Your garden is as rife with beasties as any tropical rainforest. They may not be as spectacular (or intimidating) as a silently prowling jaguar or screech their presence as loudly as a rainbow-splodged macaw but wild animals are there and getting down and grubby in the garden with the children can help you see the natural world in a whole new way. Gardens, be they sizable in acreage or a postage stamp are their own complete eco-systems, dependent upon man to not create dissonance through the indiscriminate use of chemicals and artificial fertilisers. The more naturally you garden, the more you will welcome and enjoy all manner of interesting creatures (and plants) and these simple steps below are perfect for children to join in with too.
1) Build an Insect Hotel
The best bug hotels are made from odd bits and pieces; sawn short bamboo canes, piles of tumbled bricks, twigs, logs and other debris. Garden centres sell chi-chi hotels made from bundled together bamboo canes, some of which are so sophisticated they put our house to shame, but you can make a perfectly good one yourself by tying them together with raffia or twine. Stuff the crevasses of log or brick piles with leaves, wood bark and smaller twigs, sit back and watch the ‘guests’ check in.They don’t care that it didn’t cost a hundred pounds from ‘Shabby Chic R Us’.
2) Welcome the Birds
Sites like the RSPB are mines of useful information about how to attract birds to your garden and keep them returning. It goes without saying that you can spend as much as you like buying state of the art bird houses and feeders with no guarantee of their being inhabited. Location is key. Birds need a high-up, sheltered and clean place to feed, roost and nest, out of the reach of predators whether they be other birds (magpies), squirrels or cats. Protein rich foods such as fat balls can be made from the leftovers of the Sunday roast by mixing poured off fat with seeds and bird feed then leaving to harden. Seeds are ideal in the winter as are pieces of fruit. Ensure feeders are near some cover as this provides a place to dart into and hide when the cat appears. Not you, the birds.
3) Plant Food
Many of our most popular garden plants have had their nourishing capabilities bred out of them- the new vigorous and disease resistant F1 hybrids do not seed reliably or we don’t allow them to seed at all, deadheading too swiftly and too often. Many bird species rely on berries and seedheads for their diet- the finches especially. Leave the seedheads on, allow rose hips to develop and choose plants that support a diverse range of living creatures. Ivy provides a good source of pollen in its flowers and seeds and the evergreen cover is an important place of shelter for birds and bugs. Buddleja is beloved by butterflies and an annual climber such as zaluzianskya not only produces intoxicating and bewitchingly scented blooms, it is manna from Heaven for moths too. This can be grown easily from seed and happily grows in a pot. Finally, don’t be in too much of a hurry to clear away the dying back leaves and stems of herbaceous perennials and other plants. They provide much needed habitat for woodlice, aphid-munching spiders and earwigs (!) and even the much dreaded slug which has its important place in the natural hierarchy though when it has decimated my lettuces I do struggle to remind myself of what that might be.
4) Access some areas
We realise that you need to ensure the kids (and the dog) doesn’t escape but securing your perimeters a la mini Colditz will keep out far more good than bad. Ensuring you keep small gaps or holes along the base of a fence or wall will allow hedgehogs to roam over their territories, the size of which would surprise you. By stopping them crossing your garden, you contribute towards their decline by reducing their ability to feed and opportunities to meet that someone special. And a hedgehog in the garden is worth ten slug traps. The same rules apply to frogs and don’t forget to provide entrance and exit ramps into ponds and other water features.
5) The green, green grass of home
Wimbledon looks lovely but apart from the foxes and pigeons, there ain’t much going on, on such micro-managed, ruthlessly-weeded lawns. Conducting a merciless war against all lawn inhabitants bar grass means you reduce the diversity of plant and animal life in your garden. No point in trying to encourage bugs if you don’t give them much to eat and the beauty of dandelion, clover and daisies isn’t just the way they all look- it is the food they offer bees and other flying critters too. Long grass patches provide cover for butterfly egg laying too and whilst we appreciate that you might not be filled with joy at the thought of laying on a bug nursery, the sight of butterflies, newly emerged from pupae do bring joy. So grit your teeth.
