Thursday, 14 November 2019

10 ideas for a wildlife-friendly garden or allotment

I have gardened with wildlife in mind for a long time now and would not garden any other way anymore. Creating a wildlife-friendly space is fun and brings a sense of achievement when you see all the different pollinators visiting the flowers you planted, the frogs colonising the pond you built and birds eating the aphids you have worried about. You will soon have a thriving ecosystem which does not need too much of an input and mainly regulates itself. As we need a lot more wildlife-friendly gardens and allotments to make a real difference I thought I give some ideas to make your garden or allotment more wildlife-friendly as well:

1. Build a pond

Probably the best thing you can do is building a pond (have a look here how I built mine). It creates a whole new world for animals and plants to colonise, many of these cannot live anywhere else. Frogs, toads and newts need a pond to breed, as well as quite a lot of insects such as dragonflies, damselflies and stone flies. There are also lots of small animals which life in the pond all their life such as water fleas and water snails. The pond also provides a convenient opportunity for terrestrial animals such as foxes, hedgehogs and birds to drink, the latter also like to clean their feathers in shallow water. The pond does not have to be large, small ponds will attract wildlife as well. But in my opinion, larger ponds are easier to maintain and don`t loose water through evaporation in summer as rapidly as small ponds do. It is also easier to create lots of shallow areas and a deeper part in the middle which would be ideal.

Small ponds attract a lot of wildlife as well
Frogs will soon find newly-built ponds

2. Don`t use pesticides

7-spot ladybird larva
It is possible to have a healthy, thriving garden or allotment without using pesticides. It often requires a bit of tolerance and to just let things be. I have aphids on my allotment but never in great numbers, normally, after a week or so the predators move in and the aphids disappear quickly, just to pop up somewhere else. Ladybirds, birds, spiders, some beetles, earwigs and wasps for example like eating aphids and many other pest insects as well, but they need something to feed on to be able to breed and thrive. To attract butterflies and moths to the garden, caterpillars need to be tolerated as well. Some caterpillars can get out of hand such as large and small white which eat cabbages, but the plants are easily protected with some simple netting.
Slugs are eaten by numerous frogs which live in and near the pond (another reason to build a pond) and also the hedgehog, who comes for frequent visits.

Without caterpillars there are no butterflies and moths
Spiders thrive in wildlife-friendly gardens and do some useful pest-control
Hoverflies are good pollinators, many larvae also eat aphids
I have never used any herbicides. Weeds can be dug out and composted (bindweed roots first need to be drowned in a bucket of water but so far I have been ok with composting couch grass). I have cleared 3 allotment with digging all the weeds out by hand and piling them up into large heaps. I then covered them with a weed fabric. After 6 months I had nice compost which I could spread back onto the allotment beds.

Weeds cleared from the allotment are rotting down under the weed fabric

3. Don`t be too tidy

Ladybirds often overwinter in leaf litter
Leaving piles of leaves and twigs under shrubs and larger perennials and not tidying all dead organic matter up all the time, leaving bare soil everywhere, creates essential habitat for insects such as ground beetles, woodlice and centipedes, and also food for worms. Birds and hedgehogs like going through the leaves to search for food, on bare soil there would be nothing for them to find.
It is also a good idea to create a log pile with any left-over logs and prunings from shrubs and trees instead of burning them which unfortunately seems to be commonplace on my allotment site.

4. Plant a tree (or two)

Fruit trees have beautiful blossom in spring
Trees add another layer of potential habitat to the garden or allotment. They also provide structure, shelter from wind and a convenient place to hang bird feeders and nest boxes. On hot summer days I relish the shade created by the trees as the allotment is otherwise quite sunny. It also gives me some place to plant shade-loving plants.
Fruit trees are especially good as they are full of flowers in spring and yummy fruit in summer or autumn. Don`t harvest every single fruit but leave some behind for the birds and other wildlife to eat. I have planted a lot of fruit trees now,  the earliest such as cherry plum and nectarine flowering in March and the latest ones such as quince and medlar flowering in May. Apple and plum trees are somewhere in between.

