Melanie Oxley is a campaigner for wildlife, a botanist and ecologist, now living in Petersfield where she is part of the new and successful Petersfield Climate Action Network. Here she writes as a Wilder Gardens Champion with the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, offering advice on how anyone with outdoor space can adjust their ways to accommodate nature.
Owing to the devastating loss of habitats and even once-common species in our wider countryside, private gardens and public open spaces have become really important refuges for all kinds of wildlife. This same catastrophic habitat loss has meant that our landscape has lost resilience to climate change.
There are around 20 million gardens in the country, which, with allotments and public open spaces, astonishingly cover almost a third of our land. There is huge potential to create a nature recovery network through our gardens and verges to help reverse declines in wildlife habitat. Our private gardens and public open spaces must become a refuge for biodiversity.
Our gardens can provide an environmental service in the climate and biodiversity crisis. They can help lock up carbon, ameliorate floodwater and the heat-island effect, and they can provide safe havens for wildlife as well as valuable green-space for our own health.
Let’s begin at the beginning – soil
Nothing is more precious than soil. Without a rich, organic, healthy, functioning soil, we are in deep trouble. Making your own compost, adding leaf-litter and chipped bark, all enrich the soil by attracting invertebrates which do all the work of breaking down plant and fungus matter into humus.
Worms are a sign of a healthy soil. Earthworms help lock in carbon and provide an open tilth that allows oxygen to circulate, providing a soil that can absorb water. They are a food source for a range of creatures: moles, frogs and toads, hedgehogs, foxes and song-birds all feed on earthworms.
Next important – insects
Climate change has affected the timing of bud-break and flowering in plants, which may no longer coincide with the active period of associated pollinators and their larval development. In our gardens we should aim to have something in flower in every month of the year, from daphne, vincas and crocuses in early spring, through to asters and ivy in the late autumn. A range of plants is needed to cover all pollinator bases and this can include wild and horticultural species. We can maximise the area we put down to robust perennials, in preference to annuals. This lessens disturbance of our soil structure, which in turn benefits the soil and the creatures living in it, and prevents carbon emissions which result from such disturbance.
What to grow
Mediterraneans – Marjoram, Thyme & Lavender – resistant to baking drought, long-flowering and a huge draw for honeybees
Umbels – all the parsleys, achilleas, crambe etc. – fantastic for butterflies and hoverflies
Daisies – all the asters, rudbeckias, ox-eye daisy, Goldenrod – long and late-flowering simple flowers attractive to bees
Tubular flowers – Comfreys, Foxglove, Lungwort – favourites for early solitary bees (comfrey) and bumblebees
Climbers – ivy, honeysuckle, dog-rose, runner beans
Let herb robert, forget-me-not, yarrow and other wild flowers self-seed. You can pull them up when they are over. Leave dandelions and lesser celandine to flower in your uncut spring lawn. Give over a corner of your garden to nettles. (Nettles are the essential food plant for nine species of British butterfly and they also make delicious soup!)
In a flourishing ecosystem, dead things are an important element – dead wood, prunings and fallen leaves are all habitat. Either leave them where they fall or tidy them into a corner or under a hedge. Leave seed-heads all winter to be tidied only in spring.
Trees, shrubs and climbers
Mature trees produce oxygen and lock up carbon. Native species support thousands of species of bird, insect, bat, fungi and lichen. When planting trees and shrubs, aim for native species that have simple flowers and bear berries in autumn. Include spindle, hawthorn, Cotoneasters, dogwoods and of course the Viburnums. Catkin-forming trees such as birch and hazel provide early pollen. These can be coppiced to keep them small.
Ivy – a special mention
Ivy is possibly the most important native plant in the UK. We can think of it as a shrub. Ivy offers very late pollen of huge value for overwintering insects such as honeybees and the red admiral butterfly. It is long flowering and nectar-rich, with black berries in winter for blackbirds and thrushes. Ivy is a refuge for many species and is easily controlled where it is less desirable, such as in the crowns of trees.
Our lawns can be green deserts for wildlife, especially if closely mowed all year and routinely cleansed of “weeds”. Aim to leave some of your lawn unmown until August/September and mow the rest less frequently with the blades set quite high. This provides a variable habitat for a range of insects which will be eaten by birds and bats through the summer.
To encourage wild flowers to grow in your lawn, reduce its nutrient content year on year by removing all cuttings after mowing and do not add lawn feed.
Go the extra mile
Try not to think of your garden in isolation, but as a jigsaw piece, slotting in next to many other green spaces to provide wildlife with a ‘corridor’ through which it can move freely. You could join with neighbours to have even greater impact and you might each choose to make bigger changes in your gardens to help wildlife, such as:
- installing nestboxes, bughouses and hedgehog highways
drilling holes into upright posts for mason bees
- lifting away some lawn turf to make more space for perennial plants and shrubs
- removing some hard surfacing, making a pond or planting a tree
- replacing a fence with a flowering hedge and climbers
- adding a biodiverse green roof to a shed or garage
- investing in water management equipment
This is what you should try to avoid:
Don’t use peat-based composts
Don’t use chemicals
Don’t burn garden waste
Don’t deadhead in winter
Don’t feed lawns
The central message here, is to reduce your interventions in the garden and let nature take its course. This includes leaving the soil to look after itself and to dig it as little as possible. Instead, add organic material to the soil surface and let your soil organisms do the hard work.
An exciting truth is that even small efforts to encourage wildlife will reap huge rewards. Nature really does bounce back! In taking a step back you will have more time to relax and observe the wildlife using your garden space, even finding the opportunity to contribute to the RSPB’s Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count. Good for wildlife, good for biodiversity, good for the climate, and good for you.