Gardening for wildlife
August is generally thought of as the month for holidays and enjoying family time. Now that Covid restrictions are almost all lifted, the garden can be a focal point for social gatherings, barbeques, and for children to play. No matter what other uses you have for your outdoor space, and no matter what your style, it is still possible to accommodate wildlife.
Around 87% of UK households have a garden. A total area of over 10 million acres! We are hearing more and more about the UK’s decline in biodiversity with more than one in ten of Britain’s wildlife species facing extinction and since 1970, 41% of Britain’s wildlife species in decline.
I know a lot of people feel that there is nothing they can do to halt this decline, but our gardens and outdoor spaces can provide a huge network of connected habitats and food sources for wildlife. By gardening with wildlife in mind, we really can make a difference.
You may wonder why insects are so important. They not only provide food for other animals, and play a vital part in a balanced ecosystem, they are actually essential to our own global food system. Insect pollination is worth £690 million to UK crops each year! Bees and other insects (pollinators) drink the sweet nectar from flowers. As they move from flower to flower they transfer pollen, which fertilises the plant, enabling it to produce seeds. A huge proportion of food crops worldwide depend on pollinators and without them we wouldn’t have foods such as tomatoes, coffee, beans, and potatoes.
Here are some tips on what you can do for wildlife in your garden during August:
Cut down or mow your wild grass area
If you took part in ‘No Mow May’ then decided to leave a small or large area of lawn uncut, August is the month to mow or cut the grass using shears or a scythe. Traditionally, in a wildflower meadow, this is called the ‘haycut.’ As I write, the weather is very mixed, and we’ve had a lot of rain recently. Because of this your long grass or wildflower area may still be looking green, attractive, and colourful. There is no fixed time for doing the ‘haycut’ so it could be delayed until late August or early September when hot weather (we hope!) might have dried out the grasses and wildflowers.
Cut the area short with the mower set on low or use shears if it is a small space. A scythe can be used for particularly long grass if you have a larger meadow area. The important thing is to leave the cuttings where they fall for a few days. This allows the seeds of any wildflowers to drop to the surface of the soil. After a few days, rake up the cuttings and put them on your compost heap (if you have one). Wildflowers grow best in soil which lacks nutrients, so removing the cuttings encourages more to grow.
For more information follow this link: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=446
Maintain your flower borders
We’ve had so much rain this year that some people may feel they have more weeds than flowers! There is a saying that ‘a weed is just a wildflower growing where it is unwanted.’ Some of these weeds/wildflowers are very pretty and will compliment a flower border but others are invasive and will spread quickly if left unchecked.
The best way to deal with unwanted weeds is to cut them using a hoe or to hand weed, using a weeding tool to dig out deep roots. Bindweed, couch grass and ground elder are particularly difficult to remove completely as they have long networks of roots that go deep underground. Try to dig out as much as possible or cover a larger area in layers of newspaper or cardboard. This still won’t eradicate these weeds completely, but it will suppress their growth. Try not to use weedkiller as it kills so much more than weeds and can often remain in the soil for years.
Don’t allow unwanted weeds to flower and set seed otherwise you’ll have problems in the future. Weed management needs to be done little and often.
Deadhead flowers on plants in borders or pots to encourage more flowers to grow, this is particularly beneficial if they are attractive to pollinators. Stop deadheading roses halfway through the month. All roses produce hips, but we don’t see them as often due to deadheading. Rosehips look wonderful right through into winter and they also provide a valuable food source for wild birds.
Even if it has been raining, continue to water plants in pots and hanging baskets to keep them looking good into autumn.
Cut back herbs such as oregano, mint, and thyme to encourage new growth. If you have a large herb garden, allowing some areas to flower will create a nectar haven for pollinators. Wild marjoram is a particularly beneficial herb to grow as it is native to the UK and loved by butterflies and bees. Basil, parsley, and coriander seeds can still be sown.
August is a good time to trim hedges but check that there are no birds nesting. Some birds have a second or third brood and there still may be chicks in nests. Wait until they have fledged before cutting.
The best plants which flower in July/August, have a long flowering period and attract diverse insects are:
Catmint (Nepeta – non-native)
Field scabious (Knautia arvensis – native)
Marjoram (Origanum vulgare – native)
Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare – native)
Seed heads for wildlife & free plants
As August progresses, continue deadheading if you know your plants will continue to flower, but also leave seed heads through to the autumn into winter. There are quite a few benefits for you and for wildlife if you do this.
