We’ve gathered some ideas from our popular Certificate in Community Orcharding Course to help get you started on making your garden or orchard more ‘wild’ and encourage more beneficial pollinators to take up residence there:
What’s already there?
Explore what natural habitats already exist before you decide what to do next. Wildlife such as nesting birds and hedgehogs can find sanctuary in most of your untidy garden areas. Here are some examples:
- A patch of nettles might appear messy or unimportant, but many butterfly caterpillars feed on nettles (e.g. peacock, small tortoise shell, red admiral and comma) as well as moth caterpillars.
- Patches of bare ground are essential for many ground nesting bees, especially if the soil is sandy or friable.
- Deadwood is also a vital habitat for thousands of species, whether it’s a pile of old logs or a decaying fence/shed
So once you’ve taken stock of what you’ve got already, here are some tips to make your garden more wild.
Leave your lawn
Try to cut any grass as infrequently as possible, to allow perennial plants to flower and set seed. It provides a much better habitat than uniformly short grass. If you mow very regularly, you’re encouraging the type of grasses that form dense mats, excluding other plants.
Dandelions and common daisies will flower briefly between cuts, but you’ll get a much richer mix if you can wait until late summer to mow your lawn. This will provide a habitat for small mammals, grass snakes, common lizards, slow worms and insects – especially ants, bumblebees and some butterflies.
If leaving the whole lawn alone is going too far for you, just leave the edges to go wild, or cut a path through the middle.
If you have trees or shrubs in your garden, mulch them with woodchip. This helps to retain moisture, promotes healthy soil fauna and fungi, builds soil fertility, protects soil from erosion and reduces competition from other plants. It also creates nest and hibernating habitats for small mammals, bumblebees and ground beetles.
Embrace the life in dead wood
Dead and decaying wood is one of the most important habitats for species diversity. Literally thousands of species of invertebrates and fungi need deadwood to exist. The ideal is to have a lot of it and a good range of different types. Standing deadwood is dry and warm, logs on the ground are damp and decay quicker. Several species of bee nest in deadwood, including Red-mason bees and Leaf-cutter bees.
Open a bug hotel
These can be anything from small bird box size shelters stuffed with dried grass and sticks to giant pallet towers or walls designed specifically for wildlife. Imagination and space are the only limiting factors, but a few keys points to think about are:
- a roof to keep everything dry
- a sunny aspect since most species prefer warmth (although many flies like damp, cooler spaces)
- stability – nothing will use your hotel if it spins and bangs about in the wind
- height – most bees want to access nest holes that are a metre or more off the ground
Bamboo canes or hollow stems of reeds and Umbellifers (carrot family plants such as chervil and hogweed) stuffed securely into a container, along with some kind of roof, make simple bee hotels. Different size tubes attract different species of bee – for example stem and mason nesting bees (e.g. Red-mason bee) need tubes at least 15cm long and between 2-13mm in diameter.
Get fruity – plant a tree
Apples, pears, plums and cherries all provide food for birds, even if you would rather harvest it all yourself! Rotting fruit is also good for many insects, small mammals and birds.
The best fruit trees for wildlife are big, old trees. So if you have space, plant trees on fully vigorous rootstocks. An apple tree on a semi-dwarfing rootstock like M26 might not live 20 years, where one on fully vigorous M25 could live for over 100 years. Pears can live 200 years or more. As the trees get bigger and older, they develop rot holes and cavities that are essential for specialist invertebrates and fungi.
Be water wise
Some sort of water source is always good for wildlife. Even if you don’t have space for a pond, you could have a bird bath or a bowl in the ground that collects rain water. It doesn’t matter if it dries out in hot weather. If you top it up, birds and other animals will appreciate it, but ephemeral water pools are natural, and many species have adapted to deal with temporary water sources.
Plant for pollinators
Choose your flowers wisely – double-flowered hybrids might look great to you, but are no good for insects – better options include flowering herbs (lavender, rosemary etc.) and roses, fuchsias, sunflowers and Michaelmas daisies.
Ideally you also want a diversity of flowering plants that flower throughout the year, especially before April or after September when there are fewer species in flower. These will offer a year-round food supply for pollinators. Some suggestions are: flowering currant Ribes sangineum, Blackthorn Prunus spinosa, Gorse Ulex europaeus, and Cherry Plum, Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) Elaeagnus x ebbingei (silverberry) Viola spp. (violets) Eriobotrya japonica (loquat).
As I wrote this blog, a goldfinch was hanging off some flowers in my garden that had gone to seed, carefully picking out what it needed. By just leaving these plants in their natural state rather than cut them or dig them up once they’ve flowered, it provides a vital food source for these beautiful birds.
In many ways, gardening with ‘wild’ in mind not only makes sense for wildlife, but for us too, both in terms of less work and in more enjoyment from watching the natural world play out before us. Whatever steps you take, make sure to also take time out to enjoy the fruits of your labours!
by Sarah Cossom