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Guidelines to Gardening for People and Wildlife

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Guidelines to Gardening for People and Wildlife

Gardens are of course primarily for people, but they can also be wonderful places for wildlife. This page outlines the key principles to follow in order to make your garden a haven for nature whilst still enhancing its appeal for you and your family. Children in particular gain much from observing their "own" wildlife close at hand.

The ten key principles are:

Work with nature, not against it
2) Provide a wide variety of habitats and niches
3) Keep to suitable plants with simple flower structures
4) Consider the surrounding landscape
5) Make an extra effort to attract useful predators
6) Don't be too tidy-minded
7) Think twice before cutting down trees or ivy
8) Avoid toxic chemicals where possible
9) Encourage death and decay as part of the natural cycle
10) Observe, experiment, adapt - and enjoy!

1) Work With Nature, Not Against It

The key principle. At Natural Gardens we believe that a garden should not just be a sterile showcase for pretty flowers, but should be and feel alive.

A good garden should be a stable ecosystem in its own right - an interdependent "web of life". This benefits the gardener, for such a balanced web of species, suited to the conditions found in the garden and its surrounds, possesses strength and stability. It will suffer from less pest or weed problems, for in nature no diverse and stable ecosystem is over-dominated by any one group of organisms (section 5 below lists the main controlling predators and how to attract them).

So our job as gardeners is to promote an abundance of diverse organisms, from the less conspicuous but vital decomposers such as bacteria, fungi and the "lesser" invertebrates, through the plants themselves, to the herbivorous invertebrates (including Butterflies and Bees) and their predators at the top of the food chain.

Observe which plants do best in your garden and base your management on this; go with the flow.

The rest of the principles form the basis of how to achieve this.

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2) Provide a Wide Variety of Habitats and Niches

Animals have four basic requirements; food, water, shelter, and breeding sites. So try to satisfy as many of these as possible.

For the more glamorous animals and plants we often have a reasonable idea of what some requirements are. For example adult Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies love feeding on Buddleias whilst a decent-sized clump of nettles in an open, sunny place provide food for their caterpillars; or a "natural", unpolluted pond will encourage frogs to breed. It has to be accepted, though, that little is actually known for certain about the precise requirements of many organisms - and when it comes to the way complex ecosystems function we are even more in the dark.

Happily, much can be achieved by keeping to certain principles. Remember that in nature both the greatest variety of species and the highest numbers of individuals are usually found where two or more habitats meet (the interface). This is because the four basic needs are more likely to be found in several habitats combined rather than in a single one; a Blackbird, for instance, will nest and shelter in your shrubs, feed on worms in the grass of your lawn, and drink and bathe in your pond. In your garden, these represent the naturally-occurring habitats of woodland shrub layer, woodland glade, and open water respectively. As gardeners, we have the opportunity to create an artificially high number of habitats and thus interfaces within a garden, boosting its value for wildlife.

So try to provide a variety of habitat types and resources, with year-round flowering, different vegetation heights and structure, varied colors of flower and fruit, water, both damp and drier places, sun, shade, holes and crevices, young and old wood. It's not vital to have all of these, but in general the more there are the greater the number of species will be attracted. A pond or other water feature is especially valuable (to both wildlife and older children) - and doing without fish will allow the variety and numbers of your other wildlife to proliferate. Another valuable addition, hidden in a dark corner somewhere, is a log pile (even a small one). These not only offer sheltered hiding places and hibernation sites for all sorts of creatures, but also provide that rare element of rotten wood, on which a host of less conspicuous but important "creepy-crawlies" depend (including the larvae of Stag Beetles).

Fortunately, many people nowadays prefer a more natural look to their garden, the days of over-formality having disappeared in garden fashion. In any case, style and wildlife are by no means incompatible; you don't have to have a jungle to attract wildlife, as planting schemes can easily be designed to be attractive to people and wildlife. In the main, it's just a question of using plants that are useful to insects or birds throughout the year, and promoting vital ecological principles such as the variety and patterns of vegetation structure, features and habitats. Where some wilder elements are used (such as log piles or wildflower meadows), a good rule to follow is to place these away from the house, concentrating more formal layouts in its immediate surrounds.

