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Planning a Wildlife Garden

By creating a wild life garden you are not just providing a much needed habitat for our native wild life but you are also creating an outdoor classroom where children can learn about the creatures that share our outdoor spaces. Children have a healthy fascination when it comes to other living things and enjoy watching and learning about all types of creatures. Using an outdoor classroom you can ensure that this learning takes place with respect for the creatures being studied.

A wild-life garden is not merely a neglected space where nature has been allowed to take over.

Like all living things, the creatures that you want to encourage into a wildlife garden require:

By supplying all these elements you will increase you chances of having a wildlife rich, biodiverse garden.

By choosing to plant suitable varieties of  trees and shrubs, you will not only provide places to breed and shelter but also provide food for birds and mini-beasts. Insects and other invertebrates will appreciate the nectar and pollen supplied by the flowers and may also feed on the leaves and shoots. In turn mini-beasts will provide a food source for birds and small mammals which in turn will provide a meal for any visiting predatory mammal or bird. Plants that produce fruits and berries will be welcomed by birds and small mammals. If these plants are also thorny and dense they will provide safe shelter and nesting sites.

Children could raise some shrubs themselves - for instance by planting hawthorn berries. It is also likely that you will be able to find a supply of self sown seedlings under existing hawthorns or hazel that can be planted in pots and grown on. Propagating your own trees and shrubs should however be seen as an additional source of plant material as home grown seedlings will take time to develop into plants of a useable size. As a starting point you could begin to develop a mixed native hedgerow using a similar mixture to that offered by Suttons Seeds. This mixture contains sloes (blackthorn), hazels, a cherry plum and a crab apple. It offers flowers in spring and fruit and nuts in autumn and winter. The trees provide perches where the birds can sing to attract a mate, claim territory or keep a look out for ground predators. The blackthorn supplemented by hawthorn with produce a prickly thicket which will provide shelter and nesting sites for many birds and small mammals. In autumn if fallen leaves are left at the base of the hedge mammals such as hedgehogs will be provided with a suitable position in which to hibernate and birds will be able to forage for invertebrates over winter when the ground elsewhere is often hard and frozen.

Cultivated plants such as berberis, dog roses, escallonia, mahonia, pyracantha, holly, chaenomeles (quince), cotoneaster, salix (catkin forming) and skimmia are all valuable additions to a wildlife garden Buddleias aren’t called the butterfly bushes without good reason - bees as well as butterflies will swarm to feed on the nectar they provide. Suttons Seeds provide a range of suitable shrubs. When choosing shrubs and trees make sure that you plant a range that will provide nectar for as long a period as possible and also include evergreen and deciduous plant. Don’t forget trees that produce nuts will be favoured by some species of birds and also by squirrels and mice.

Berries, seed heads and nectar produced by the trees shrubs and climbers are also an important food supply.

A wide range of flowering plants is needed to provide food and foraging for as much wildlife as possible. Double flowers should be avoided as should those that advertise being pollen free. Choose a variety of flower shapes and colour and also plants that flower at different times of the year trying to have something flowering for as much of the year as possible. Suttons Seeds provide a selection of flowers that are suitable for growing in a wild life garden. Once the flowering season is over leave seed heads on the plants for the birds to forage on over autumn and winter. Also use some plants that flower in the evening when they will be visited by moths. Scent is also an important attractant for some mini-beasts. Many annual plants will self seed year after year. Don’t be too eager to tidy up fallen leaves as besides providing shelter they provide foraging areas for insect eating birds. Applying mulches to flower beds also provide valuable foraging.

Walls with mortar missing provide holes for solitary bees. Log and stone piles also provide lots of nooks and crannies in which mini-beasts can hide. Log and stone piles will also provide foraging for birds. In short whatever provides shelter for invertebrates with provide a food source for insect eating birds.

Walls, fences and other structures clothed with climbing plants such as ivy, honeysuckle, bramble and vigorous clematis such as montana will provide nesting sites for birds and egg laying sites for invertebrates as well as providing a food supply of seed heads, nectar and berries. Berries, seed heads and nectar produced by the trees shrubs and climbers are also an important food supply.

Try to have an area set aside for nettles as this plant provides a breeding ground for many types of butterfly. Other butterflies require other specific plants on which to lay their eggs - for instance the orange tip butterfly lays its eggs on honesty and wild garlic. Click here for more detail of species specific plants. Keeping a patch of long grass provides a habitat for some mini-beasts and their larvae. A grassy patch also provides shelter for small mammals and amphibians.

To attract breeding amphibians a pond of some type will be required. This should have areas of differing depths with shallow ledges to allow small animals to scramble out. To make ponds safe for children you can fit a metal grid over the water but make sure that the openings are large enough to allow access to wildlife.

You can supplement natural habitats with man-made nesting and sheltering areas such as bird boxes, bat boxes, insect hotels, hedgehog and toad/frog shelters etc. Many of these could be made by the children.Or you can construct an invertebrate hotel using old wooden pallets and various scraps of material. The hotel could support a climbing plant and a green roof. Wooden fences, or pallets used to make bug hotels, will be shaved by wasps to make the paper that  they use to build their nest.  Fitting webcams inside nesting boxes can also provide a fascinating insight into how birds build their nests and raise their young. If possible you could also set up a trail camera to record activity at bird tables or other feeding stations and watering places by night as well as by daylight.

Many of the plants mentioned above besides offering shelter and a place to breed also provide food and foraging for wild life. Areas of grass kept at differing heights provide foraging for a variety of animals. Some birds and small mammals prefer to forage in longer grass and others prefer lawned areas that are kept shorter. Native wildflowers grown in grassy areas would also be welcome by native wild life. Suttons Seeds provide a range of wild flower seeds including a lawn mixture.

Heathers provide a good source of nectar and by choosing the right varieties you can provide this for at most times of the year. Many herb flowers, for instance chives, thyme and lavender (a list is available here) are also very popular with bees and other insects. Herbs can be grown from seed which is more cost effective or you can buy plants for a quicker solution.

Fruit trees and bushes also attract pollinating insects and can provide food for humans as well as wild life. Some fruit bushes, such as blackcurrants and gooseberries, have very insignificant flowers which are produced early in the season. Although insignificant to us the insects love them. If you can resist using all the fruit produced birds will flock to any bushes producing soft fruit and may even get to the fruit before you do. As the season progresses towards the end of summer and early autumn take care when picking fruit as the sweet smells will attract wasps.

Wildlife needs access to drinking water and birds need to bathe to keep their feathers in good condition. If you don’t want to include a pond in your wildlife garden then include smaller water features such as bird baths or mini ponds. An upturned bin lid can make an effective mini-pond and is accessible to mammals such as hedgehogs that need plenty of fresh drinking water. Bird baths must be kept topped up especially in very dry or freezing weather as the wildlife will really on them as a life saving source of water.

The use of chemicals should be avoided as the creatures that are considered to be garden pests, such as slugs and snails, also provide food for many birds and small mammals or invertebrates high up the food chain. Caterpillars and aphids are in an important food source for developing baby birds even those that develop into seed eating adults.

 In the same way - if you choose to supplement food using feeding stations then arrangements will need to be made to keep this supply ongoing during school holiday periods and at weekends

Read more about how we encourage biodiversity in our garden and on our plot here

More products to encourage wildlife into your garden are mentioned here.

This article is sponsored by Suttons Seeds - if you would like to sponsor an article please email me.