Whether you have a garden, backyard or even a small balcony it’s still possible to create a nature inspired habitat that can be appreciated and enjoyed by ourselves whilst providing a haven for wildlife. At the same time it may be possible to incorporate features that save energy, money and even improve our health!

Our first steps are to record what we already have and then work out what features are possible given the size of our potential wildlife paradise. If you have the time, sketching out a plan of your garden may be useful.

Note: Although backyards and balconies may be unable to provide for all of our wildlife, they can be seen as stepping stones to a more suitable habitat elsewhere.

Okay let’s begin:

The Lawn 

A lawn has the potential to be the most important part of your wildlife garden. Although close cropped lawns don’t provide much in the way of insects for birds and other small creatures, birds may find it easier to pick out worms.

If the grasses are allowed to grow a little, the insect life is much greater and will provide better and more food for wildlife. Perhaps leave one area uncut for a month or two. You may be surprised at the colour that evolves. Birds, bees and other insects will love it. So will many small creatures.

Lawn clippings are generally good for the lawn if not too wet and clumped up. Worms, fungi and bacteria effectively compost the clippings naturally back into the soil. Excess and wet clippings can be added to a compost bin or heap. 

Trees and Hedges 

 A garden with a tree will attract a much richer variety of species compared to one relying purely on plants and flowers. The whole of the tree including the roots, trunk, branches and leaves can provide food, shelter, shade and a living area.

Many trees are suitable for hedging and although requiring more regular pruning and looking after, do also provide similar benefits as the taller trees but with more nesting opportunities for smaller birds, They are also scarce cover for hedgehogs in many areas.

Trees and hedges also help protect against floods. They provide insulation against noise, act as a barrier against the weather elements to our homes, whilst providing a cooling effect in the warmer months.

Many of us already know that they absorb carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen, but are we aware that they absorb air pollutants and join up with fungi and bacteria to clean soil contaminates. Last but not least they help to purify our water supplies.

All of these benefits come at low cost and can be there for a lifetime. Record trees not only within the garden but also overhanging from outside (public area or neighbours garden) 

Flowers, Herbs and More

These can be considered the main larder for all wildlife including us humans. They also provide shade, nesting opportunities, shade and other benefits.

From the point of view of recording information, it may be sensible just to jot a few notes as to which plants thrive and which don’t do so well. Is it because there is too little or too much shade? Perhaps the ground is too boggy for some plants. Maybe they get crowded out.

Are the birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife regular visitors or is there not much on offer? Perhaps they only visit in summer. What ideas have we got to improve the habitat?     

Animals, birds, Insects and invertebrates 

They’re part of and are perhaps the main natural contributors to a healthy balanced eco system. They do however need a habitat in which to do their work and make the most beneficial impact. This is where we can help by providing the right features and environment in our garden. 

In no particular order, benefits will include pollination, seeds dispersal for growth in new areas, improved soil structure, plant fertilization, providers of food, waste disposal and species regulation.

The budding ecologists amongst you will be able to study all of this right on your doorstep, whilst the ever-changing wildlife can be appreciated by everyone throughout the seasons.

As our wildlife tends to move about, identification can be difficult, especially if we’ve not really involved ourselves in nature’s world. So record what you can, it gives you something to work on as you gradually carry out your nature friendly improvements. 

Soil Identification

Identifying the types of soil in garden will be helpful in deciding on plants for the border, wild flowers for a mini meadow, pond and bog garden location and what to leave as lawn. Those listed below are the one’s usually mentioned in gardening articles:

Clay soils are quite sticky when wet and takes time to drain. After prolonged heat it becomes quite hard and is identified by sight of cracks. It is high in nutrients, but if the soil has too much clay, then many plants struggle to grow.

Sandy soils drain well and feel quite gritty. Although easy to work with, they dry out quickly and lose their structure. They tend not contain as many nutrients compared to clay. Plants that don’t require much water are best suited for sandy soils.

Silty soils have a good balance of water retention, hold nutrients well and are easy to work with. A broad array of plants is suitable for this type of soil.

