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Dragonfly on lavender

16 Experts Give Their Top Tips for Wildlife Gardening

Published on 2nd April 2019

Lots of us are concerned about climate change, loss of biodiversity and other environmental problems. But it's often hard to know what we can do about it.

Luckily, we've got our gardens! They're an incredible resource and provide a huge opportunity to give wildlife a helping hand.

To help you help nature, we asked representatives from some of the UK's biggest gardening and nature organisations for their top wildlife gardening tips. From authors to TV presenters, scientists to bloggers and even Candide's very own CEO; their combined wisdom can be found below.

N.B. Some quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kate Humble

Well known as one of the Springwatch presenters, Kate Humble has presented an impressively long list of wildlife, travel and natural history series for the BBC. She's also a farmer, beekeeper, author and entrepreneur, and has served as President of the RSPB for four years.

The great thing about our wildlife is that it doesn’t like things too tidy.

A slightly unruly hedge is perfect for nesting birds or animals that want to move from one place to another, out of sight of beady-eyed predators. Compost heaps, leaf piles, discarded wood and tree stumps are all wonderful wildlife habitats (and will prove useful to you too).

A pond, even a small one, allows you not only to grow beautiful plants like flag iris and marsh marigold, but will also quickly become home to diving beetles, pond skaters, dragonflies, frogs, toads and - if you are lucky - newts. And there is something about having water in your garden that is particularly restful and calming. A good place to sit with a glass of something at the end of a stressful day!

Fruit trees are wonderful, and you can get small varieties that don’t take up too much space. They produce lovely blossom for pollinators like bees and fruit for you later in the year. Butterflies flock to buddleia and bees love lavender and nepeta, both of which will give you lots of long-lasting colour.

And finally, to make birdwatching really easy, put bird feeders in your garden. But don't put them out in the open because small birds will be vulnerable to hunting sparrowhawks. Instead, put the feeders on (or near) a tree or hedgerow where birds can find cover.

And make sure you have a patch of grass to lie on and look at the stars…

Kate's new book, Thinking On My Feet, is available for pre-order and is set to be released at the end of May. Kate also runs Humble Beauty, an environmentally friendly beauty range.

Dave Goulson

A Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, Dave Goulson is an insect and bumblebee specialist. Widely quoted in the media, Dave is the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and has written several books about insects and wildlife gardening.

Try to be tolerant of ‘weeds’. One person’s weed is another person’s wildflower, and if you can reimagine weeds as wildflowers, you can save yourself an awful lot of work.

If you have daisies, dandelions, buttercups and clovers in your lawn, don’t try to weed them out, or (worse still) spray them off with selective herbicides. Be proud of them. Allow them to flower by mowing a bit less often, and enjoy the bumblebees that will inevitably arrive and begin collecting the nectar. Your lawn is a wildflower meadow just waiting to happen!

Dave's latest book, The Garden Jungle, is available for pre-order now and will be in the shops from 11th July.

Doug Tallamy

Doug Tallamy is an award-winning author and professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. He's authored almost 100 scientific papers and is hugely respected in his field.

In the US, more than 83% of the lower 48 states is privately owned (N.B. The figures are probably similar in the UK), so landowners everywhere can play an important role in conservation by reducing the area of lawn, removing invasive plants, and using more ecologically productive plants. We can only reach a sustainable compromise with the natural world that sustains us by designing landscapes that enhance rather than degrade the ecosystems that support us.

You can find out more about Doug's fascinating work on his website, Bringing Nature Home.

Alan Down

From transforming Cleeve Nursery into the gardening icon it is today to hosting his own TV show and now regularly writing for Candide, Alan's done it all in the gardening world. And luckily for us, he knows a lot about wildlife gardening too.

Raptors, dragonflies, foxes and frogs might be exciting and sexy but we mustn't forget that plants underpin all wildlife!

Don't worry too much about planting native plants in your little patch. It has been clearly proven that non-native and often more decorative plants are just as attractive to insects and other wildlife.

However, when you choose your plants, try wherever possible to grow those with single flowers as these are much more attractive to insects.

Alan writes the extremely informative blog Down to Earth, and check out his weekly gardening tips on Candide!

