Gardening for wildlife
After an unusually cold April, we then experienced a very soggy May! Gardeners went from protecting plants in the garden from frost, to trying to protect new seedlings and veg plants from the slugs and snails who inevitably turn up in their droves when the weather is wet.
June luckily started with dry, sunny weather which was certainly more beneficial for bees, butterflies and other insects trying to collect pollen and nectar. June is also a month to enjoy longer days and warmer evenings, hopefully making time to sit in the garden watching the birds, bumblebees, beetles and other creatures who come to visit, shelter and feed. You may even see bats at dusk, particularly if you have a pond. I recently watched a blue tit picking aphids off one of my rose bushes and was reminded why I no longer use chemicals in my garden or on my allotment.
The end of May and early June is always a remarkably busy time for me, particularly on my allotment, which is why I have amalgamated June and July into one article.
Here are some tips on things you can do for wildlife in your garden during June and July:
Longer grass & messy areas
If you took part in No Mow May (see May article), you possibly noticed different wildflowers appearing in the longer grass. Flowers that are often considered ‘weeds’ are beautiful if you look at them closely. They provide nectar for many pollinators as well as cover for insects such as beetles, spiders, and ants. It has been interesting to see the wilder verges around Alresford and Winchester; buttercups, dandelions, and oxeye daises in abundance as well as rarer flowers such as orchids. Helping wildflowers to grow is one of the benefits of cutting grass less frequently.
Maybe you have now cut your grass but tried to leave an area to grow longer and mowed the grass on a high setting. Did you also complete the survey for ‘Every Flower Counts?’ The team at Plantlife say, “we will be repeating the survey from 10 – 18 July 2021 to see how our late summer flowers like white clover and oxeye daisies are faring; your Personal Nectar Score is likely to be much higher than in May. Leaving even a small patch of your lawn unmown can create a vital nectar source for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.”
Get your borders buzzing
If you have the space, these are seven of the best plants to grow for pollinators:
- Hardy geraniums – most of these species are particularly good for bees. Pollinators are often attracted to mauve flowers so the native Geranium pratense is a good choice. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ performed best in a trial and flowers prolifically. Cut hardy geraniums back after flowering to encourage more flowers to grow.
- Cone flowers (Echinacea purpurea) – this is a hardy clump forming perennial that produces dramatic looking large flowers in purple, pink, white, yellow and red. It is very attractive to longer-tongued insects such as butterflies and some bumblebees.
- Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) – foxgloves are well known and look particularly lovely in a cottage garden. The native purple is best to grow as some of the many other cultivated varieties produce little nectar. Foxgloves are biennial which means that they flower in their second year, however, if you already have some in the garden, allow the seed heads to dry out then sprinkle the seeds wherever you’d like them to grow. If you want to grow foxgloves from seed, now is the time to sow them, ready to plant out in the autumn.
- Verbena bonariensis – very tall slender flower stems with clusters of small purple flowers. This plant is structurally interesting and has a long flowering period from July often until November. Loved by the long-tongued hummingbird hawk moth and butterflies because they can reach the nectar hidden in deep tubes. Easy to grow in a sunny spot in most soils.
- Catmint (Nepeta) – possibly the best plant to grow in any wildlife garden. It flowers from late May through to the end of summer and is easy to grow. It is beneficial to both short-tongued and long-tongued insects.
- Marjoram (Origanum vulgare) – this is a great all rounder and edible too! Marjoram grows well in a pot as well as borders. It can also be naturalised among grasses in a wildflower meadow. Particularly attractive to butterflies.
- Lavender (Lavandula) – a common sight in the summer is a lavender hedge, buzzing with bees. Lavender is the best plant to grow if you want to guarantee a nectar supply in July and August for a wide range of moths, butterflies, and bees. It is drought tolerant and a particularly good plant for pots if your garden is small or you have a balcony.
Fledglings in the garden
You hopefully will be seeing fledglings in your garden at this time of year. Fledglings can be identified by their less colourful plumage and a fluffed-out appearance. Fledglings are also less fearful than adult birds so, difficult as it may be, try to keep pet cats and dogs away. Put bird feeders out of reach of cats if possible. If you find a baby bird, the best advice is almost always to leave it be.
The wet weather in May helped birds to find worms more easily but it is still important to continue to feed your garden birds. If you put a mix of food out, it is interesting to see which foods disappear more quickly. Sunflower seeds and mealworms seem to be popular at this time of year.
Adjust what you feed according to what gets eaten and what doesn’t. Good hygiene is a must as bird-feeding areas can be a hotbed for disease. Clean your feeders weekly using a weak disinfectant solution.
Birds need natural food too, so it is vital to ensure that your garden is full of seeds, berries and particularly insects. Obviously, you cannot grow insects but having trees, shrubs, flowerbeds, and grass in your garden will attract them. Holly, ivy, honeysuckle, teasels and sunflowers are some of the plants to try. Do not reach for the insecticide if you see aphids and other leaf eaters on your plants as the birds will carry out the pest removal service for you!
Regularly top up water in birdbaths, especially during hot weather.
Hedgehogs are particularly active during June and July, foraging at night to feed themselves and their young. If you put out food, continue to do so, along with a bowl of water. Having hedgehogs in your garden is particularly helpful during the wet weather as they will eat the slugs that are eating your plants! Ensure that hedgehogs can enter and leave your garden by providing hedgehog highways; small holes can be made at the bottom of fencing with permission from your neighbours.