Chalky soils are found in some areas. Although quite fertile, they don’t hold onto water or nutrients well. Because they are alkaline in nature, you are restricted in what plants to grow.

Peat soils are rarely found in gardens. The soils are formed of partially decayed organic matter and can be found in either lowland or upland areas known as peatlands or peat bogs. These areas store huge amounts of carbon and are home to rare fauna and other wildlife. As such, if you need to buy compost, look for ones that are labelled peat free.

Loam soils are a mix of clay, sand and silt soils and are generally thought of as the best all- rounder type of soil for most gardeners.

Note: Most soils will also include organic matter, fungi and bacteria; and a few stones as well!

Non-vegetated areas include patios and other paved areas, walls, fences and in fact anywhere that has the potential to support nature. Note down each area and at the same time think about the possibilities. Is there room for containers full of herbs, what about a window box with bee friendly flowers, can nest or bat boxes be attached to the house, what about a hole in the fence as a hedgehog corridor. The possibilities are many, be creative and let your imagination run wild!  

Time for Action  

We now have a baseline from which to work from. Decisions need to be made on whether we need or want to improve our ‘garden’ for wildlife and nature or whether to leave it as it is.

Time and budget will come into play, but assuming you plan to go ahead, here are a number of features and activities for you to consider:

Pond 

In many areas, particularly suburban, the nearest natural water supply may be many miles away. Streams, natural ponds, wetlands and other water sources may have been filled in when building our homes. 

Creating a pond is a great way to attract water loving wildlife such as damselflies, water beetles and frogs. For birds it provides another source of food, a good supply of drinking water and bathing opportunities. 

Ponds can be as big or small as you like.  You can make your own, use a planter, trough, container or just go ahead and buy a pre-formed pond. What they all should have in common is at least one gently sloping side to allow smaller animals to step in and safely drink or bathe. If possible use rainwater to fill your pond as It is more suitable for the insect and animal life you hope to attract. 

Given time, local plants will naturally colonise your pond, but to give it a helping hand look to introduce oxygenating plants (or an oxygenating solar fountain), floating plants and plants to provide shade.

Check out this Royal Horticultural Society pond advice link here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=839

Waterbutt

You may have pond or plants to water, but are you thinking of using tap water from your home? The supply to your home uses lots of energy to produce and if you are on a water meter, can be expensive to use. Far better to use rainwater and a large amount can be collected in a waterbutt connected to your drainpipe.

Waterbutts come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite basic, whilst others look like big urns. Additional opportunities for nature are also possible as a number of waterbutts include integral planters.

Try your water supplier for discounted waterbutts – https://www.savewatersavemoney.co.uk/unitedutilities/free-water-saving-products

Trees and Hedges

As we mentioned earlier, a tree supports many different species and provides many benefits to society. If you intend to plant any trees in your garden, then it is important to look for one or more that when mature will not incur the wrath of your neighbours or be problematic to your drains or house foundations.

Also look for native trees that have proven benefits to the local wildlife.

A good source of information is the woodland trust and a link is here – 

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2019/03/british-trees-to-plant-in-your-garden/

Flowers, Climbers, Shrubs, Herbs and More

Our aim here is to provide a rich habitat that will provide food and shelter for wildlife throughout the seasons. You will be restricted by the size of your garden, but look to plant at different height levels with flowers to provide seeds and shrubs to provide berries.

Caterpillars and other insects are attracted to different types of foliage, so learning about their preferences will be helpful.

Colour in flowers and also the seeds provided will also prove more attractive to some species compared to others. 

Bees and other insects like the sweet nectar from flowers, whilst the pollen is collected by bees and used for its own purposes. Pollen’s fundamental purpose is to fertilise other plants; it can be transferred by insects such as bees, the wind and even by animals brushing by.  

There are lots of suitable native plants, but to provide food and shelter year round may mean checking out what is available from further afield. We also should avoid invasive plants as these will cause no end of problems down the line.

Overall we are looking for opportunities for climbers where there are no hedges, border plants of different colours and sizes, shrubs with berries and ground cover plants for foraging opportunities.