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3) Keep to Suitable Plants with Simple Flower Structures

British native plants are often the best choice for a wildlife-rich garden, as they are after all what our wildlife is adapted to - and many do make excellent garden plants (please ensure that you purchase only nursery-grown specimens, not those stolen from the wild). If however like most people you prefer more variety, or some "showy" specimens, don't despair; many plants of foreign origin, or single-flowered cultivars, are also excellent.

Insects are adapted to the bark and leaves of local plants but will usually take nectar, pollen, (and along with birds) seeds and fruit from almost any suitable plant. Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Buddleia, Impatiens and Sedum spectabile - all from Asia - provide a feast for birds and insects in Britain. A good rule to follow is to provide a varied assortment of native trees, shrubs, climbers and plants which are known hosts for insect larvae, to which an assortment of nectar-rich or berry-forming aliens can be added, such as Fennel Foeniculum, Marjoram Origanum, and phacelia.

Avoid double cultivars if you can, as the necessary change in flower structure often renders them sterile and so no nectar, pollen, seeds, or fruit are produced. Where doubles do remain fertile, the abundant flower parts often prevent insects from reaching pollen or nectar. Even so, a small number of "showy" double specimens will have little effect on the overall value of your garden to wildlife.

Try, too, to include a mixture of plants with different flowering structures. Honeybees, short-tongued Bumblebees, and Hoverflies can usually only reach the nectar in plants with shorter flower tubes (e.g. Cotoneaster spp., Ice Plant Sedum spectabile, Mallows Lavatera, Lavenders Lavandula, and the Honeysuckle variety, Lonicera japonica). Butterflies and long-tongued Bumblebees, on the other hand, can in addition usually get nectar from long-tubed flowers (e.g. Foxglove Digitalis, most other Honeysuckles, and Snapdragons Antirrhinum)

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4) Consider the Surrounding Landscape

Try to integrate your garden's habitats to those of the surrounding countryside -remember that you won't attract something that isn't found in your region. But gardeners do have the opportunity to compensate for the current decline in semi-natural habitats within our countryside; you might encourage some local species to breed in or near your garden by providing complementary elements that are now missing or in short supply nearby.

Butterflies such as the Gatekeeper, for instance, will not usually breed in gardens because of a dearth of rank grasses needed for egg-laying and larval food. But adults need nectar, which gardens can provide. Meanwhile, much of our modern farmland contains just the opposite; rank grasses around field edges but precious little in the way of herbaceous plants or hedges. So if you live in a rural location you can often boost the local Gatekeeper population by providing the missing nectar element with plants such as Marjoram (Origanum spp.). Of course, put aside an area for a wildflower meadow and you can provide a complete habitat for Gatekeepers and others such as Meadow Browns. Many other examples exist, so with just a little research you can both learn more about your local wildlife and help it to survive.

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5) Make an Extra Effort to Attract Useful Predators

If you can attract predators to your garden they are much more likely to help rid it of pests.

Ladybirds are active from late spring to mid-summer. They feed mainly on greenfly, scale mites, mealy bugs and small caterpillars. To encourage them you might even allow some early aphids to survive(!). Try to avoid over-tidying your garden during autumn as dry plant debris, loose bark and hollow stems provide hibernation sites.

Hoverflies are active from late spring onwards. Their larvae feed on aphids, fruit-tree spider mites and small caterpillars. To encourage them, grow flowers which provide nectar and pollen for adults. They overwinter as a chrysalis, often behind Ivy leaves or in other sheltered places.

Lacewings are active from late spring to mid-summer. They feed on aphids, larvae, mites, leaf hoppers, scale insects and caterpillars. To encourage them, overwinter survival can be boosted by erecting hibernation boxes.

Ground and Rove Beetles are active all year round. They feed on adult slugs and their eggs, and also eat the larvae of cabbage and carrot root flies and lettuce-root aphids. They thrive in moist, shady areas. To encourage them, leave soil, stones and logs undisturbed.

Centipedes are active all year round. They feed on slugs, snails and insects, and live in good quality soil and under stones and logs.