- Seed heads can look beautiful, especially when covered in frost in the winter. They create interest in your garden once the flowers have faded and died.
- They are hugely beneficial to birds and insects, firstly for the seeds which provide food when it can be scarce. The seed heads also become home to a host to different insects, their eggs and larvae, and these in turn provide food for other insects, birds, and wildlife.
- Leaving the heads on plants through winter also protects the soil beneath and the roots of half-hardy plants from hard frosts or torrential rain.
The weather in the UK has never been totally reliable, but the effects of global warming mean that we cannot predict a mild winter, a cold dry winter, a very wet winter, or a mix of all three!
Gardeners are keen weather watchers, especially those who grow their own fruit and veg.
The following are some of the best plants to grow for their winter seed heads:
Teasel, helenium, echinacea, rudbeckia, lavender, grasses, alliums, scabious and sedums.
Collecting and then growing seed is a cheap and easy way to get new plants. You can also share, and swap collected seeds with gardening friends. Seed saving is best done in tune with nature and seeds should be collected just before the plants are about to drop them. Keep an eye on plants around the garden and as the plant begins to dry and turn brown, place a paper bag over the top of a flower head, cut the stem and invert the whole thing.
Label the bag, tie it at the top then put it somewhere with good ventilation to dry. After a short time, you will find seeds in the paper bag which should then be stored in an air-tight container (preferably not plastic) until you need them. You can also dry seed heads by laying them out on newspaper and leaving them in a cool dry area. Do not put in a warm oven or the airing cupboard as this will spoil the seeds.
You can also tease the seeds from their dried pods by rubbing between your fingers.
Seeds of many plants are best sown in autumn as they need a cold winter to stimulate germination in spring. Some easy to collect seeds are from foxgloves, marigolds, love-in-a-mist, and aquilegia.
Seeds of biennial plants (which flower every other year) such as foxgloves and sweet williams, can be sown now.
Make your own compost
As an allotment holder I know that good compost (plant waste) as well as manure (animal waste) are key to enriching your soil to enable you to grow healthy plants. It’s not often that manure is on the agenda of a committee meeting! Making compost is also a sustainable way to provide yourself with good quality mulch for flower borders and veg beds.
Soils are home to a quarter of the Earth’s species, from worms and fungi to tiny microorganisms! One tiny gram of soil may harbour up to 10 billion micro-organisms, most of which are still unexplored.
A compost heap provides a home to many invertebrates including beetles, centipedes, and a whole host of other creepy crawlies. Bees often shelter in compost heaps as well as slow worms and grass snakes who like to lay their eggs in them (both are harmless native species). Worms, including the brandling worms that inhabit compost bins, help to break down and aerate the compost all year round.
These are the key points for making your own compost:
- Depending on the space you have, there are many different types of compost bins that can be used. Plastic ‘dalek’ style compost bins are very popular and good for a small garden, but they are not so beneficial to wildlife. Wooden slatted compost bins can be bought, usually as kits, and you don’t need to be a DIY expert to make a compost bin out of pallets.
- A compost bin is best sited at the bottom of the garden, in a shady corner. It needs to be readily accessible so you can add materials to it from the garden and house. It’s good to have a moveable side on the bin to enable you to add and remove materials.
- The secret to making a good compost heap is to feed it with layers of green and brown materials. Green materials include weeds, grass clippings, general garden waste and uncooked vegetable and fruit peelings. Some teabags are now made without plastic and can be composted but remember to remove sticky labels from banana skins and orange peel as they will not break down into compost. Brown waste includes twigs, sticks, dried grass, wood chippings as well as shredded paper and cardboard.
- Shred the material that you add thinly and chop up stems, twiggy branches, banana skins etc. If you buy goods in fully compostable materials (check the labels), ensure that these are cut into small pieces before adding to your compost. I learnt from experience that the compostable bags which can be bought to line a kitchen compost caddy, do not break down easily so it is best to chop these up too or avoid buying them.
- It’s important not to include cooked food, meat, pet waste or dairy products in the bin. These will attract rats.