Adrian Thomas

As the RSPB's long-time champion of wildlife-friendly gardening and a trustee of the Wildlife Gardening Forum, Adrian's done more than most to drive the wildlife gardening revolution forward.

Call me greedy, but I always encourage people to do seven things to make their garden more wildlife friendly. I find that people love ticking off which of the seven they have done, and which they might do next!

1) Plants plants plants. They're the bedrock of the wildlife-friendly garden, and a great excuse to fill your garden with as many plants as possible, and that means trees, shrubs, climbers, flowers, lawns. By choosing plants that are known to have added value for wildlife, you can have an even greater effect. For example, did you know that there are only a very small number of flowers that are regularly visited by butterflies?

2) Add water. It's the single quickest way to add wildlife value to a garden. It could just be a birdbath, but a pond is even better. And the larger you can make it, the greater the variety of wildlife it will support.

3) The power of rot! Log piles, stick piles, leaf piles, compost heaps, mulches - there are a whole host of creatures that rely on decomposing matter and the cover it provides, so don't burn it or put it in the green bin. It's gold dust!

4) Add nesting places. Gardens don't often have the holes and hideaways that some creatures need to nest in, so add artificial boxes for birds (include boxes with different sized holes), hedgehogs, bats, solitary bees etc.

5) Provide some supplementary food. Put up bird feeders, and keep feeding all year. But remember this is to provide a side dish to the main course, which is all the seeds and insects the birds will find in your garden filled with plants, water and compost.

6) Cut down on chemicals. Remember that anything you use to kill things in the garden (herbicides, insecticides, 'bug killers') will take out whole layers of the food chain. Hit the bugs, and you'll hit the hedgehogs, garden birds, frogs, toads etc. as well.

7) Do it everywhere. Incorporate these wildlife-friendly ideas throughout the garden, not just in a little bit of it. Hoverflies and ladybirds can be welcomed into your veg patch where they will eat aphids. Bees and butterflies can enliven your flower beds. The walls of your house can support beautiful climbers home to nesting birds.

There is one final ingredient: a little bit of knowledge really helps. For example, the caterpillars of the gorgeous common blue butterfly only eat birdsfoot trefoil, so if you don't have this pretty little lawn plant, you're unlikely to have the butterfly. So gen up on the basics, and it will make you that much more successful at encouraging wildlife to set up home.

Oh, and take heart from the fact that gardens are proving to be an unexpectedly important place for wildlife. By doing all the things above, you can make a genuine difference and help save nature - and have some wonderful experiences with fascinating wildlife along the way.

You can read more of Adrian's invaluable advice by checking out his book, the official RSPB Gardening for Wildlife guide, which includes such useful gems as the top 500 wildlife-friendly plants. Adrian also writes regularly for Garden Answers and BBC Gardeners' World magazines, and his expertise was vital for creating this extensive library of easy activities to make your garden more wildlife friendly.

Fay Vass

As Chief Executive of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS), Fay Vass is leading the charge to defend our sadly dwindling hedgehog population. If anyone knows how you can make your garden hedgehog friendly, it's Fay!

The best single piece of advice is to make sure that your garden boundary has access points for hedgehogs. CD case-sized gaps will do the trick! If hedgehogs can’t get in, you can’t do anything to help them!

There are lots of other things that would be great too – ditching pesticides and poisons, checking areas carefully before using strimmers and mowers, re-siting bonfires on the day they are to be lit and checking them carefully, providing escape routes in ponds and pools, ensuring drain holes are covered, checking before jabbing a fork into the compost heap. I could go on all day!

Offering meaty cat or dog food and clean water is a great help too, especially when the weather is very dry.

You can find loads more information and support their vital work on the BHPS website. And the Hedgehog Awareness Week is coming up in May!

Rosie Leary

Rosie isn't just Secretary of the Bristol Nature Network, she's also a resident plant expert at Candide, keeping our vast knowledge base in tip-top condition.

Leave a small space in your garden that you don't disturb too much – the insects will appreciate it more than you would!

