How to turn a garden into a wildlife idyll

This week’s article is written by Sean Brady, horticulturalist at Blarney Castle Gardens.
How to turn a garden into a wildlife idyll

Bear in mind how to attract bees and butterflies to your garden

WE often assume that a pretty garden is a healthy habitat for wildlife. We visit garden centres and buy plants that are recommended in a magazine or on a TV series, because they are aesthetically pleasing.

But in some cases we may be actually starving our wildlife, starting with the most minute insects, and systematically working up through the whole natural food chain.

Insects are the foundation of every healthy ecosystem and the diets of many plant-eating insects are very basic and localised. Most of these insects, roughly 90%, eat and reproduce on only certain native plant species, specifically those with whom they share an evolutionary history.

Without these carefully tuned adaptations of specific plants, insect populations suffer. And because insects are a key food source for birds, rodents, amphibians, and other creatures, that dependence on natives, and the consequences of not having them, works its way up the food chain.

Over time, landscapes that consist mainly of invasive or non-native plants could become dead zones. The United Nations’ Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has found 25% of plants and animals (mostly insects) are at risk of extinction in the coming decades.

Native blackthorn is a great way of enhancing habitats for wildlife
Native blackthorn is a great way of enhancing habitats for wildlife

Global insect populations are plummeting, due in no small way to the largest monoculture crop on this planet, grass, and yes, your lawn is a contributing factor. As a monocrop, lawns displace landscapes that could benefit people, plants, animals, and insects. The grass itself is not the main problem, the pesticides and fertilizers we spread on it are.

We need to stop poisoning our landscapes with toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers every year. We also need to plant more native species, overturn decades of harmful horticultural practice, and rethink how we tend to manage both public and private spaces.

Some of the other drivers of global biodiversity loss include the climate crisis, pollution, invasion of alien species, exploitation of organisms, and land and marine management practices (which includes development, agriculture, and forestry practices.)

Lately, the environment is on everyone’s minds, and if you have a garden, you have an opportunity to contribute to protecting the natural world.

But what does an eco-friendly garden actually look like, and what features does it have? You might imagine an untamed, overgrown jungle teeming with wildflowers and insects. Nowadays, however, even the slickest contemporary garden designs can be environmentally friendly.

It’s understandable that people want to keep their garden neat and tidy, but an overly manicured space leaves little room for wildlife.

If you allow a section of the garden to become overgrown and let nature take its course, you’ll have created a more attractive environment for all things wild. If every property owner were to shrink their lawn by even just a quarter and renovate it with a few lovely wildflowers and native plants for wildlife, the impact would be incredible.

When we are out in the garden, removal of weeds seems to come naturally, almost subconsciously, but not all weeds will wreak havoc in your garden. While many love to pick out weeds to keep gardens clean, there are many that can be useful. These are the pioneers of ecological succession and are some of the most beneficial plants in a garden, dandelion, and clover, are good examples. Many can be used to diagnose issues with the soil that may be unhealthy for your plants. Some beneficial weeds can even help to repair those issues.

 The flowers of buddleja allow easy access to pollen and nectar
The flowers of buddleja allow easy access to pollen and nectar

Another way to attract wildlife to your garden is to fill it with as many native plants as possible. Native wildflowers are easy to grow and maintain and are often more resistant to pests than non-natives. They are also ideal for attracting butterflies and bees, which need all the help they can get because of their numbers declining across the country.

Aim for a good variety of pollen-rich flowers that have different flower shapes and a range of flowering periods from early spring to late summer and even throughout the winter if you can.

Bumblebee species have different length tongues that are adapted to feed from different shaped flowers. For example, the longest tongued species, Bombus hortorum, prefers deep flowers such as honeysuckle and foxglove.

In general, avoid plants with double or multi-petalled flowers. Their flowers are filled with petals and pollinators find them difficult to access. These flowers also often lack nectar and pollen.

Choosing the right plants is an important design tool, especially if you’re looking to create a nature- friendly garden. In an eco-friendly garden, the best plants will provide food and shelter, creating perfect habitats for beneficial wildlife. Choose lots of local berry-producing plants and trees, such as hawthorn, which might be growing nearby, as birds and insects will already be used to them, so they’ll visit your garden more frequently if you grow them.

Hedges are more beneficial than walls and are ideal nesting sites as they offer protection from predators. Climbers, particularly ivy, provide both protection and a rich source of nectar in autumn/winter when there is little food around. Even nectar-rich, open-faced flowers such as echinacea and buddleia will make a difference. These are preferable to modern double flowers that don’t have proper nectaries to feed garden-friendly insects.

Echinacea flowers are great for pollinators in the garden
Echinacea flowers are great for pollinators in the garden

The key principle to planting is always putting them where they’re happiest. Contented plants take care of themselves, but stressed ones need constant feeding and watering. Matching the right plant to the right place will also help keep garden maintenance time to a minimum.

The Covid-19 oandemic has caused many of us to stop moving and stay home. With it has come a renewed appreciation for our gardens and the lifeline that nature provides. Now, connectivity with nature is more important than ever before.

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