- The hotter the contents of your compost bin, the quicker the materials will break down into compost. This obviously varies through the seasons and in winter it is a good idea to cover an open bin with carpet or some wood to keep the heat in. If the contents look dry, add some water to keep them moist. If the contents are too wet, add a layer of shredded cardboard (packing tape removed). Turning the compost with a fork will speed up the decomposition process but be sure not to put the fork through any wildlife that might be in the pile.
Within a year, you should be able to dig out wholesome compost from the bottom of your bin and use it around your garden or on your allotment. If you find bits which haven’t broken down too well, return them to the top of the pile. I find that avocado skins take ages to fully decompose!
Charles Dowding has been a lead innovator of organic and no dig gardening since 1983. Here is his advice about making compost: https://charlesdowding.co.uk/advice-on-making-compost/
Tidy the pond
If you have a pond, there are a few jobs that need to be done on a regular basis:
- Use a net to skim leaves and other material from the surface of the pond. Leaves are beginning to fall this month, especially in the strong winds. Ensure there is no pond life on the leaves before putting them on your compost or in your garden bin.
- Continue to remove blanketweed and duckweed. Use a stick, split at one end to gather up blanketweed. Use a net or sieve to collect duckweed from the pond surface. Leave both at the side of the pond for any creatures to make their way back into the water.
- Create surface space by cutting back pond plants. Plants should cover two thirds of a pond leaving one third of the surface clear to allow light into the deeper parts of the pond, strengthening any plants under the surface. Deadhead spent flowers and dying leaves before they start to decompose in the water.
- If the pond level drops too much, add water. This should preferably be rainwater but if you only have tap water leave it to stand in buckets or watering cans for 48 hours so the chlorine can evaporate.
If you don’t have space for a pond, even a shallow bowl of water (keep topped up in dry weather) can be beneficial. Place a stone in the water to enable bees and other flying insects to have a drink.
Birds, hedgehogs & other garden wildlife
In August, you might notice that there are less birds in your garden, however, you shoul continue to put out food. Most chicks have fledged and are learning to fend for themselves in the wild. We have young blackbirds and robins in our garden, feeding on sunflower seeds and mealworms. Most bird species, having used up a lot of energy feeding their young, are having a summer moult, renewing their feathers. As new feathers replace old, birds are particularly vulnerable to predators, so they lie low, mainly staying under the cover of borders and hedges.
Swifts and swallows will be making their way back to Africa this month, but house martins will stay to rear a second, or even a third brood. During dry weather, place a dish of damp mud in the garden that they can use to repair their nests.
Hedgehog babies become independent from their mothers this month and must search for their own food. If you have a hedgehog feeding station, continue to put out food and water to help these youngsters as they grow and put on weight.
Follow this link to see a hedgehog calendar and read more about hedgehogs:
Free advice on creating a wildlife sanctuary in your garden
I am a volunteer Wildlife Gardening Champion for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. We are a friendly bunch of volunteers who care passionately about creating wild spaces in gardens. We are not experts but between us we have a fair amount of knowledge and can give advice on what you can do, either on a grand scale or in a small space, to help wildlife.
The service is free, and we are currently undertaking phone consultations, though this may change once Covid rules are relaxed more, and we can visit people in their gardens.
All you need to do is complete an online form, answering a few questions about your space. Some photos are useful while we cannot physically visit gardens.
If interested, you can book here: https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/take-action-wildlife/request-gardening-consultations
Children’s wildlife project for August
Take part in the RSPB’s Wild Challenge:
What is Wild Challenge?
It’s a challenge for you to connect with the natural world in brave new ways and earn awards as you go. Do you have what it takes to achieve gold?
You can find activities resources as downloadable documents on the relevant activities pages.
Book of the month
The Living Jigsaw – The secret life in your garden by Val Bourne
‘Val Bourne’s garden is living proof that cultivating a healthy ecosystem – what she calls her ‘living jigsaw’ – really can produce a beautiful and productive garden.
By encouraging a wide diversity of birds, animals, insects, and even slugs, your garden will find a natural balance that will allow plants to shrug off problems before they become entrenched.
The Living Jigsaw is a masterclass in natural gardening.
Val’s personal, inspirational and practical approach offers tried-and-tested techniques, with beautifully illustrated, proven results.’