A good crop of Morello cherries

5. Leave seed heads standing

Monarda fistulosa has pretty seed heads
A garden without seed heads would look quite bare in winter. Many seed heads provide structure until late winter and look beautiful on a frosty morning. They also provide natural food for birds in winter. I often see gold finches eating the seeds especially from Echinacea, Centaurea and Rudbeckia. Not all plants are suitable for long-lasting seed heads as some, such as Geranium species, look quite sorry for themselves after the first sharp frosts and need to be cut back. Some of the best seed heads are produced by Phlomis, Echinacea, Eryngium, Rudbeckia, Echinops, Anthemis, Monarda, Inula, Telekia, Veronicastrum and most ornamental grasses.

Seed heads add structure to a garden in autumn and winter

6. Make your own compost

This composting area even includes a small wildflower meadow
A compost heap is a world on its own, full of bacteria, fungi and invertebrates all helping to decompose the organic matter we add to the heap. This bounty attracts lots of other animals as well such as predatory insects feasting on the smaller animals. The warmth and shelter provided by a compost heap attracts hedgehogs, frogs, toads, slow worms and sometimes also grass snakes. I have 9 composters, all open and accessible which I empty once a year in early spring. I try not to disturb the compost too much in the rest of the year, especially in winter, as some animals will be over-wintering in the compost heaps. I have a family of wood mice living under one of the composters which I regularly see on my wildlife camera. I have also seen shrews and hibernating bumblebees. When I still lived in Germany I had a hedgehog family living in my compost heap, on hot summer days they would sometimes come out and relax outside the compost, mom sleeping, with the little hoglets exploring the surrounding area.

7. Plant as many plants as you can

Fill every space available with plants, as greater the diversity of different plants as better for wildlife the garden will be. Plant a mix of native and non-native plants to give a long flowering season and provide food for a wide range of insects. Many herbivorous insects are very specialised and would not touch any non-native plants so to cater for them you need native plants. There are many very pretty native plants such as ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), red campion (Silene dioica) and black knapweed Centaurea nigra). Try to have something in flower all year, starting with snowdrops and crocuses in January and February, ending with Mahonia and Christmas box (Sarcococca) in December. There are also some late-flowering perennials such as Aster tataricus, flowering until early December, which are good for late pollinators.

Crocus provides pollen and nectar in early spring
Horehound (Marrubium) is a great plant for bumblebees

8. Create a wildflower meadow

At its simplest you could just leave some grass to grow long, cutting it twice a year in August and late winter. You will be surprised what flowers will be coming up. I have created my two little wildflower meadows from scratch by sowing a perennial wildflower seed mix on bare ground. I have also added yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) so keep the grass in check. So far it has worked very well and the meadows look beautiful in late spring and summer. Apart from cutting everything down in August and another cut in late winter there is no other maintenance required. It is important to sow a native perennial seed mix, not annual cornfield flowers, which are also offered as wildflower meadow seeds.

9. Keep bare ground covered

Nearly every inch is covered with plants
 I try to keep every bare ground covered at most times, either with plants or dead organic matter such as grass cuttings and other dead plant material or compost. Bare ground is an invitation for weed seeds to germinate and leaves the soil open to the elements. Rain often compacts the upper soil layer which turns into a hard crust. Rain also washes nutrients out of the soil. If covered with a nice organic blanket of dead or living plants the worms and other soil life are happy and productive and keep the soil healthy. There is also a lot less weeding to do.

10. Provide food and shelter for wildlife

A mason bee (Osmia bicornis)
A lot of food and shelter can already be provided by most of the points above, but there are also a few additional things we can add to make life easier for animals who visit our space and will also provide us with a opportunity to observe them. A bee hotel is an easy option, which provides nesting chambers for some solitary bees, mainly mason bees and leaf-cutter bees. The bee hotel needs to be positioned in a sunny place sheltered from wind and rain, best would be a south-facing house or shed wall. Mason bees will build their nests in spring and I find it very entertaining to watch their comings and goings. Leaf-cutter bees will be nesting much later, in July, and the females can be seen flying around with large pieces of leaves to line their nesting chambers. It is best to put the bee hotel somewhere cold and dry, such as inside a shed, in winter. It can also be carefully cleaned. More information on this can be found here.

