Gardening for wildlife
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness… from ‘To Autumn’, by John Keats
September can be a month of changes as we head into Autumn, but usually there is an abundance of fruit in hedgerows and on trees. Often sunny, with shortening days and cooler nights, our gardens still have a lot to give – with brightly coloured flowers to enjoy. Insects will be flocking to late summer flowers such as Verbena bonariensis and Heleniums. Frogs, toads and newts will be looking for shelter in log piles, compost heaps and the bottom of ponds.
In October, the days will generally be cooler and all kinds of wildlife from frogs to hedgehogs will be preparing for the Winter months to come.
I am amalgamating the article for September and October because I often find myself repeating information, and the jobs that you can continue to do during these months are much the same.
Here are some of the Autumn gardening jobs that you can do with wildlife in mind:
According to Plantlife, ‘The rewards of mowing less and converting to a wilder approach are ample. As well as enabling the growth of more species on your lawn such as orchids and wildflowers which benefit pollinators and wildlife, mowing less can have a dramatic impact on your environmental footprint. Species rich grass helps sequester more carbon in the soil, so your lawn becomes a better carbon store as a result.’
Leaving just a small area of grass long and uncut can shelter wildlife as the weather gets cooler.
If you have chafer grubs or leatherjackets in your lawn, they can be treated with nematodes which provide effective control but are wildlife friendly. If you are lucky enough to have starlings in your garden, you may see them strutting around pecking at the lawn – they love chafer grubs!
Lawns can become very compacted during the Summer so rake out any thatch, then aerate – either the whole lawn or just the compacted areas. Brush a soil conditioner, such as used compost, into the holes after aerating. Avoid any lawn food high in nitrogen at this time of year as it promotes growth at the wrong time. When you cut the grass for the last time before Winter, leave it a little longer.
Garden borders & hedges
September is a good time to look around your garden, thinking about what worked well and what didn’t. Was there a particular plant that was buzzing with bees? Can you add more pollinator friendly plants? I have mentioned before that planting in blocks is good for pollinating insects, especially if you want to attract a particular species. Do you have native species of plants in your garden? These are particularly beneficial for our native insects.
Autumn is the time to plant bulbs for Spring flowers, which will provide much needed food for insects when very little else is in bloom. These can be planted in pots or borders, so you can still do a lot to help if you have a balcony or a courtyard with limited space. There are so many varieties available but not all of them are best for the bees. These Spring flowers provide the most nectar and pollen:
- Snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) – this beautiful native flower secretes nectar with a higher sugar concentration than most other bulbs.
- Anemone blanda – large, daisy like flowers in blue, purple, pink, or white. Great for planting under trees and shrubs, they will naturalise and increase in number year after year.
- Crocus – these come in a multitude of colours and look wonderful in pots or naturalising in grass. They need sun to open and provide early nectar for queen bees emerging from hibernation.
- Grape hyacinth (Muscari) – blue Muscari planted in a pot with yellow crocuses provide a wonderful splash of colour. Muscari are a favourite of the hairy-footed flower bee.
- Iris – a dwarf iris with yellow flashes tempting bees in for the pollen. Plant in full sun.
A consideration when sourcing flower bulbs is whether they are organic or not. Non-organic bulbs have been grown with chemicals including pesticides, which get into the soil and can then transmit to the flowers, presenting a threat to pollinators. Use of chemicals in farming is one of the reasons we have seen a sharp decline in insects. Sadly, many of the bulbs and plants sold as ‘bee-friendly’ are full of chemicals. If you would like to read more about this, follow this link:
Now is a good time to plant bare-root, wildlife-friendly trees. Grown as a hedge or as individual trees and shrubs, they will attract moths and other herbivores, which will in turn attract more birds, hedgehogs, bats, and amphibians. Val Bourne, author of The Living Jigsaw, says:
When it comes to trees, try to add at least one wildlife-friendly apple tree, the blossom is highly attractive to bees and the windfalls sustain birds and butterflies. An apple tree will attract 93 species of insects too. Hawthorn and hazel are also excellent, attracting 149 and 79 different insect species respectively. There are also brambles, in the form of cultivated blackberries, on my garden shed, and they are a magnet for bees and hoverflies.
Other jobs for borders & hedges
- Towards the end of September it is worth protecting half hardy and more tender plants from the frost. It is best to use a low nutrient mulch such as straw or leaf mould. Put a thick layer around the crowns of the plants and spread more thinly in areas of bare soil to inhibit the growth of weeds.
- Prune hedges and leave the trimmings tucked under the hedge, where they will provide the perfect hibernation site for a whole range of wildlife including hedgehogs and frogs.
- Don’t be tempted to tidy the borders too much as seedheads can provide food for birds and fallen stems can create shelter for small mammals and insects.
- Salad leaves and herbs such as parsley, rocket, spinach, and coriander can still be sown in September. If you have a greenhouse, salads can be grown throughout the Winter.
- Continue to remove flowerheads to prolong flowering.
- Plant out or move young biennial plants to the areas you want them to grow. Biennials include foxgloves, hollyhocks, columbine, Sweet William, teasel, and wild carrot.
- If perennial plants in your border have finished flowering, you can divide them now and keep only the healthiest sections to replant elsewhere or give to a friend.
Last month I wrote about collecting seed from dried seedheads around the garden. Now is the time to sow hardy annuals and wildflowers. Starting the seed off now will produce stronger plants which will grow quickly in Spring and flower earlier than plants sown that season. For these flowers, Autumn is the natural time for sowing, and some wildflower seeds need the cold of winter to germinate. Here are some to consider:
Corn marigold, nigella, common poppy, cornflower (bees are particularly attracted to blue flowers so these are a must!), scabious, corncockle, Cerinthe, larkspur.
