Friday December 14 2018

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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Go wild in the garden

Posted on February 16 2009 at 1:32:09 0 comments

Mallards in the garden

Mary Green offers tips on turning your garden into a haven for various wildlife.

After the bitterly cold new year, January was what I’d call “normal winter weather”. However, February has proved to be really cold again so far, with Candlemas Day (aka Groundhog Day) having heavy snowfall, burying my flowering snowdrops.

I live opposite the best sledging hill in the village, and the snow has been worn out each day and miraculously renewed each night. Most early leaves and flowers on plants are not showing yet, and it looks as if spring will, as the song says, be a little late this year.

There is perhaps nothing that illustrates the dilemmas of wildlife conservation so well as our own gardens. Nowadays we all say that we want our gardens to be wildlife friendly, there are programmes about it on television, and prizes in flower shows.

And yet. Slugs? Greenfly? Birds picking off your flower buds? Ground elder? Rabbits? It isn’t really that straightforward. People plant butterfly-friendly shrubs and then worry about finding caterpillars on them.

Nevertheless, our gardens are a vital part of the ecology of the country. Gardens are the home for a huge variety and amount of wildlife, and it is hard to imagine what plants, birds and insects would disappear without this habitat. It takes a new mindset about gardens, though, to learn to live with wildlife.

The original idea of gardens was to keep the wilderness out, to tame nature. Changing this does not mean letting everything go wild, but shifting the balance a little. My garden isn’t perfect, but I’m learning!

Here are my top ten ideas about making your garden a good wildlife habitat.

1. Forget about garden makeovers (including so-called wildlife-friendly ones!), decking, monochrome foliage, “outdoor rooms”, perfectly raked gravel and all those TV gardening clichés. Let your garden grow naturally, find what suits your soil and setting, and gradually form it into what you want. Gardens are for plants, and plants will bring wildlife.

2. Have some untidy places. Bits of dead wood and cut-off plants make good wildlife homes. Don’t feel you have to deadhead everything – leave some seeds for birds and to self-seed. Leave hollow stems for insects to breed in. Learn to be a bit scruffy. Toads live under old flowerpots and woodpiles. Spiders sunbathe on logs.

3. Set aside a part of the garden as a “meadow” – preferably out of your lawn. You can either strip the grass and set down a meadow properly from scratch, or just see what grows and select what you want, adding odds and ends.

In my medium-size garden I have a little meadow patch that includes bluebells, native orchids, cow parsley, buttercups, self-heal, foxgloves, mullein, feverfew and forget-me-nots. My brother has a “proper meadow” in his large garden, with poppies, cornflowers, yellow rattle and wild carrot. My sister has a kind of woodland glade with wild angelica, astrantia and knapweed.

Weed out what you don’t want, and mow it once a year in winter. Neat grass lawns are not very wildlife friendly, though they give blackbirds access to worms, and you could always have a mole colony.

4. Don’t use weedkillers and pesticides. Weed by hand and learn your weeds, which are only native wild flowers. Some you may like and can leave in places: daisies, spurges, chickweeds, cowparsley, garlic mustard, dandelions, arum lilies are all allowed in parts of my garden. Many of these are edible in the spring. Some you will want to remove, like ground elder and nettles, but even these are edible plants as well as attracting butterflies and other insects.

There is a garden in the local area with a wonderful patch of variegated ground-elder! And leaving a little patch of nettles will probably attract more butterflies than planting special shrubs. Find out about natural pest control methods – complementary plants, natural predators, slug traps.

5. Grow a lot of native flowers, shrubs and trees. Plant English bluebells, foxgloves, snowdrops, wild roses, primroses, lady’s smock (but don’t uproot them from the wild to get them.) Try the little wild native daffodils instead of the big varieties.

Have a hawthorn hedge, native cherry, damsons and rowan trees. If you have a big old garden edged with ash, oak or beech trees, think yourself lucky and look after them! If you have trouble with flooding, trees will help soak water up.

Grow fruiting trees like hawthorn and holly, and you will have birds in the autumn and winter, including fieldfares and redwings.

6. Have water somewhere. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a stream, or haven’t space for a pond, have a sink or bird bath. This is not about creating a “water feature” (the noise of which may be soothing or may drive your neighbours to drink) but about having quiet water where birds can drink and insects breed.

Frogs love it too and you may get their tadpoles, and even newts. Tadpole time is about now! It’s probably not a good idea to have one of those stone herons by the pond, though. Herons are gregarious birds and it’s quite likely to attract a real heron to see what’s there.

7. Grow a herb garden. Herbs are excellent flowering plants, full of scent and nectar, edible for you and attracting butterflies. Most of the hardy ones (thyme, mint, marjoram) are native plants in their own right. Other high-nectar plants include honeysuckle, lavender, knapweed and evening primrose. Climbing plants, whether native or not, are excellent for wildlife, for example old-fashioned rambling roses attract bees.

8. Let some ivy grow. I have spent a lot of time getting it out of my trees and hedges, but I always leave a clump or two. Ivy hosts the holly blue butterfly and other insects, flowering in the autumn after everything else. It still has berries in January and February when everything else has gone, and feeds birds in a hungry spell.   

9. Feed the birds, but don’t flirt with them. If you put food out regularly you must keep it up as the birds will get used to its location and rely on it, especially in the spring breeding season. There was lots of good advice in last month’s Village about bird food.

Sunflower hearts and peanuts, the most common kind, will bring bluetits aplenty, but will also be used by great tits, robins, and sparrows. If you’re really lucky you will get woodpeckers too. I have a nuthatch on mine – it’s easily recognisable as it settles above the feeder and crawls head-down to feed.

Bigger birds that can’t manage the feeders, like magpies and pigeons, will often sit underneath to get what they can. Squirrels also love peanuts so you need a good strong feeder if it is not to be regularly wrecked. If you have room, have some nesting boxes too. Birds will come, but remember it takes them quite a long time to get used to a new food source.

10. Try to attract bees. Bees are in decline, especially honey bees, and are vital to the whole process of pollination for crops as well as garden flowers. You can get special bee boxes with tubes for the bees to breed in – they will probably attract solitary bees like mason and leaf-cutter bees. These also breed in wall crevices and untidy spots.

Bumble bees love nectar-rich flowers like lavender. In a recent radio programme, scientists voted bees the species that it was most important to save, apart from human beings. Even window boxes or flowering plants in pots will help.

If you plan your garden to look good and smell good all the year round, with flowering plants and shrubs or hedges producing sweet-smelling flowers, varied light and shade and secret places, you will automatically have a good wildlife garden!

The poem is a bit different this month. It is one I wrote on November 5 last year, but I think it’s suited to the
optimism of spring.

Remember remember

I hoped he would win but
it didn’t really register
irritated by television jawing
campaigns and bigots

Woke to a dull English dawn
and heard it.
sudden inexplicable happiness
rush of tears

a thin black man I don’t know
going into that fat white house
nothing to do with me?
I buy champagne

Because when I was young
we sang “if you miss me
at the back of the bus”
shivering at the strange fruit

Because of Paul Robeson
singing for the Spanish
los cuatro generales
and dreaming of Joe Hill

Because we marched to the embassy in London
when Mandela was locked up
and I went back decades later
saw him speak, lifted my hands

Because of the forgotten Asian women
on the Grunwick picket line
and the sparking girls from Alum Rock
my mother’s street

The red tree flames on the hill
Let me never lose the habit of optimism.

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