Help is at hand through many organisations and here are a couple of useful links:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/

https://schoolgardening.rhs.org.uk/Resources/Info-Sheet/Plants-for-a-wildlife-garden

Composts, composting and composters 

You will no doubt have kitchen waste and maybe grass cuttings, leaf fall and twigs from the garden. This waste can be turned into useful compost and used to provide nutrients for our plants, trees and fruit and vegetables if we grow them.

There are various types of composters, with some accepting all waste including fish, meat and bones, whilst others are best suited to compost vegetable matter.

Compost Heap

If you don’t wish to buy or make your own composter, then consider a compost heap in a corner of the garden. It will attract all kinds of wildlife and in time will probably provide the best type of compost. Turning it over from time to time will speed up the process. 

Depending on your area it may be advisable not to include kitchen waste as it may prove to a bit of an attraction for rodents.

Some Greenhouse Gases are released under this method of composting.

For those who would prefer a readymade composter, here are a few options:

A Standard Recycled Plastic Type Composter will accept most vegetable waste but not fish, animal and dairy waste. Often called cold composting, the process begins with microbes, whilst the larger species such as earthworms, slugs, snails, beetles and the like continue the good work.

Composting without your intervention can take quite a long time, ranging from 3 months to maybe 2 years or so, depending on location, temperatures and the waste mix. Aerating on a regular basis will speed up the process.

A mesh base or similar is recommended if rodents are likely to be problematic.

A composter with good reviews is here: https://evengreener.com/composting/best-selling-composters/blackwall-220-litre-black-compost-converter-cv220blh

Notes:

Most weeds and pathogens will not be killed off and will remain in the finished compost. However this means that disease suppressing microbes survive.

Some Greenhouse Gases are released under this method of composting.

If you want to learn about composting in general, then a recommended read is ‘The Rodale Book of Composting’ published by the Rodale Press.

Hot Bin Composting can process all types of kitchen waste including fish, meat and dairy. Green waste such as grass cuttings and twigs will aid the composting. As in standard type composting, microbes will get to work on processing your waste. The difference here is that the hotter temperatures allow a higher number and different species of microbes to operate and speed up the composting.

Good quality compost should be available in 3 to 6 months depending on location, temperatures and the waste mix. Aerating on a regular basis will speed up the process.

Hot Composting bins are designed to allow air circulation but keep out rodents. Some bins also allow worms to enter and although they won’t survive hot temperatures, they will be useful if the temperatures drop.

Two hot bin composters with good reviews are here: 

https://www.hotbincomposting.com/

https://www.greatgreensystems.com/shop/green-johanna-330-litre-hot-composter

Notes:

Most weeds and pathogens will be killed off, however this means that disease suppressing microbes are likely to be also killed off.

Some Greenhouse Gases are released under this method of composting.

A Wormery is in effect a farm and you’re the farmer!  You’ll have microbes and specific types of worms to compost the material. Most types of matter can be introduced into your wormery, but fish and meat should be avoided if you want to avoid unwanted creatures.

Once you’ve established a healthy wormery, you can expect a supply of compost in about a month or two. 

Notes:

Most weeds will not be killed off and will remain in the finished compost. 

Some Greenhouse Gases are released under this method of composting.

Bokashi composting improves your soil fertility by the addition of food waste that has been fermented by way of an anaerobic process that relies on the introduction of a special type of beneficial microbes. Once added to your soil it will take about another couple of weeks before the microbes have been assimilated into the soil structure and improvements to any nearby plants can be seen.

The usual method to begin the fermentation process is to buy a couple of Bokashi buckets and a tub of bran that has already been inoculated with the right type of microbes. Just sprinkle the base of the buckets with some of your bran, add your waste food (can include fish, meat and small bones), squash it all down a bit and then close the lid. 

You continue this process until the bin is full. The fermentation process will take just two or three weeks before it is ready to add to your soil. Start using your second bucket as soon as the first one is full.

Notes:

Suitable for any amount of waste. The Bokashi method can safely be used indoors or outdoors. As fully enclosed there are no problems with rodents. Virtually no greenhouse gases are released under this method of composting. 