We generally notice insects much more in the summer; it's hard not to when they’re buzzing about in your space, hunting after your sugary treats. Remember though, they are still around in the colder months, having just as tough a time as you are in the chilly weather. Insects are an integral part of many food webs, working to control pests, pollinate plants and feed wildlife. They are rather underappreciated for all the hard work they do!

Something you can do to help is to leave a small section of your green space untended for them. Try to use a location set away from heavy footfall and let it go wild! This means no grass cutting, pruning or other gardening activity. Try to set aside a section of your space that you can leave untouched for a good length of time. And for bonus points, make an insect hotel!

Insect hotels (aka bug hotels) are a wonderful way to encourage more wildlife to set up home in your garden. They are simple and cheap to construct yourself, or commercial products are available for those short on time. The best ones are made from a wide range of different materials to provide an abundance of habitat types for wildlife.

You can find out more about the Bristol Nature Network on the BNN website, and follow Rosie on Instagram to keep up with her awesome Bristol- and nature-filled photos.

Paul Hetherington

As Director of Fundraising and Communications for Buglife, Paul Hetherington knows exactly what it takes to look after your garden's smallest inhabitants.

Be less tidy. One of the major factors affecting insect populations is habitat loss and fragmentation. Good quality habitat for insects is being eroded away. Insects don’t like manicured lawns, and whilst cultivated double-flowered plants look lovely in the garden, they are bad news for pollinators as they typically don’t produce pollen and their nectar is hidden deep inside their flowers.

You can help the insects in your garden by letting the grass grow longer and sowing some wildflowers. If every garden had a little patch for insects, collectively it would probably be the biggest area of wildlife habitat in the world.

Find out more about Paul and Buglife's work and support their mission to save the planet (no understatement) by taking a look at the Buglife website.

Matt Cracknell

Matt Cracknell is the Project Manager for Feed Bristol, a community food-growing project and wildflower nursery backed by the Avon Wildlife Trust. They use sound ecological management and wildlife gardening to benefit biodiversity, educate the public and grow lots of food!

Give over a corner of your garden to create a natural habitat by introducing a mix of perennial native wildflowers, as these are fantastic for pollinators. A top pick is birdsfoot trefoil, which attracts a large range of pollinators, has a long flowering season and has one of the highest protein contents.

Building a pond is a catalyst for change in your garden, especially if it's surrounded by piles of wood and areas of grass that are allowed to grow long amongst the flowers. This tufty habitat provides refuge for invertebrates and mammals as well as the conditions for insects to lay eggs and for pupae to overwinter.

If you want to visit the Feed Bristol site, you can find them in Stapleton in north Bristol - the postcode is BS16 1HB. For more info, take a look here.

Dafydd Lewis

In his role as Hon. Secretary and Treasurer of the Amateur Entomologists' Society, Dafydd Lewis plays a key role in promoting the conservation of insects and educating the unenlightened bug-haters.

People sometimes use leaf blowers to remove fallen leaves in the autumn, so as to avoid contamination of their precious lawns by disease and moss growth; some also rake them and apply moss-killing chemicals. We certainly wouldn’t recommend any of the above!

To maintain a happy wildlife garden, dead leaves should be left as food for worms and other decomposers, which are good for the soil. Moreover, instead of being kept as flat, uniform green deserts, lawns can become meadows that will provide a home for wildlife. They can be mowed once or twice a year, with native wildflowers allowed to flourish (or planted where appropriate), and they'll delight both their owners and wildlife alike.

One of the most effective things we can do in the wildlife garden is to build a pond. Ponds are very much underestimated as sources of biodiversity, and they’re also important from the point of view of climate change.

Recent research suggests that they’re far more efficient than woodlands and forests when it comes to carbon capture and storage, and they’re among the most widespread habitats for plant and animal life, especially the all-important insects. In fact, ponds are disproportionately rich in species compared to rivers, streams and lakes, and are home to many rare creatures.

Build a pond in your garden, and the wildlife will come!

Another advantage is that ponds slow down water run-off following rain, thereby mopping up nutrients and minimising flooding. Ponds can be our own back yard ‘carbon sink’, as well as providing the first experience of pond-dipping for young naturalists – under adult supervision, of course!

