Sylvia Myers, senior site and projects officer with London Wildlife Trust at the Centre for Wildlife Gardening, shares her tips on successful wildlife gardening.
The question you might ask is why do you want to encourage wildlife into your garden? Firstly, a lot of declining wildlife lives (and can thrive) in our gardens - hedgehogs, house sparrows and the majestic stag beetle. Secondly and more selfishly, wildlife can help us - toads eat slugs, ladybirds eat aphids and worms make compost. Thirdly, wildlife is a wonder in our gardens that can bring so much colour and life - blackbirds’ sweet morning chorus, iridescent damselflies paired in a wheel and hummingbird hawkmoths hovering with exotic flair.
Making small changes and additions to help wildlife is easy, and a lot of the activities can be fun projects as well. Even one or two tiny additions can make a huge difference. London’s private gardens make up about a quarter of London by area. That’s a lot of London - and it’s even more in Dulwich. If we all do our bit to help wildlife we can create a giant nature reserve that is fantastic for both people and wildlife.
The first change you can make is the easiest of all - do a little less in your garden and let a few patches grow wild. You don’t need to let a thicket of brambles grow - just a small undisturbed corner or mini-meadow will allow local wild flowers to grow and give cover for animals. Skipper butterflies lay their eggs on long grass stems and red admiral, tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies lay their eggs on nettles. Bumble bees make nests in abandoned field mouse burrows - a buried terracotta plant pot with hole at the surface can be an artificial substitute and the bees will appreciate it more if it is hidden by long undisturbed growth.
The plants you choose can have a favourable impact on the wildlife that will visit your garden. Bees, butterflies and hoverflies are all important pollinators and many species are declining rapidly, which could have major consequences on food production. Pollinators can be helped by choosing flowers that have not been overly cultivated - double blooms confuse pollinators. Recent trends in climate and the urban heat island effect mean that pollinators are now active for most of the year - try and ensure that whatever time of year it is, something is in flower in your garden - right from early crocuses in January to ivy flowers as autumn draws to an end. A broad range of shapes and colours will add aesthetic appeal to your garden and will also cater for the preferences of different pollinator species. Runner beans, thymes and honeysuckle are great for long tongued bees and butterflies, daisy shaped flowers (asters, tansy and sunflowers) are popular with hoverflies and open cup-like flowers such as buttercups, cranesbill and corn cockles will attract beetles and bees with shorter tongues. Trees that produce fruits, berries or nuts are fantastic choices - providing nectar and pollen through their flowers then food for birds and mammals later in the year. Native trees are usually the best as our fauna has evolved alongside them - hawthorn, crab apple, hazel, dogwood and blackthorn are great choices and can easily be kept pruned to a manageable size in a small garden. A dense hedge or patch of shrubs will provide nesting spots and roosts for wrens and house sparrows. Apple trees, plum trees and cherry trees are close enough to our native trees to still be good for wildlife.
Living plants are great for wildlife but the benefits don’t stop when they die. Wood piles or even a single log left in a shady corner of a garden will provide food and shelter for woodlice, centipedes, millipedes, beetles and maybe toads and newts if there is a pond nearby. Dead wood is the food source for stag beetle larvae which can spend up to seven years chomping their way through old tree stumps before emerging and spending a few short weeks as adults. The stag beetle is endangered throughout Europe but Dulwich and south London are strongholds. Dead wood is also food for fungi, much of which grows into fascinating and beautiful forms. Compost bins reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill and provides homes for worms and other invertebrates.
Animals need homes to raise young and to shelter for the winter - in ancient woodland the older trees would have provided many holes and cracks for creatures to make those homes. With less woodland around creatures need a few extra holes to hide in. Making an insect hotel, a bird box or a bat box is a fun project to do with a child or a grandchild and you will hopefully be rewarded by being able to see a happy family of blue tits, pipistrelle bats or leaf cutter bees. Commercially made boxes are also available.
A change for which the whole food chain will thank you is to stop using weedkillers and pesticides in your garden. They do so much harm to far more than just the unwanted ‘pests’ in your garden - they also upset the food chain so there will be fewer natural predators to defend your garden. There are many organic permaculture techniques that can be really effective such as companion planting, using homemade deterrent sprays (using garlic, for example) and simple barrier techniques to slow down slugs.
Last, but certainly not least, do consider adding some water to your garden. If you have enough space you can dig a pond but just a barrel of water with a few plants and stones to help animals get in and out will make such a difference. Frogs will happily breed in a tiny pond and the water will attract aquatic insects such as pond skaters and water boatmen. Ponds also provide valuable drinking water for birds, mammals and insects. Ponds are an important breeding ground for invertebrates and these in turn will feed bats as well as hungry young chicks.
Winter is a great time to plan out your garden and is also the perfect time to plant trees and put up bird boxes ready for spring. If you need more advice or ideas get in touch with London Wildlife Trust, have a look online at The Wildlife Trust’s wildlife gardening PDF guides, or pop into the Centre for Wildlife Gardening in East Dulwich. We have demonstration wildlife gardens with a range of mini-habitats, and are open from 10.30am - 4.30pm Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Visitors are always welcome.