6) Fruits of the Earth
Now we know you need some space to plant orchards, even a few trees, but nurseries are having to respond to our space-starved population by propagating miniature varieties of common fruit varieties. Buy a variety on a dwarfing rootstock (ask for M27) called a ‘Minarette’ tree: they come as apples, pear, plum, greengage amid other varieties and you can plant it in a pot or small garden. They even sell two varieties of tree grafted onto one stem- either two varieties of apple or two different types of fruit that act as pollinators to each other. These will fit the smallest of spaces, being trainable and there is nothing like Spring blossom for attracting bugs to your patch and you can have the joy of discovering, as we did one year, that our son had taken one tiny perfect bite out of every single apple still growing on the tree <grimace>.
Stately homes have their lakes, Ratty has his river and Tarka has his stream but if you have a tiny garden don’t give up hope- you can still use water to attract and support wildlife. By simply burying a small shallowly sloping container in the ground, making sure it is in a half sun/half shaded place and filling with rain water, you will provide succour for birds on hot days and a chance for any passing frog, hedgehog or even bees to refresh themselves. Make sure there are stones or twigs in the water and around the edge to allow critters to clamber safely in and out and prevent you from having to conduct a funeral for a drowned little creature when your child discovers them. Yes I have been that parent who has conducted full state funerals for drowned insects, complete with official mourners, ‘All Things Bright & Beautiful’ sung lustily followed by a catered wake. For a group of four year olds.
8) We plough the fields and scatter
The tiniest of plots can support the growing of lettuce, radish, sorrel and herbs, baby carrots and pak choi. Indeed the tinier and more crammed the plot, the less likely it is that a full on bug slaughter of the vegetable innocents will happen. They seem to hone in on monoculture- serried rows of carrots reduced to orange rubble by carrot fly; lettuces trailing ragged ribbons after a slug feast and if you are very unfortunate, deer and rabbit banquets are more likely if they can easily spot the tenderest vegetables. Shoe-horn crops amid the flowers (or weeds) and harvest them as you go. Plant in wall containers and hanging baskets, in gro-bags by the back door or on a balcony. Stagger the plantings to avoid gluts and you will increase the biodiversity in your garden and it’ll look like a Beatrix Potter fantasy come to life too.
9) Flower power
Tasteful is good but it doesn’t necessarily make the best wildlife environs. As we have said, frenetic clearing away of debris, cutting back of spent flower heads and stems and the choosing of over bred hybrids will all reduce the chances of seeing a garden seethe with life. The same goes for an over-reliance upon non indigenous species of plants. British native animals have evolved to live in harmony with British native plant species. Now we realise this sounds a little jingoistic and even xenophobic but in this case, indulge us a little. One of the reasons for the success that the great plantswoman Beth Chatto has enjoyed in planting her famous East Anglian gardens (as well as being an all round amazingly skilled person) is her obeisance to regional growing conditions when she chooses her plants. No trying to force a square peg into a round hole; dry arid land plants will not suit a shaded woodland garden. This means you can branch out and buy that lovely soft grey and woolly eared stachys plant even though it may not be indigenous if you share those drier conditions. But a great rule of thumb is to look at what is naturally around you and try to replicate it. Do you live near broad leaf forests? Then look for some of the smaller Japanese maples. Live near a coastal plain? Look at what grows well there. Even if you choose not to plant the native species, look for a plant that shares some of those qualities and possesses at least two seasons of interest- flowers and interesting autumn foliage; dramatic branch shapes in winter and autumn berries. In that way you extend the season of interest and life support systems for animal life too.
A weed is a plant in the wrong place. That is all. If you realise that many plants seen as weeds are amazing support systems for bugs and birds you can approach them with a fresh eye. Daisies, buttercups and dandelions flower for ages, produce rich sugary pollen and plant sugars and rot down quickly at the end of their growing season, nourishing the soil for another year. Learn to live with them and even love them.