Log piles can be positioned near your pond and will provide habitats for many invertebrates and a hibernation spot for frogs and toads. Logs can be obtained from friends or neighbours who are having tree work done, or even from tree surgeons. If you only have a small garden, you can still have a log pile, as they don't take up much room.

Logs can be laid next to and on top of each other, with a few half-buried upright in the ground. Some of the logs should be positioned in shade, so they don’t all dry out in the sun. Logs with the bark still on them are best, because many interesting invertebrates live under the bark.

Finally, do venture into your wild garden regularly to chill, improve your mental wellbeing (yes, wild gardens do that too) and make a note of the plants and animals that live there. Wild gardens can be our individual contribution to ‘saving the planet’, and if everyone had one, our diminishing numbers of insects and other wildlife could begin to recover.

Learn more about insects and get involved on the Amateur Entomologists' Society website.

Nic Wilson

One of our top 10 bloggers for 2019 and a regular writer for Candide, Nic Wilson is hugely passionate and knowledgeable about wildlife gardening, and we love her holistic approach!

My best piece of advice would be to consider our gardens as connected to the wider landscape, part of a network made up of over 400,000 hectares of garden habitat across the UK.

Considering what animals might be present locally enables us to support their populations by allowing access into gardens (for example, fence holes for hedgehogs to move through) and providing feeding, sheltering and nesting sites.

The success of our gardens and plants is inextricably linked to the health of the natural environment, so by encouraging native fauna and flora to flourish, we can help support local populations and enjoy the uplifting sights and sounds of wildlife in our gardens all year long.

Take a look at Nic's blog Dogwooddays for endless wildlife gardening inspiration!

Dave Gallimore

With over 20 years of gardening experience, Dave Gallimore has now set up a community wildlife garden project in Manchester, and helps other people make their gardens more wildlife-friendly.

Create habitats for wildlife: hedgehog houses, log piles, nest boxes, a pond, a bug house, areas of longer grass, wildflowers, climbing plants on the fence, trees and hedges, a variety of bird feeders and food, leaf piles, bee-friendly plants etc.

To find out more about Dave and his services, check out The Wildlife Friendly Gardener.

Penny Bunting

Penny Bunting is a writer and photographer as well as running an award-winning project called Little Green Space. The project encourages people to live greener and make positive environmental changes no matter how much space they have.

Don’t be too tidy. A patch of unmown grass can quickly become a mini meadow, with wildflowers such as clover, daisies and dandelions emerging to provide a source of nectar for bees and butterflies.

Piles of branches, twigs and fallen leaves – tucked away in a quiet corner – could become home to a hibernating hedgehog or toad.

Avoid cutting back dead stems in winter: these often harbour slumbering insects such as lacewings or ladybirds. And save the shears on ivy too – it’s superb for wildlife, providing nesting sites and berries for birds, as well as late-season nectar for pollinators.

Take a look at Little Green Space to see how you can get involved and make a difference.

Emily Hazell

With a wealth of knowledge about all things green or furry, Emily Hazell is the Horticultural Training Officer at St Werburghs City Farm in Bristol and also works as a freelance gardener.

Plant for all seasons and both you and wildlife will reap the benefits.

A recent study has shown that wild bees and hoverflies have been lost from a quarter of their territories since the 1980s. In light of this, urban micro wildlife gardens and community gardens are increasingly being recognised as ways to provide a vital patchwork of habitat for species that are losing habitats to industrialised farming and other developments.

Urban micro wildlife gardens could be a window box, a shaded nook festooned with ferns or a local community garden. Well planted containers can be vital stepping stones for pollinators in food deserts, and small gardens can harbour frogs and raucous bird life.

However much space you have to play with, planning all-year-round planting can be extremely rewarding for yourself, pollinators, visiting vertebrates and soil microfauna. Spotting a bee on a wild primrose or birds squabbling over architectural teasel seed heads lifts me out of winter gloominess into positive anticipation for the year ahead.

Plump spring bulbs can be plopped in during the autumn, and the bold lights of miniature irises and the intricacies of snakeshead fritillaries can take the edge off an inhospitable spring for wildlife and humans alike. With these plants, you will be feeding and sheltering wildlife all through the darkest months, supporting them to come out the other side.

