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Creating A Space For Nature With The Wildlife Trusts

We may not be able to go out and appreciate nature in the usual way right now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of ways we can enjoy it – and even make our very own spaces for it – at home. Our friends at The Wildlife Trusts have plenty of brilliant ideas on turning your garden into a thriving natural space for wildlife, but here are just a few of our favourites.

How to provide water for wildlife

Water is essential for all wildlife to survive, and as the warmer weather gets nearer, providing it in your garden will invite all sorts of species.

Just about any stand of water in your yard, from a tiny puddle to a pond, will be used by one kind of animal or another. To make it as appropriate as possible, ensure your water source is shallow with gradual and rough-textured edges, so that anything that climbs in can get out again.

 

During hot summer weather, it is important to have plenty of water for animals and birds to drink and bathe in. But don’t stop there! It is also important to keep the water topped up during the chilly winter months as sources of water can become frozen and more difficult to find. If you install a bird bath, make sure it has gradual edges and is roughly textured. If you want to go the extra mile, hanging a drip jug above your bird bath will attract more birds as they hear the dripping water.

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Top tips for providing water for wildlife

  • Put water where you can watch the activity as you’re not going to want to miss anything!
  • Use a specially made bird bath, or just a bowl on the floor – you’ll attract different creatures to different settings.
  • Place water for birds near a shrub or tree as they like to approach from a place of safety.
  • Watch for predators such as cats.
  • Leave water where you can easily access it for cleaning and filling.
  • Introduce a small, shallow or running water feature and provide water for birds, as well as butterflies and other insects. Even an old sink can be turned into a water feature!
  • Dig a pond and attract even more wildlife into your garden, from frogs and toads, to dragonflies and herons! Remember to provide shallow edges so anything that falls in can get back out again.
  • Remember: When temperatures drop, water freezes, making it difficult for wildlife to find fresh water to drink. Break the water on bird baths daily or replace with tepid water.

How to build a bee hotel

Solitary bees are important pollinators and a gardener’s friend. You can help them by building a bee hotel for your home or garden and watching them buzz happily about their business.

 

You will need:

  • An untreated wooden plank, at least 10 cm wide
  • Plenty of hollow stems of different diameters (including the bees’ preferred 3-5 mm), such as bramble, reed or bamboo
  • Saw, drill, screws and secateurs
  • A mirror fixing to hang the finished nest up

Building your bee hotel

  1. Cut the plank into four to make a rectangular frame that the stems will sit inside.
  2. Drill guide holes for the screws (to stop the wood splitting) and assemble the frame.
  3. Snip your stems into lengths to fit the frame (as wide as the plank), discarding any bent or knobbly ones. It’s a good idea to include some really big stems (cut with a fine saw), even though they’re no use to the bees; they speed up the assembly stage, look attractive and help shelter lacewings and ladybirds over winter.
  4. Lay your frame on a tilted surface and carefully pack it with stems. Only as you add the final few does the whole thing suddenly lock solid.
  5. Hang your hotel on a sunny wall, sheltered from rain.

Watch as solitary bees, like the red mason bee, investigate your finished bee hotel in the spring. With any luck, the females will lay their eggs inside the stems of your hotel. Each egg is left with a store of pollen for the grub to eat when it hatches. The egg is sealed up behind a plug of mud, in a ‘cell’, and one stem may end up with several ‘cells’ in it. The young bees will emerge the following year!

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How to attract butterflies to your garden

Provide food for caterpillars and choose nectar-rich plants for butterflies and you’ll have a colourful, fluttering display in your garden for many months.

 

While just about any flower with nectar can be a treat for butterflies (cottage garden plants in particular), it is a slightly different story for caterpillar food plants (known as host plants). In fact, most butterfly species have just a short list of host plants. This is possibly because eating leaves and stems is a trickier business, with plants evolving chemical and physical defences against this kind of munching. It may also be that caterpillars need particular chemicals from that plant to bring out their warning colouration as butterflies.

 

Growing host plants for caterpillars in the garden is not necessarily guaranteed to attract the relevant butterflies, but butterflies do breed in gardens, so it is worth experimenting with different host plants to see which species might find your garden suitable.

It is also worth remembering that some butterflies and caterpillars overwinter, so shelter in the garden, such as thick growths of ivy, is also important.

How to grow a wild patch

Whether it's a flowerpot, flowerbed, wild patch in your lawn, or entire meadow, planting wildflowers provides vital resources to support a wide range of insects that couldn't survive in urban areas otherwise.

Option 1 - let your grass grow long

Long grass, peppered with flowers, is one of the rarest habitats in our well-tended gardens, yet it is incredibly beneficial for wildlife. Patches of long grass encourage different plant species to grow, help insects to thrive, create feeding opportunities for birds, and shelter small mammals.

 

So simply let nature move in! Set aside some lawn, leaving it to grow, and wait to see what arrives. The less pristine the lawn, the more promising it is for wildlife. Just raise the cutters on your mower to make some paths (it’ll look more cared for) and leave the rest of the mowing until July or August after plants have flowered.

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Option 2 - start from scratch

You can create a wildflower area from scratch on bare ground. Pick a poor patch of ground that hasn’t been cultivated recently as wildflower meadows establish best on unproductive soil. It’s worth checking what sort of soil you have and its pH before you choose which seeds to sow; wildflower seed merchants supply mixes suitable for various soil types and situations.

 

If your soil fertility is too high for perennial wildflowers to flourish, consider sowing a cornfield annual mix that includes plants like cornflower, corn poppy, corn marigold and corncockle, with some barley and wheat seed to add an authentic touch!

To create your wild patch from scratch

Control weeds by digging or rotovating, burying any vegetation to a depth of 15-20 cm (6-8 in). This also brings less fertile soil to the surface.

 

Firm and rake the surface to make a seedbed.

 

Don’t be tempted to add manure or fertiliser as this will encourage excessive vigour in the grasses, which then swamp the wildflowers. This is the most important principle in establishing a wildflower meadow.

 

Sow in autumn, giving the seed time to settle in over winter. If you are on heavy clay, however, it is better to wait until spring. Even large areas can be sown by hand quite easily.

 

Ensure that the seed is scattered evenly by sowing half lengthways and the remaining half widthways across the plot. Mixing the seed with silver sand makes the process easier. Rake in lightly and water thoroughly.

Maintaining your wild patch

During the first year, it is essential to get the mowing regime right. Cut to 5-7 cm (2-2.5 in) whenever the height reaches 10-20 cm (4-8 in). The number of mows required can range from one to four. Control assertive weeds like thistles, nettles and docks by hand-weeding or spot-treating with a wildlife-friendly herbicide.

 

After this, a couple of cuts a year should be enough: once in late July/early August and then again in early autumn. After mowing, always leave the clippings for a couple of days to drop any seed, then rake up and remove to keep soil fertility down.

Top tips for getting your wild patch right

Be careful when mowing – small mammals, amphibians and reptiles may be hiding in the grass. Some birds nest in larger meadows, so don’t mow until after the beginning of August.

 

Wildflowers are available in plug form and in ready-planted turf rolls, which can make establishing the plants even easier.

Sow a mix of wild grass and wild flower seed.

See more gardening tips from The Wildlife Trusts here.

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