Gardening for wildlife
After a year of lockdowns and learning to live life in a different way, many of us are looking forward to longer, sunnier days. March is the month when we start to think about spending more time in our gardens and outdoor spaces. Whatever you have, from a balcony to a large garden, there are many ways that you can welcome more wildlife and increase biodiversity.
Nature needs us to work alongside it rather than against it. Our pollinators, from bees and beetles to hoverflies, need us to provide food and a home for them; insects benefit from messy areas in the garden and caterpillars also need food plants. In turn, the birds will be attracted to a greater abundance of insects and are more likely to make a home in or near your garden. Did you know that blue tit nestlings need up to 100 portions of food per chick? With an average of 8 or 9 chicks in a nest, that is a lot of food! These are mainly green caterpillars if they can find them, but chicks are also fed with insects and even aphids.
I will be writing a monthly diary of wildlife gardening tips with links to more information. Each month I will investigate a different aspect of wildlife gardening and I will also suggest ideas for getting children involved. Links to further resources are at the end of this article.
March is often a difficult month for your garden wildlife. The weather can fluctuate from very warm during the day to freezing at night. Insects are often still sheltering from the colder weather, birds are looking for food sources to prepare for breeding, pollinators need early food sources as they emerge on warmer days and hedgehogs are coming out of hibernation, needing food and water. The following are a few of the things you can do in your garden to help:
Leave messy areas
Insects, from beetles and ladybirds to ants and other minibeasts benefit from undisturbed areas in the garden. Create a log pile in a corner, letting it rot down (add leaves in autumn) and allow weeds to grow.
Wildlife Trust – Action for Insects
RSPB – Homes for insects
If you compost your waste and have the space, build an open compost bin which will provide food and shelter for so many insects, as well as worms. You can make a simple compost bin with wooden pallets but there are many types you can buy, and you will be rewarded with rich homemade compost to put on your flower or vegetable beds.
How to make a compost bin – www.gardenorganic.org.uk/homemade-compost-bins
Mulch borders & go peat-free
This is the time of year to replenish nutrients in the soil by adding compost to your borders. No need to dig it in! Just add it to the top of any bare soil and the worms will do the hard work for you. Healthy soil is full of invisible microbial life as well as the creatures you can see scuttling around on the surface. Your local birds will benefit from this extra food source too. If you don’t have homemade compost it is better for the environment to opt for peat-free compost which you can find in most garden centres. Over 94% of peat has been removed or destroyed in the UK’s lowland bogs. Peat bogs capture and store carbon as well as provide a rich habitat for wildlife.
Choose a diverse range of plants, shrubs & trees to help pollinators
Our pollinators, including butterflies, bees, hoverflies and beetles are in sharp decline. Lack of food, climate change and use of pesticides have contributed to their diminishing numbers but we can help. They need caterpillar food plants and accessible flowers all year round. If you have a balcony, think about planting pots of pollinator friendly plants. We have all seen bees collecting nectar and pollen from lavender and butterflies on buddleja. Native plants are the most beneficial for insects but there are many non-native perennial and annual flowers that are also great for pollinators.
Choose plants with nectar rich, single flowers rather than double blooms which make access more difficult. At this time of year primroses, pulmonaria, crocuses, hellebores and wallflowers are in flower or beginning to bloom. If you have space for climbers, clematis cirrhosa flowers in winter. You could plant foxgloves, echinacea, hollyhocks, Jacob’s ladder, and salvias. If you like to grow annuals from seed consider cosmos, cornflower, musk mallow, and sunflowers. If you have space for a hedge consider buying native species such as hawthorn, dog rose and wild honeysuckle.
Feed the birds
In the UK, we are well known for feeding our garden birds and if nothing else, this is one of the best ways to supplement the natural food for our diverse range of garden birds. March is also a good month to make or buy a nest box to attract birds to your garden. If you are already doing even a few of the things listed above, you will also help to provide more insect food and worms for the birds.
Love your weeds & let grass grow
Dandelions are one of the best early flowers for nectar and pollen and are a lifesaver for pollinators in Spring. A small lawn covered in common dandelions will provide far more nectar than a field of a monoculture crop such as wheat. If grass is left to grow, a whole variety of wildflowers native to your area will grow to provide cover and food for so many insects. If you like to see a well-cut lawn, consider allowing one area to grow a bit longer. Later in the year I will provide more information about No Mow May, a project by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife.
Help the hedgehogs
Hedgehogs are a delight to see in our gardens but, like other wild species, their population has dropped drastically and they need help so that they can move from garden to garden to forage, nest and breed. Make your garden hedgehog friendly by making sure there are gaps (about 10cm) under any fences, leaving some untidy areas along garden borders and resisting the use of slug pellets which are poisonous to hedgehogs. In the Spring they will be hungry, and you could supplement their diet by providing food and water (see link for more information).
A chemical-free garden
Over the years many of us will have reached for the weed killer, bug spray or slug pellets to destroy the ‘pests’ in our gardens. More and more people are now choosing to garden organically, and this is certainly best for wildlife and biodiversity. Aphids can be a nuisance when they nibble at our plants, but ladybirds and ants love them. They can also be easily washed off with water and a bit of washing up liquid. As a keen gardener with an allotment, slugs have always been an enemy, but I now use natural methods such as beer traps and barriers to control them. If you grow vegetables, plant some companion plants such as marigolds nearby to attract insects, which in turn will feed on the bugs on your vegetables. There are rarely fail-safe methods but by not using chemicals you will be providing a welcome food chain for wildlife and, hopefully will feel better for it.
I know that many people have used lockdown time to build ponds in their gardens (we did!). A pond is one of the most valuable wildlife habitats for so many different species and I for one, get huge delight watching the birds bathing at the ‘beach end’ of our new pond. Even if you only have a small space, there are many ideas for making a pond out of a stone basin or even a washing up bowl! If you already have a well-established pond, you may be lucky to have lots of frogspawn at this time of year. Tadpoles usually hatch within 2 weeks and start to feed on algae then insects, snails, and other pond life. As the water warms (this depends on the depth and size of the pond), plants will grow to provide cover and food for the many species that live in the water or on the pond edges.
Children’s wildlife project for March
Creepy crawlies and bugs are fascinating to watch and if you attract them to your garden, encourage children to watch them closely, take photos, draw them and make a list of everything they see. Click on this link to find out how to build a bug mansion.
Book of the month
I love books! I used to be a librarian and can never resist some of the beautiful and very useful books about wildlife gardening. If you want to read more about the UK’s common garden species and how to help them, this is the book for you:
Wildlife Gardening for everyone and everything
by Kate Bradbury