If you find an injured or sick hedgehog or hoglets (or any other sick wild bird or animal) and need advice, contact: https://www.hartwildlife.org.uk/advice/
Create a wildlife pond
Whether you have a small courtyard or a huge garden, your local wildlife would really benefit from the addition of a pond. Wildlife ponds can come in all shapes and sizes from a small formal looking pond to a large pond surrounded with native flowers and grasses. Place it near the house and you will be treated to so many wonderful sights. All year long, garden birds will visit to drink and bathe and at this time of year damselflies and dragonflies will be flitting over the water. Pipistrelle bats will hunt over larger ponds. Water is vital for a thriving ecosystem and a pond or even a bog garden adds so much to an outdoor space.
On my allotment, I made a tiny pond from a child’s rigid shell shaped sandpit, sunk into the ground with a liner I bought from an aquatics shop. I added pebbles sloping up out of the pond on one side and planted it with an oxygenator (to keep the water clear) and three small aquatic plants. Not much happened for the first few months but now the little pond is teeming with life and importantly there are frogs to eat the slugs on my plot! Some people use a butler’s sink if they can get hold of one, but anything (watertight) can be used with a little imagination.
For a larger, informal shaped wildlife pond there are various liners that can be used depending on your budget. These include preformed liners, but a rubber butyl liner gives a more natural look. It is useful to have varying depths, shallow around the edges with a beach area for birds to bathe. At one border of the pond, you could use the turfs that you dig up to edge the pond so that they are slightly submerged. This will give you a damp area in which to grow tall native marginal plants and grasses. A couple of essential additions to a wildlife pond are a branch (roughly 5cm thick) across a narrower part of the pond to act as a dragonfly (and bird) perch. Some part submerged branches at the edge of the pond can provide habitats for visiting creatures. It is also important to create a ramp out of the deepest part of the pond to help any wildlife such as hedgehogs that may fall in.
The following links provide excellent information for pond building:
Once you have built and filled your pond (preferably with rainwater from water butts) it is essential to put oxygenators into the water. Keeping the water oxygenated helps the reptile, amphibian, and insect species to thrive as well as preventing the water from becoming stagnant. Some examples of oxygenators are:
- Rigid Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum)
- Common Water-starwort (Callitriche stagnalis)
- Spiked Watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum)
There are many other pond plants available but if you want to attract wildlife it is best to choose native species. There are three different types of pond plant:
- Bog plants – these sit in the wet area at the edge of the pond. A lovely native plant is Ragged Robin (Silene flos-cuculi).
- Marginal plants – these are planted in the shallow water around the edge of the pond, so their roots are permanently in water. They include marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), tussock sedge (Carex elata) and yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus).
- Deep water aquatic plants – the most popular of these is the Water Lily (Nymphaea). The main thing to consider when you buy deep water aquatics is any specific depth requirements.
Emerging stems such as yellow iris are important for dragonfly nymphs as they crawl out of the water.
You can buy pond plants from some garden centres, but the following suppliers will give advice and supply what you need:
What about the other insects in our gardens?
I have written a fair amount about wildlife gardening for pollinators, but all insects are essential to life on this earth and that includes life in our garden. They keep our gardens healthy with the various roles that they perform. Worms aerate the soil; ladybirds, lacewings, and hoverflies are natural predators of aphids, mites, and mealy bugs; pollinators help fruiting plants; spiders, beetles, aphids, worms, and more are prey for garden birds and hedgehogs. Ground beetles also love to eat slugs and snails, and parasitic wasps will kill caterpillars, ants, and aphids.
If we do not provide habitats for insects or if we happily spray plants with pesticides, we are hindering the natural processes of life which in turn is contributing to the huge decline in insect populations.
There is a lot we can do in our gardens to help:
- Try to avoid using chemicals and instead use natural methods to control pests and diseases on plants. Blackspot on roses for instance doesn’t look pretty but it has never killed any of my rose plants. I usually pick or cut the affected leaves off and make sure I clear rose leaves from the ground, particularly in autumn.
- Hand weed borders little and often rather than using sprays but also remember that many weeds (or wildflowers) are beneficial to insects. Dense vegetation helps ground active invertebrates such as caterpillars, millipedes, beetles, and spiders.
- Leave log piles to decompose at the edge of your garden and keep areas of grass long.
- Choose native trees, shrubs, and plants – preferably sourced locally. These provide some of the best food sources for insects and, if local to your area, will grow well and remain healthy.
- Grow a variety of flowers, grasses, climbers, and shrubs in different colours, shapes, and sizes to provide food and shelter for insects to lay eggs and breed.
- Make your own compost. As well as providing you with free compost for your garden, an open compost bin will give insects food and they in turn will help to break down your food and plant waste into compost.
More information here:
Help beetles by making a beetle bank, a dead hedge, or a beetle bucket. Follow the link here:
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 to give advice about 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 doing 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:
Children’s wildlife project for June & July
Go Wild for Beetles (a joint initiative between the RHS and the Wildlife Trust)
“We’re going wild about beetles! Beetles are a vital part of any wildlife garden. They will munch on garden insects like aphids and snails, whilst acting as food for our larger garden visitors such as hedgehogs and birds. Unfortunately, beetle populations are threatened by things like pesticides, habitat loss and climate change – but you can help!”
Book of the month
Rewild Your Garden by Frances Tophill
“The perfect book for any gardener looking to get back in touch with their wild side. The rewilding of public spaces and farmland is vitally important to conservation, but how can we support native species and provide rich habitats on our own doorsteps?
In this practical, beautifully illustrated guide, horticulturalist and Gardener’s World presenter Frances Tophill shows you how to plan and maintain a beautiful garden that will attract bees and birds as well as a throng of unsung garden heroes. Whether you have a small balcony or a large open space, discover the joys of welcoming natural ecosystems back into your garden – along with a host of new visitors.”