Sustainability and conserving wildlife were running themes at the 2007 RHS flower shows with insect-loving primulas and astrantias, and even hand-crafted beehives making the headlines. But it’s not just the latest design trend or eco-fad. A balanced ecology adds interest and helps with general pest and disease maintenance.
Plus, it’s a proven scientific theory that gardens are vital for the survival of the UK’s wildlife, and it’s not just the big gardens that make a difference. Small gardens make up the majority of green space in Britain and make a significant contribution to the conservation of wildlife.
You can still achieve a successful wildlife garden while maintaining a more formal or contemporary design. Marina Christopher, trained ecologist and owner of Phoenix Perennial Plants, believes too many people are put off by wildlife gardening because they don’t want a messy garden. “I don’t think you need an untidy garden to attract wildlife. It’s the choice of plants that makes a difference.”
Simple changes to the way you garden, such as planting nectar-rich flowers or berry-producing shrubs will enhance the opportunities for wildlife and provide a natural habitat which is often otherwise lost in the wild.
Key design principles
How much you contribute to wildlife depends on what you plant. Follow the key design principles of texture, movement, height, structure and colour and apply them to wildlife needs. As a general rule, gardens are a mosaic of habitats and the greater a garden’s variety in terms of planting, structure and seasonal interest, the more likely it will attract a diversity of wildlife species. There are many garden features that will enhance the opportunities for wildlife, but providing food, water, shelter and a place to breed is essential.
Colour and scent
Colour and scent are often the driving forces in attracting insects to the garden in search of pollen and nectar. Marina suggests choosing a large range of nectar-rich species in order to maximise the flowering period and food available to visiting insects. “Select plants that have simple flower structures, double-flowered cultivars are often less sterile and don’t produce a lot of nectar.”
Plant your flowers in groups because, en masse, colour and scent is easier for insects to detect. Take your lead from nature: many white-flowering plants for example, such as hawthorn, viburnum and crab apples are often followed by berries which provide food for birds and other animals.
Tips and tricks
If you have a small garden, why not take advantage of vertical spaces? Attach a trellis or a wooden fence to grow a honeysuckle or other climbing plants which will make nesting sites for birds and a refuge for insects. Or consider replacing an old fence with a mixed species hedge. If you prefer the single-species option, choose holly, yew, cotoneaster or any other berry-producing shrub.
Nooks and crannies
Most gardens have plenty of flowers to attract a variety of species, but by providing more nooks and crannies in the garden, such as a log pile, meadow or a small pond, new wildlife habitats will be created. Gaps in walls and in between paving slabs create another valuable habitat for wildlife where low-growing plants, such as campanula or dianthus fit in perfectly.
Beds and borders
Pack your borders with nectar-rich plants, ensuring plenty of food for visiting bees and insects. Allow perennial seed heads to develop which will provide both interest and valuable food for birds and other animals through the bleak winter months. For the best effect, plant your flower borders in a sunny, sheltered spot and choose a range of plants that flower at different times throughout the year ensuring a continuous supply of nectar.
Marina recommends growing members of the carrot family, such as astrantias, eryngiums and cow parsley. “Cow parsley is fertilised by bees and flies, and attracts lacewings and hoverflies which eat aphids. From an aesthetic point of view, Marina recommends the daisy family, including asters, achilleas and chrysanthemums, and new varieties of echinaceas which are wonderful for attracting bees, hoverflies and butterflies.
If you have a large lawn, try leaving a small section uncut. Long grass provides an excellent habitat for grasshoppers, beetles and insects and is an important food source for caterpillars and butterflies. If you want to add some colour to your lawn, try planting meadow flowers, such as cowslip and oxe-eye daisies which provide plenty of pollen and nectar for a diversity of insects.
Native or non-native plants?
There are no rules about using native plants. Marina believes there are loads of species to choose from that are particularly good for nectar and they don’t all originate in the British Isles. Buddleja, known as the butterfly bush, is a great example of a non-native plant that attracts butterflies and insects.
However, native woody plants, such as trees and shrubs tend to support a large number of insects that in turn will provide food for a larger number of animals. Whether you choose to grow native or non-native plants is up to you. Animals don’t discriminate, and as long as you stick to the general principles of flower colour, shape, berries and nectar-rich plants, you will attract an abundance of wildlife to the garden.
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