looking for aphids to eat, and bees, beetles, hoverflies, and some butterflies are searching for pollen and nectar.  I have noticed a lot of birds in my garden collecting nesting materials and they will soon be laying eggs and needing to feed their young. Hedgehogs are emerging from hibernation and need to increase their body weight in readiness for breeding.

Here are some things you can do to welcome wildlife into your garden this month:

Let your grass grow

There have been quite a few mentions on gardening programmes and in the press recently about leaving your grass to grow a bit longer. With hotter summers it doesn’t make sense to cut grass so short that, starved of rain, it turns brown. We need to conserve water too, so using a sprinkler regularly isn’t good for the environment.  Longer grass provides shelter and offers opportunities for egg-laying for insects, not to mention the chance for more wildflowers to grow.  There are many things you can do to make your lawn more wildlife friendly:

  • Mow the lawn on the highest cut setting
  • Mow less frequently
  • Try not to mow small or marginal areas of your lawn or along the border of a hedge or fence
  • Let your grass grow but mow paths through where you are likely to walk

Allow the dandelions, daisies, and other wildflowers to grow in your lawn rather than use weedkillers. Using weedkillers will also kill the insects on which birds, hedgehogs, and other wildlife feed. 

April is also the month to stop trimming hedges as the nesting season has begun.

Follow these links for more information:

How to grow a wild patch: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-grow-wild-patch

Say no to the mow: https://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/wildflower_garden/mynomow

Soil health & compost

We are only just beginning to learn more about the earth beneath our feet.  For a gardener, having healthy soil in our borders or on our fruit and vegetable plots is so important for the health of our plants. If we grow healthy plants, they are less prone to disease.  Adding compost or a mulch to soil not only provides nutrients but also benefits all life in the soil, from the microbial to the visible creatures, particularly worms.  It is a good sign when you have lots of worms in your soil.  They maintain soil structure and fertility by aerating the soil, improving drainage, and bringing nutrients to the surface.  Earthworms are also an important source of food for lots of garden wildlife, including many birds, hedgehogs, amphibians, foxes, moles, and slow worms.

Continue to mulch your borders with your own compost, shredded bark, or peat-free compost.  If you make your own compost, watch out for slow worms, frogs, and hedgehogs as you empty the bins or turn the compost to aerate it.

Why use peat-free compost?

Peat is mainly sourced from lowland raised bogs – this habitat is increasingly rare in the UK and across Europe. In recent years, the need to conserve this diminishing natural resource has been recognised, as well as the flora and fauna that depend on it. Peat bogs are also an important carbon sink: destroying them to make garden compost contributes to climate change.  The Royal Horticultural Society say:

The effects of extraction are irreplaceable as peatlands take thousands of years to form. Defra estimates that 2.96 million cubic metres of peat is used in the UK annually, of which 99% is used as growing media and 69% of which is used by gardeners.

I have been using peat-free compost for a few years.  The quality is continually improving and there are many excellent brands to buy.  I grow a lot of plants from seed and make my own seed sowing mixture by sieving peat-free compost and mixing it with vermiculite (available at garden centres).

For further information about using peat-free compost and the garden retailer’s stance on it, follow this link: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-go-peat-free

Plant your flower beds and pots for wildlife

There is such a huge choice of plants to buy at garden centres! Aisles of bedding plants in a multitude of colours tempt the buyer to brighten up their patios, borders, and balconies.  As you load your basket or trolley with plants, spare a thought for the pollinators and invertebrates, who rely on your garden plants for shelter and food.  Look more closely around the garden centre or nursery and you may find that they sell native wildflowers; red campion, knapweed, teasel, foxgloves, and birds-foot trefoil are some that I’ve bought.  Choose to visit a smaller nursery, maybe a cottage garden specialist, and you will find a good selection of plants for pollinators too. 

Teasel is tall and structural, flowering in late summer.  It has spiky purple flowers enjoyed by honeybees and bumblebees.  If you leave the flowers over winter, you will provide a seed banquet for goldfinches.  Comfrey is a wonderful plant for pollinators and provides good ground cover, therefore giving invertebrates shelter.  If you have a compost bin, plant comfrey nearby and you will have a ready source of nutritious leaves to add to the compost. You can also make a natural liquid compost with comfrey by soaking the leaves in water, leaving them awhile, then straining to feed your tomatoes.  Watch out for the foul smell though!

During April, warmed by sunny days, butterflies and moths will be looking for nectar.  Spring flowers include primroses, sweet rocket, aubretia and honesty.  If buying plants for the months to come include lavender, wallflowers, oregano, and hebe.  Most nurseries use labels indicating if a plant is pollinator or bee friendly. 