Earwigs are active all year round. Although they do damage flowers, they also feed on caterpillars, aphids, insects and moth eggs. They can be found resting during the day in narrow crevices.

Frogs, Toads, and Newts spawn in spring but hibernate through the coldest months. As a group they feed on slugs, snails, worms, and insects. To encourage these amphibians to breed, a pond is necessary. As adults they move onto and live off the land. They often overwinter in damp, hidden places such as under stones and logs. Place some near to the pond if possible. Shallow edges and sloping sides to the pond, please, and newts prefer overhanging vegetation to shield them on entering and leaving.

Hedgehogs can be seen from mid-spring to mid-autumn, feeding on slugs, millipedes, cockchafers, earthworms and caterpillars. They hide in long grass and hedges during the day and hibernate during the winter months. To encourage them to enter or even live in your garden, leave one area slightly overgrown or, alternatively, provide a winter box in an old, abandoned compost heap for hibernation (if turning an open compost heap please do be aware of hurting a nesting or hibernating hedgehog). Tinned dog or cat food (not bread and milk) can help as a tempting titbit.

Bats are active in spring, summer, and autumn evenings, feeding on midges, craneflies, moths and aphids. At these times of the year they roost in warm, dry hollows in trees and in crevices in buildings. They hibernate during winter, many species preferring deeper, solid places with an even, cool temperature (e.g. old chalk workings or lime kilns, caves). To encourage bats, insects can be attracted by establishing a meadow, and by using the guidelines outlined in section 3 above. Flowers that release nectar in the evening are especially valuable, such as Evening Primrose Oenothera spp. Bat boxes, located in a sheltered position which gets the morning sun and afternoon shade, can invite them to be "on-site", ready to eat your midges.

Birds will nearly all eat insects, especially during the breeding season. This includes a wide variety of pests. Others take slugs and snails (e.g. Song Thrush), leatherjackets (Starling), and caterpillars and aphids (e.g. Blue and Great Tits). As a bonus, bird song is one of the delights of life. To encourage birds to remain in your garden, provide the four basic necessities of food, water, shelter, and breeding sites: Natural foods, such as seeds, berries and pests(!), plus regular energy-rich birdtable food, especially during the colder months. Regularity of feeding is vital; birds have a very high metabolic rate so must have a continuous food supply. Water for drinking and bathing (feathers must be kept clean). Trees, shrubs, walls, and fences (the latter two combined with climbers) will provide shelter and nest sites, boosted by artificial nest boxes.

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6) Don't Be Too Tidy-Minded

One of the most unfortunate elements about gardening in the U.K. is the traditional autumn clean-up. It robs many of the beneficial creatures (see section 5 above) of crucial overwintering sites such as hollow stems, rank vegetation, loose bark, rotting wood, and fallen plant debris and branches. It also causes much disturbance just when animals are trying to settle into overwintering places. If predators can survive in the garden throughout the winter they will be on hand to hit the pests as they arrive or emerge in spring.

Birds suffer, too, as many dead seed heads are cleared away before they have had a chance to take the seeds (examples are Lavenders Lavandula, Teasels Dipsacus, and Geraniums). Feeding birds from bird tables is important, but natural foods are usually better if available.

There are in any case additional personal bonuses for the gardener in keeping some of the architecturally striking dead stems (such as Alliums, Fennel Foeniculum, Sedums, and Teasels Dipsacus) - for they not only add structure to the winter garden, but they look beautiful when rimed with hoar frost. Indeed, some protection from frost can be offered to adjacent susceptible plants by the dead stems.

So compromise if you must, by clearing away the untidiest of the debris in the most prominent places, but please leave the visually pleasing and even some of the scruffier material in out of the way corners. Wait until spring to clear these. Adopt an attitude of "enlightened untidiness".

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7) Think Twice Before Cutting Down Trees or Ivy

Genuine problem trees, causing subsidence, cutting out light, or even posing a danger, must of course be dealt with, often by cutting down completely. But please question whether it's really necessary before you take such a final step.