The hole on the bottom right was used by a leaf-cutter bee

To provide nest boxes and additional food for birds are other options. I have put up a nest box on the allotment shed wall but which has not been used so far. Fingers crossed I get some guests next spring. From autumn to early spring I am feeding the birds as well which provides not only a life-line for many birds in a cold winter but also a lot of joy to me. Sometimes in winter, when there is not a lot to do on the allotment anymore, I will just go there to watch the birds. Another thing I added to the allotment is a hedgehog box which was used by my resident hedgehog most of the spring and summer.

Feeding and watching birds in winter is fun
My hedgehog house
A robin is patiently waiting for the great tit to finish eating

I hope I could give you some inspiration. If you have any more ideas to make our gardens and allotments more wildlife friendly I would love to hear about it.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Pond Life: The wildlife pond through the year

I thought it is time for a new blog post after being quiet all summer. I created my wildlife pond in September last year (if you want to see how I have done it have a look here) and it has developed really well. The pond plants have grown a lot and the pond is full of life; not just frogs and newts but numerous other small creatures such as water beetles, snails, water fleas, water boatmen and pond skaters. The pond is also a nice place for foxes, hedgehogs and birds to come for a drink, the latter also like to take a bath.
Follow me on a journey through the year to see how the pond has changed and what wildlife I have seen.

A cold and misty morning in February
The first frogspawn appears at the beginning of March
More frogspawn!
The tadpoles have hatched at the end of March
A large water beetle is visiting the pond
Everything is looking much greener at the end of April
Tadpoles are growing fast
Pond skaters are skidding around on the water surface, waiting for hapless insects to fall into the water
A frog is watching me
Geum coccineum is flowering at the end of April
Ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) is starting to flower as well
The wildlife pond in May
Ragged robin looks nice at the pond margin
Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) is flowering in the bog garden adjacent to the pond
In June blue damselflies arrive
The damselflies like to sit on the iris leaves
A four-spotted chaser is waiting for some insects to grab and eat
The pond at the end of June
The pygmy water lily, which I rescued from the old pond, is flowering
An interesting pond visitor, a leech, has arrived out of nowhere. I think this is one of the leeches in the genus Glossiphonia which suck body fluids from snails and other soft-bodied invertebrates
Here yo can see that the leech is a female as she carries her offspring around underneath the belly
The pond at the beginning of July
Frogs are in and out of the pond, hunting for insects in the surrounding borders but come back to the pond to rehydrate
A large dragonfly larva, which are voracious predators
The pond at the end of July, with self-seeded ragged robin flowering again
Common darters have paired up, on top is the male, holding the female by the neck
Common daters ready to lay eggs on plants just below the pond surface
August is hot and dry and many animals, including wasps, come to the pond to drink
The pond in August, with Gaura lindheimeri flowering in the background
Mares tail, marsh cinquefoil and water lily give a pretty picture
This Common dater male is defending the pond as his territory
The pond in October, many plants are slowly winding down and are preparing for winter now
November brings the first proper frost, the pond has a thin layer of ice, plants are dormant and many of the pond animals are less active now or are hibernating at the bottom of the pond

Soon the cycle will start again and everything will spring back into life.

The pond was one of the best things I created so far, it has given me so much joy and so much to see and discover. I love to just sit at the edge of the pond and watch what is going on. The pond has also given many pond animals a new home and is an important source of water for mammals and birds. I hope I could give you some inspiration to build a pond yourself. If you already have a pond you know what I am talking about :-).

10 ideas for a wildlife-friendly garden or allotment

I have gardened with wildlife in mind for a long time now and would not garden any other way anymore. Creating a wildlife-friendly space is ...

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