Other April jobs for wildlife friendly borders and pots include:

  • Cutting back the dried-out stems and seed heads of perennials.  It will not hurt to leave them a bit longer though, especially on the less hardy plants, as they will add protection from late frosts. 
  • Removing the dead heads from daffodils and narcissi – but leave the foliage to die back naturally so that nutrients can return to the bulbs.
  • April is not too late to sow seeds.  Try sowing a pack of wildflower seeds for containers.  It is fun to sow seeds with young children.  Sunflower seeds are popular as well as nasturtiums, calendula, peas, and beans.  These seeds are all quite big and easier to sow with small hands. My love of gardening came from the wonderment of watching a seed grow into a seedling, then a flower or a plant yielding vegetables.  It still fascinates me!
  • Plant containers with nectar-rich flowers, choosing your favourite colours and scents.  Remember that single flowers rather than double blooms are more accessible for pollinators.  Plant flowers in blocks, rather than individually, so that pollinators can find them more easily.
  • Plant a herb garden.  Many herbs used for cooking are also wonderful for insects.  Mint is best grown in a pot on its own as it spreads rapidly.  There is a dainty little moth called a mint moth, which as its name suggests is attracted to mint flowers.  Rosemary, chives, sage, parsley, and marjoram will all eventually flower to lure insects to your balcony or patio.  Did you know you can eat the flowers of chives? 

The warmer weather also means aphids and blackfly.  Please do not use pesticides.  They provide food for beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings.  Birds need them too.  Wet weather will bring out the slugs and snails, but they will be eaten by birds, hedgehogs, and frogs.  Put barriers around new shoots of flower or veg plants.  Coarse bark, gravel, oats, wool, and copper bands will deter most slugs.

For more information follow these links:

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-attract-butterflies-your-garden

https://www.wildlife-gardening.co.uk/Nectar%20Borders.htm

https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/grow-plants/how-to-create-a-wildflower-pot/

Birds are building nests & beginning to breed

When building a nest, a small bird uses a lot of energy.  Garden birds will be looking for insects, grubs and berries as their natural food source but keep your feeders well stocked. If you see caterpillars on your plants, don’t be tempted to pick them off – leave them for the birds. Mealworms, either dried or live, are a particularly beneficial food source for birds at this time of year. You could provide some nesting material for the birds in your garden, such as small twigs, wool, leaves, moss, and grass clippings.  Remember to keep topping up a supply of fresh water and to clean feeders, bowls, and bird baths each week.  

Birds need to bathe each day to keep their feathers in good condition. Providing a bird bath in your garden or on your balcony will not only help the birds but provide you with hours of joy as you watch them.  One of the things we have learnt over the past year is to slow down a little and take the time to watch the wonderful wildlife around us.  It is so important for our mental health to connect with nature so even as life becomes busier, give yourself some time each day just to stop and watch the birds in your garden or look at the insects on flowers or crawling through the grass. 

RSPB Nature on your Doorstep: https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/nature-on-your-doorstep/

Hedgehogs & bats

Hedgehogs will be starting to come out of hibernation this month. Their natural food sources are caterpillars, beetles, earthworms, and other small insects as well as slugs and snails.  This is why it is so important that we don’t use chemicals in our gardens.  It is also useful for hedgehogs if you provide supplementary food for them.  Special hedgehog food is readily available in pet shops, but you can also use cat food in biscuit form or meat (not fish) in jelly.  Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant so do not feed them with bread soaked in milk.  It is also important to leave water for hedgehogs.

I have tried different ‘feeding stations’ for hedgehogs in my own garden.  Last year I could see that food was being eaten overnight but it wasn’t until my son set up a night vision camera that we discovered not only a hedgehog but also a cat squeezing through the door of the plastic feeding station!  I have solved this now by buying a feeding station at the local pet shop which has a partition inside to allow only smaller mammals to access the food.  If you put out food for hedgehogs, ensure that you continue to top it up and refresh the water every evening.  The food source needs to be regular and reliable.

Remember to leave a messy area of longer grass as well as piles of leaves and garden clippings at the side of your garden or near a shed.  If you have nowhere for hedgehogs to access your garden, speak to neighbours about cutting a hole at the bottom of your fence for hedgehogs to be able to forage further afield.

Pipistrelle bats are the first of the bats to wake from hibernation and if you have trees nearby, look into the sky after sunset and you may see them flying around near the trees to catch insects.

Pond maintenance

Wildlife ponds do not need much maintenance. If, like me, you have a relatively new garden pond, you will be eager to see the plants growing and as the water warms, the plants will now grow quite quickly. New pond plants are usually sold in pots, already containing aquatic soil. These can be placed in the pond at the depths usually specified by the label that comes with the plant. You can also remove the plant from the container and plant them in aquatic soil and inert, washed gravel.

If your pond is a bit overgrown, cut plants back or remove them, leaving any foliage at the edge of the pond for a day so that any creatures can move back into the water. If you have duckweed on the pond and want to control it, start now.
https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/news/big-or-small-ponds-all

Children’s wildlife project for April

Anyone of a certain age will remember the I-Spy books. We had quite a few when I was young, and this was how I learnt to identify wildflowers, birds, and trees. The books can still be bought but the British conservation charity Plantlife currently have a fun project to enable you to identify our most common wildflowers in your local area or on a walk.
To find out more and to take part, click on this link: https://www.plantlife.org.uk/wildflowerhunt/

Book of the month

The Garden Jungle: or Gardening to Save the Planet by Dave Goulson
‘The Garden Jungle is a wonderful introduction to the hundreds of small creatures with whom we live cheek-by-jowl and of the myriad ways that we can encourage them to thrive. The Garden Jungle is about the wildlife that lives right under our noses, in our gardens and parks, between the gaps in the pavement, and in the soil beneath our feet.’ Sunday Times