Here are five of my favourite wildlife plants for small spaces. They will give you year-round interest, and so year-round food for pollinators and other wildlife in your garden. If you have a container or window box, all but one is suitable, and an alternative is listed.

1. Wild primroses - Primula vulgaris: Wild primroses flower in February (when winter doom really sets in) up until May. Early-emerging, native pollinators such as bumblebees and bee flies can rely on primroses for a source of nectar. Suitable for container planting or naturalising into a lawn or bank.

2. Snakeshead fritillaries - Fritillaria meleagris: Snakeshead fritillaries are spring-flowering bulbs whose intricately patterned purple heads are great for a modernist take on wildlife gardens. Solitary bees are their most successful pollination partner.

3. Bugle - Ajuga reptans: Green-veined moths, silver moths and white-bottomed bees all visit bugle when it flowers from May-July. Some prefer the bolder flowers of Catlin's giant, but I’m a fan of the standard variety. Great for bringing interest into a shady spot, either in containers or an overshadowed or north-facing front garden.

4. Poached egg plants - Limnanthes douglasii: Poached egg plants attract pollinators and beneficial insects such as hoverflies from June-September. Great for the lazy gardener - chuck some seeds down, and they’ll come back every year. Can be grown in containers or the soil. They like the sun.

5. Teasels - Dipsacus fullonum: Teasels are excellent flowers for humans, birds and bees. They flower in June and birds will have a feast over the winter if you leave the architectural flower heads to stand. While teasels aren't very suitable for containers, sunflowers are a good alternative. I once watched a squirrel nibble off a 40cm sunflower head from one of the containers around the farm and then scuttle into a paddock to bury the whole head for the winter.

Those small on space may wonder how to cram all of that into a container. My advice would be to switch your container once a year.

In autumn, put compost in the bottom of your container and plant bulbs of snakeshead fritillaries. Cover with compost. Then plant in bugle and primroses. Watch with anticipation from your kitchen window for flowers to burst throughout the year. In another container, sow poached egg plants and sunflowers to give you a lively summer show.

Find out more about the amazing St Werburghs City Farm and the various hugely valuable projects that they run, or check out Emily's Instagram for flowery delights.

Helen Bostock

Helen has been at the RHS for nearly 20 years. As Senior Horticultural Advisor she divides her time between the Gardening Advice and Plant Health teams, sharing her passion for wildlife gardening. She helps coordinate the RHS Wild About Gardens campaign with The Wildlife Trusts, and she's been an active member of the Wildlife Gardening Forum for over ten years, among a wide range of other high-profile projects.

Some people discover that as a child as they delight at the sight of an earthworm. Others don’t learn it until much later, perhaps only when the frenetic pace of life has started to slow. But at whatever age, my single piece of advice for someone embarking on a love affair with wildlife gardening is to stop still and start looking.

It’s amazing what you spot when you aren’t moving. Get on your hands and knees and peer into your lawn – ants, mining bees and grasshoppers will make their presence known. Pull up a chair by some pots of lavender – you’ll start to see not all bees are the same and not all plants attract the same insects. Or pause by a garden hedge and spy nesting birds coming in and out, or mice rustling in the leaf litter at the base.

Wildlife gardening may be about lots of doing, but it starts with lots of looking. How simple is that?!

As the product of a partnership between the RHS and the Wildlife Trusts, Wild About Gardens is a hugely valuable resource. Click the link to discover everything you might want to know about making your garden more wildlife friendly.

Andrew Philbrick

Andrew is CEO of Candide, our eternal guiding light and the proud guardian of a toad that overwintered in his garden.

Don't block the holes at the base of your hedge - that's how the foxes and badgers get around.

Have a pond with rocks at the bottom, slightly hidden from the house. And don't use any pesticides or chemicals around it so that toads make it their home. They're fantastic at reducing slugs and snails so placing the pond near plants that suffer snail damage is a good way to enjoy natural pest control.

If you haven't downloaded Candide already, make Andrew happy and head over to the app store now! It's fun, it's free, and it's the best thing in gardening since someone made a curvy pair of hardcore scissors and called them secateurs.

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Sam Coppard
United Kingdom
A plant lover lucky enough to work at Candide!

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