Gardening for nature

Melanie Oxley is a campaigner for wildlife, a botanist & ecologist, and heads up PeCANs Wildflower Verges Campaign. Here she writes as a Wilder Garden Champion with the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), with some advice about how garden owners can adjust their ways to accommodate more nature. Melanie gives talks to local groups on this subject ([email protected]), as well as free in-your-garden advice through the HIWWT - contact [email protected]

Why must we provide for 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 our landscape has lost resilience to climate change.

Every green space now counts…..
According to David Attenborough. 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 here 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.

Climate change mitigation
Our gardens can provide an environmental service in the climate & 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 that do 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, and also provides a soil that can absorb water. They are a food source for a range of creatures - moles, frogs & toads, hedgehogs, foxes and song-birds all feed on earthworms.

Next important – insects
Insect populations have suffered enormously owing to modern farming methods, including the use of pesticides, abundance of insects has fallen by 50% or more since 1970. This is troubling, because insects are vitally important, as food, pollinators and recyclers.
Climate change has affected the timing of bud-break and flowering times in plants, which may no longer coincide with the active period of associated pollinators & their larval stages. In our gardens we should aim for something in flower in every month of the year, from daphne, vinca’s & crocuses in early spring, through to asters and ivy in the late autumn. A range of plants is needed to cover all pollinator bases. This can include wild and horticultural species. We should maximise the area we put down to robust perennials, rather than annuals. This lessens disturbance of our soil structure.

What to grow
Mediterraneans – Marjoram, Thyme & Lavender; resistant to baking drought, long-flowering and a huge draw for honeybees
Umbels – all the parsleys, achillea’s, crambe etc. fantastic for butterflies and hoverflies
Daisies – all the aster’s, rudbeckia’s, 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

Get a bit more messy around the edges
Let herb robert, forget-me-not, yarrow and other wild flowers that like your garden,self-seed. You can pull them up when they are over. Leave dandelions and lesser celandine to flower in your uncut spring lawn – these are important early nectar sources for solitary bees. 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, & 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.

Starve your lawns
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 un-mowed until late July or later and mow the rest less frequently with the blades set 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.

Put in 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. Try to think of it as a shrub. Ivy offers very late pollen of huge value for over-wintering insects such as honeybees and red admiral. 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.

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’ in which to move around freely. You could join with neighbours to provide greater impact and you might each choose to make bigger changes in your gardens to help wildlife, such as:
• install nestboxes, bughouses and hedgehog highways
• drill holes into upright posts for mason bees
• lift away lawn turf to put down a greater area to perennial plants and shrubs
• remove some hard surfacing and make a pond or plant a tree
• replace a fence with a flowering hedge and climbers
• have a biodiverse green roof added to a shed or garage
• invest in water management equipment

Finally here is what you must 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

Useful information

Top plants for pollinators – BBC Discover Wildlife
RHS Plants for Pollinators, including horticultural species 

Plantlife are hosting an online event on February 22nd at 6pm as part of their Spring into action series: How to make a mini-wildflower meadow in your park or garden.  You can register for the event here.