If want to read about the Bokashi method composting, then a recommended book is Bokashi Composting, Scraps to Soil in Weeks by Adam Footer published by New Society Publishers

Council Green Waste Collection Services

If you have no need for compost, then it is very likely that your council will collect kitchen food waste for free. Green waste such as grass and hedge cuttings can also be collected for free, but we understand that some councils do make a charge.

Both the kitchen waste and green waste is either turned into saleable compost using commercial composting machinery or fed into anaerobic digester plants that provide biogas and other products.

Commercial composters are similar in many respects to hot composting and the compost heap often seen in allotments or the larger garden. They will have different blends, are likely to be better controlled and the finished compost will be weed free. It will also be quality controlled and certified.

Note that some Green Houses Gases are released under this method of composting

Anaerobic Digesters rely on microbes that thrive in warm temperatures and the absence of air to break down the green waste. Methane and Carbon Dioxide are the main green gouse gases to be released and this is captured to produce Biogas that can be used as a fuel source.

At the end of the anaerobic digester process there will be some liquid and also some solid remains. This is called digestate and can be used directly as a fertiliser or processed to produce compost and other valuable products. 

Note: In order to keep the anaerobic process going, maintaining the temperature within certain ranges is important, as is ensuring that the right mix of waste food, grass cuttings, leaves and twigs etc are readily available. 

Wildlife Homes to entice wildlife can be a great idea, but before you spend time and money on say for example providing a dream home for a hedgehog, do some research to make sure that the hedgehog you want to attract actually frequents your area and can access your garden.

Location is also key, as for example a nesting box placed in open view near a bird feeder, could encourage potential predators to lie in wait. 

Potential homes for you to consider include twig and log piles in shady spots for fungi, insects and other small creatures, bug and bee hotels, bat boxes, nest boxes for swifts, swallows and house martins. If you do decide to buy a ‘wildlife home’ be careful of how it has been constructed; many are badly made with splinters, treated with chemicals, have the wrong size of opening and often no thought has been given for the health and safety of the particular creature you are hoping to attract.  

Below we have a link about the care that is required in making and managing a bee hotel. A lot of the information and advice mentioned within the article and other sections of the website are well worth reading up on.

https://www.foxleas.com/make-a-bee-hotel.asp

Moving on don’t forget that many creatures are nomadic and don’t have nests or homes as such. For example, butterflies in between searching for food or finding somewhere to lay eggs, will look for a safe place to rest such as between rock crevices and long blades of grass or underneath leaves and tree branches.

So if you want to increase your chances of attracting particular types of wildlife, look to provide the appropriate habitat.

Vertical Gardens are a great way of extending your garden and can be suitable for anyone with a balcony, small garden or has a large walled area that perhaps includes a perimeter fence. Climbers such as clematis, honeysuckle and roses can be planted directly into soil or troughs and planters. Structures such as trellis can be attached to your wall or perhaps consider a freestanding structure that can hold an ever changing variety of potted plants.

Green Roofs are another way of extending your garden and attracting more wildlife. However before you go ahead with any scheme, you will need to check out as to whether your roof can support the weight. A structural engineers report may be advisable, but not worth the cost if it is just your shed that you wish to cover. Some green roofs also include solar panels that apparently work more efficiently if raised a certain level above the plant life.

A few links to check out are here:

https://building-green.org.uk/links/

http://www.organic roofs.co.uk/

http://www.beastsheds.co.uk/grass-roof-sheds

Mini Meadows can be a fantastic way of attracting pollinating insects, but do require maintaining if you want the meadow to look similar year after year. What can often happen is that the first year of flowering produces all the flowers that you intended. In the following years and dependent on the soil conditions and the weather, certain flowers can dominate with a reduced variety on show at any one time. You will still attract the pollinators and your mini meadow will still be full of colour and interest.

A good link to read about maintenance and also where you can buy pre sown wildflower turf is here:

 https://www.meadowmat.com/wildflower-meadow-maintenance

Bird Feeders and Tables can be a good way of attracting not only the birds you see every day, but also visitors and one’s that you never knew existed within your neighbourhood. 

What you attract will depend on the bird feed that you offer. Remember that once you decide to feed birds on a regular basis, they will come to expect food every day. Look to buy bird seed and other food from as local source as possible; remember those food miles!  You may find that providing food for birds can be expensive but rewarding. 

The other point to note is that bird feeders need regular cleaning to avoid potential diseases being passed on. See this link:

 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/science-environment-43349781

Fruit and Vegetable Patch

If you have decided to make your own compost then it makes sense to use some of it to grow your own fruit and vegetables. Many can be grown in containers against a wall or fence. Dwarf trees are excellent for anyone with little space. The article here gives good advice: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/nov/06/how-to-grow-fruit-small-space

Also many of you may have heard about square metre gardening, whereby a variety of vegetables and herbs can be grown within a raised bed of one metre. Aside from the virtually non-renewable soil mix, the book to buy is called Square Metre Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and published by Frances Lincoln Ltd. A link to a good site with advice on this method and growing in general is here:

https://www.growveg.co.uk/guides/planning-a-square-foot-vegetable-garden/

How to make your own compost has been mentioned earlier, but as this may not be suitable for what you are trying to grow or not yet available, then you are probably going to have to purchase some at the time you wish to start growing.

The problem is that most commercial compost tends to include some peat, which we want to avoid if we are to be environmentally friendly.  See this article here:

https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/Profile?pid=441

As you may have noticed in the article, there also seems to be a recommendation to follow up the purchase with specific types of fertilsers. I guess that’s the price you pay for peat free compost.  

Maybe an alternative for some vegetables could be farmyard manure as it should be peat free.

Fertilisers have just been mentioned and so at this point, we should perhaps talk a little about the use of fertilisers and also pesticides.

Fertilisers and Pesticides

Fertilisers can often be seen as a quick nutrient fix, if it is felt that your plants need better and bigger growth or look a bit jaded. This will be especially true when looking at your vegetable patch or container plants. 

Over use of fertilisers though, can not only damage your plants (it’s always tempting to add more than the recommended amount) but also the environment. Water runoff into streams and rivers can be a problem in some areas, particularly when added to agricultural run-off.

We should also be aware of the environmental damage and carbon footprint linked to the manufacture of the fertiliser – far better then, to try and make your own.

Here’s an article about the overuse of fertilisers: 

https://www.gardenguides.com/123460-excessive-use-fertilizers.html

If you are composting using a wormery or bokashi system then the leachate may be suitable as a fertiliser. Alternatively to see whether it is worthwhile making your own, check out this article here: 

https://www.growveg.co.uk/guides/how-to-make-and-use-homegrown-fertiliser/

A Pesticide is the general use term given to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, and antimicrobials. They can be synthetic or organic and be in liquid, powder, gaseous or spray form. The idea is that whatever the pest, whether it be something like an aphid infestation, spread of algae in a pond, a proliferation of unwanted weeds or rodents in the area, then there will be some sort of pesticide to cure the problem.

There can be risks involved to yourself, the pest you aim to get rid of, other wildlife and the environment in general. It will be cheaper and more beneficial if you can get rid of your pest problem without resorting to insecticides. For example, digging out weeds on a regular basis. 

The Royal Horticultural Society has advice and product information on their website: 

https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=817

We’d also recommend a book titled “The Truth About Organic Gardening” by Jeff Gillman and published by Timber Press.  Many subjects are covered including the benefits and drawbacks of using pesticides. 

Anything Else

There’s so much to cover and the brief information provided above, can be used as the basis for further research. You’ll no doubt have lots of questions and probably the best way we can help is giving you links to a couple of recommended websites. You will find detailed information about the flora and fauna that you may come across in or around your garden. So here goes:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/ https://www.rhs.org.uk/get-involved/wild-about-gardens

You may also want to read about how to introduce wildlife into your garden. One of the best all-rounders includes balcony and patio gardens, as well as small or large gardens. The book is the RSPB’s Gardening for Wildlife by Adrian Thomas published in 2017 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. There are lots of good pictures, guides and further recommended reading.