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Gardening for Wildlife
AGC Gardening for Wildlife: Text
AGC Gardening for Wildlife: Pro Gallery
We’ve all read about the threat to wildlife from encroaching development and agriculture. We might think we’re immune living here in our beautiful community but you’d be wrong. All sorts of species are disappearing. When was the last time your windscreen was plastered with insects after a night drive; when was the last time you saw a hedgehog? This is not just a matter of sentiment or ‘nice to have’. Without bees and other pollinators, we’d have no apples, strawberries, peas, beans, nuts or any produce that needs pollination. Even lettuce needs to be pollinated in order to have seeds to sow the following year. It all starts with the insects; without them the birds would have no caterpillars and the hedgehogs would have no worms and slugs to eat - and on and on up the food chain we go.
Gardens can be havens for wildlife and there are a few simple things we can do to support the wildlife that we should treasure - even though some of it can be a minor nuisance to gardeners occasionally.
Grow for pollinators
As a rule, flowers with a simple, open structure are best for bees, butterflies and other flying pollinators so they can easily access nectar and in the process transfer pollen. Single dahlias are better than the elaborate decorative or cactus types, roses which reveal their stamens are better than ones which are very full-petalled. You can still grow the other types as long as you mix them in with some of the insect friendly types.
Night-flying moths love pale-coloured flowers with long tube-like flower structures, like nicotiana or jasmine.
Flowers which provide pollen early in the year, like hellebores or crocus, or late in the year like aconites and Japanese anemones, are particularly valuable. Ivy is one of the best winter sources of pollen if you let it flower and don’t get a sterile variety. And many trees and hedging plants are also nectar-rich: holly, hawthorn, privet, lime, viburnum, acer and all orchard trees.
Looking after pollinators also means looking after their young and providing plants for their caterpillars to live and feed on. A nettle patch is a must for all peacocks, tortoiseshells and Red Admirals. Blackthorn provides food for many species of butterfly and moth including some rare hairstreaks and their sloes in the autumn are food for everyone.
In addition to those already mentioned, some of the best cultivated flowers for pollinators that are easy to grow here in the Chilterns and easy to acquire include:
Most herbs inc mint, rosemary, thyme, and especially oregano which is a magnet for butterflies and all sorts of insects.
And, of course, a wild flower meadow with native annuals, perennials and grasses is a fantastic thing to create if you have space. You’ll find your own level of tolerance. I can live with daisies and buttercups in the lawn (brilliant for bees) but draw the line at dandelions which are also a great source of nectar.
The RHS has an exhaustive list of plants for pollinators by season here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/pdf/conservation-and-biodiversity/wildlife/plants-for-pollinators-garden-plants.pdf
Look after the birds
Birds are a delight in the garden but also an absolute boon when it comes to controlling some pests without resorting to chemicals. They eat slugs, snails and aphids for you. If you really have to use slug pellets then please net the area you have treated to stop the chance of birds eating them.
Feel free to feed them through the winter with seeds, nuts and fat balls in bird feeders but you can also feed them by leaving up plants which carry seeds such as sunflowers, teasels, eryngiums, artichokes and many herbs like fennel and coriander.
Bushy shrubs and thick hedges offer them great places to nest, and anything which has berries through the winter is doubly valuable.
Have a pond – or just some water
It’s amazing how little water you need to provide to attract wildlife. Not only will wildlife drink from it, some will live and breed in it; toads and frogs are great eaters of slugs. Dragonflies, damsel flies and other flying insects need water to lay their eggs into. Even a plastic washing up bowl sunk into the ground will soon be a thriving watery sanctuary for various creatures. If you can’t make a pond, then put out shallow water for birds and others to drink from.
Don’t be too tidy
All sorts of creatures appreciate a bit of mess in the garden, so don’t be too quick to clear up fallen leaves (except from lawns) dead grasses or flowers. A log pile will be colonized by many insects, including stag beetles. Leave an area of grass to grow long to give shelter to insects.
You’ve probably seen bee hotels, made with a stack of cut-off stems and canes but, if not, here are instructions for a splendid one https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-make-bee-hotel . But you and the kids can make something useful even more simply by just collecting a bundle of hollow stems and binding it with string or sticking them into a plant pot and placing it horizontally.
Be really careful with your bonfires. Many animals, including hedgehogs, choose to hibernate under them so wait well into spring before lighting them. Same is true for compost heaps; try not to disturb them over winter; grass snakes love the heat of them.
Leave fallen orchard fruit to rot on the ground. All sorts of creatures from birds to wasps will gorge on it – and, yes, we need to be kind to wasps too even though they can be annoying. They do a certain amount of pollination but they also eat loads of pests.
Living so close to Ashridge Forest, we are lucky to get some amazing visitors, including deer, badgers and other small mammals. Yes, they will eat stuff, including holly and roses (I’m looking at you muntjac) but rather than try to keep them out completely, just protect the plants that need it. You can protect the bark of small trees from being eaten with proper spiral guards or just a bit of chicken wire.
Live and let live.
I’ve even learned to tolerate badgers, after some persuasion. When a badger sett appeared under a raised bed with some rather expensive plants in it I went nuts. But they survived, and, even if they hadn’t, what’s more beautiful: the animal or the plant?
If your garden is fenced very thoroughly, please consider cutting a few holes at the base to allow hedgehogs to pass through easily without being forced onto roads. They are so rare now that we need to protect the ones we have. If you choose to feed hedgehogs, use meat-based pet food. Never give them milk.
Don’t just leave the slug pellets in the shed, try not to use any chemical pesticides, all of which can easily find their way into the food chain. Healthy plants are better able to resist pests so feed your plants well with home-made compost and water them when they need it. A water-stressed rose is much more likely to succumb to aphids, for instance.
There is loads more to know on this subject, so, if my short essay has piqued your interest, you can find more online, and the RHS is always great place to start: https://www.rhs.org.uk/wildlife/in-the-garden/encourage-wildlife-to-your-garden
AGC Gardening for Wildlife: Text
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