Trees are a valuable addition to the wildlife of any garden, offering an additional structural dimension missing in smaller garden plants: song posts, nesting sites, a mass of leafy food and older (sometimes rotten) wood for insects at the bottom of the food chain are all valuable. Broad-leaved trees are generally best, but conifers and even a few Leylandii (if kept under strict control) can provide roosting and nesting sites for birds such as Greenfinches, and some insects can live on them very successfully.

The gardener gains in other ways from trees, too, as height can be a crucial element in the look and atmosphere of a garden. And many trees are natural wonders in themselves. Ask yourself: "Is any action really necessary? If so, is there another way? Will thinning or pollarding suffice?". Mature trees take a long time to grow.

Linked to this subject is Ivy Hedera helix. Many people still adhere to the tragic myth that this wonderful plant harms trees. The truth is that in the vast majority of cases it does no such thing, and in fact does far more good than harm.

Ivy likes to grow upwards if it can so on the vast majority of trees it keeps to the trunk region, leaving the branches and leaves unshaded and free to photosynthesise. Ivy is not parasitic (another common myth); it merely uses a tree as a support to gain the height it needs to produce the flowers so important as an autumn nectar and pollen source for many insects (including Honeybees), and later in winter producing berries for birds. The Holly Blue butterfly practically depends on the flowers as food for its second (autumn) brood of caterpillars. Ivy is also an important evergreen shelter for many creatures (and an evergreen feature for the gardener). The plant can take up to 15 years to flower, so one that has reached this stage is valuable indeed. Ivy does not even really compete for nutrients and water underground, as its roots spread widely near the soil surface, usually well away from the bulk of those of the tree.

One detrimental effect we have come across is on Yew trees and other conifers with similar, narrow-angled, upright branching habits. Here, the weight of Ivy growing along these upright branches can occasionally drag them down, ruining the shape of the tree. It can also sometimes hasten the end when a tree is weakening from old age and is near to falling anyway. In gardens, or near any public place, any such tree would be cut down on safety grounds long before this stage. For the gardener, Ivy can become rampant if left unchecked along fences, etc., but please don't remove it from your garden entirely. If you dislike the dark green colour of the native species, consider planting one of the variegated or lighter types (Hedera colchica 'Dentata Variegata' or H. canariensis 'Gloire de Marengo').

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8) Avoid Toxic Chemicals Where Possible

Insecticides, fungicides and weed killers can harm beneficial creatures as well as pests and weeds, and can easily upset the equilibrium of your garden's "web of life". In a balanced ecosystem big pest problems tend not to arise, although a newly wildlife-friendly garden may take two or three years to settle down while the predator and prey populations adjust to each other. Grit your teeth at the aphids, have patience, and wait. The garden will settle down in time. You'll still have some pests, of course, but at levels that the plants will be able to handle.

So please try to avoid chemical treatments if possible, unless you are truly desperate. There are also organic alternatives for dealing with specific pests.

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9) Encourage Death and Decay as Part of the Natural Cycle

Wildlife gardening encourages a natural, harmonious approach. Everything in nature is recycled and nothing is left to waste. Dead plant and animal matter is decomposed by specialist micro-organisms and insects, enriching the soil for future plants. These plants provide food for herbivores such as caterpillars which, in turn, provide food for larger animals like birds and hedgehogs. The animals themselves are an essential part of this chain as their manure acts as a natural fertilizer and when they die they, too, return to the earth.

This process can be speeded up by the use of a compost heap or a wormery, but the health of your garden can be boosted by allowing some decomposition to take place in situ. Mulching with manure, leaf litter, compost, or other organic materials allows a natural, healthy decomposer community to build up around the garden and establishes a firm foundation to the food chain - as well as protecting your plants from both drying out and competition from weeds. Watching a Blackbird turning debris over in search of worms and insects is one of the pleasures of the garden.

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10) Observe, Experiment, Adapt - and Enjoy!

Finally, don't be afraid to be adventurous. Experiment. Watching the triumphs and tragedies of everyday life in your garden, and doing your best to create a healthy ecosystem, can be a truly rewarding experience. It adds another fascinating dimension to gardening.

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