These can be sown into borders, pots, and bare patches in grass if you have an area in your garden that you would like to grow a bit wilder. You can also sow seeds into cells, so you have a better idea of which seedlings are growing. Don’t forget to label them (I have done this a few times!).
- If sowing into bare ground, remove weeds first so that the seedlings don’t have competitors. Rake the soil until it is crumbly.
- Scatter the seed as thinly and evenly as possible.
- Water using a watering can with a rose, so the seeds don’t get drenched.
- Continue to water occasionally if the weather is dry.
- If sowing into pots or cells, fill with peat-free compost which has been sieved and mixed with vermiculite (from a garden centre). Seeds don’t need compost with added feed to germinate.
- Wait for seedlings to appear and protect from slugs and snails.
Take cuttings to multiply your plants
Late Summer and early Autumn are the best times to take semi-ripe cuttings. Semi-ripe cuttings are taken in August and September from new growth which has developed over the Spring and Summer and just started to harden up (but not yet turned woody). There are plenty of plants to choose from but I tend to try cuttings from herbs such as sage, rosemary, mint, and lavender, as well as salvias, penstemons and verbena bonariensis. Salvias aren’t always fully hardy and may not regrow if we have a very cold Winter. If you have a favourite in your garden, it is worth taking cuttings so that you don’t lose the plant altogether. Salvias are also loved by bees so well worth multiplying.
To find out how to take semi-ripe cuttings, follow this link:
Tidy the pond
When gardening for wildlife, a pond (without fish) is probably the most beneficial habitat to add to your space. If you have a small courtyard, you could use an old Belfast sink or even a lined wooden barrel.
Smaller animals will have finished egg-laying, some are hatching, and tiny larvae are getting ready for Winter. Pond plants will begin to die back. Continue to clear out your pond of blanket weed, overgrown plants, and any dead leaves. Leave all plant debris in a pile by the side of the pond for a couple of days to allow creatures to crawl back to the water. Male frogs often spend winter in the muddy depths of ponds, breathing through their skin. If however the pond freezes over, gases caused by decaying plant material can get trapped and poison them. To avoid this, float a ball on the surface of the water to prevent ice from sealing it.
Birds, hedgehogs, amphibians & insects
September and October are the months to begin providing some extra help for birds, hedgehogs, amphibians and insects.
Birds will change their diets as temperatures cool, and will benefit from the food you put out for them. They require a lot of energy to keep themselves warm at night. A lot of our garden birds shift to a berry-based diet as the late summer fruits emerge on bushes. Blackberry, elder and hawthorn provide an essential food source not only for our year-round residents, but also for many of the species migrating south for the Winter. If you have space for these native hedgerow species, now is the time to buy them as bare root plants.
- Clear out nest boxes so that birds can take shelter in them on cold nights.
- Clean bird feeders and ensure that any old, stale food is thrown out.
- If you don’t have a pond, ensure that there is a clean water supply for birds to drink.
Hedgehogs may have produced a second litter in early September. Their survival depends on available food and weather that isn’t too cold or too wet. If you have been putting food out for hedgehogs, continue to do so. In October, as the days shorten and the weather cools, mature hedgehogs will be eating to put on weight for hibernation. They will also begin to build nests.
To help hedgehogs you can
- Provide a readymade nest box – put it out in September so that it loses its ‘new smell.’ Add some twigs and dry leaves.
- Make a hedgehog nest box – there is plenty of information online.
- Put some piles of leaves and twigs around the edges of your garden.
- If you have an open compost bin, be aware that hedgehogs may nest there.
Here are some other things to consider when gardening in Autumn:
- Rather than blowing or raking fallen leaves into a corner and adding them in your garden waste, just leave them in one of two corners of your garden. The leaves will provide food and shelter for insects, bacteria, and fungi. These organisms will get to work and turn your fallen leaves into leaf mould which is an amazing compost for mulching borders and enriching the soil.
- Don’t be tempted to tear down ivy, particularly at this time of year when the flowers are an amazing source of nectar for ivy bees and other bee species.
- Put bundles of twigs at the back of borders, or in a plant pot on its side, where invertebrates and small mammals can shelter.
- If you have pots of plants that you want to keep through winter, bring them in during early October. Check the roots and remove any pests you find lurking there (slugs love to shelter under flowerpots!). Ensure that the compost is damp but not wet before covering the top layer of soil with horticultural grit. Water less frequently.
- Ladybirds may choose to overwinter in your home and will be disturbed by heating systems. They hibernate in large groups, and it might be best to leave them alone. If you don’t want them in the house, use a dustpan and brush and tip them gently into an empty box then move them to the shed.
Free advice about 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 conducting 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 September & October
The Wildlife Trust say:
We absolutely love wildlife – and bet you do too! Wildlife Watch is here for kids that can’t get enough of exploring the great outdoors or those desperate to find out a bit more about the weird and wonderful creatures we share our world with. It’s part of The Wildlife Trusts, who look after lots of awesome places for wildlife and run hundreds of events each year in the UK.
Whether your children are keen to get outside or if they’d prefer to be indoors, there are spotter sheets and activity guides available, masks to make and much more!
Follow the link here: https://www.wildlifewatch.org.uk/
Podcast of the month
I don’t have a lot of time, especially in the Summer, to sit down to read all the books that are waiting on my bookshelf. I have, however, discovered podcasts as a way to listen while I work. They can be informative as well as entertaining.
The Wildlife Garden Podcast is my favourite. It is a fortnightly podcast on how to garden for wildlife, with top-tips and plant ideas from wildlife gardeners Ben and Ellie. Find out more here: