I’ve had a few nature-related injuries in my life: limbs shredded by brambles while engrossed in following an insect; branches whipping into an eye as I ducked through trees scouring the woodland floor for fungi and some serious blisters from long hikes, but the after-effects of my 7-hour solid wildlife gardening digging and planting session ranks up there with the most painful encounters. As they say no pain, no gain - and there was a lot of gain...

Regular readers of this blog, and Nature's Home magazine will know that my garden was the featured garden in the Spring 2020 issue of the magazine and that we invited Adrian Thomas round to show us how we could make it even better for wildlife. And do that he did!

Last week’s blog covered the first phase of the new wildlife-friendly planting in our garden done last summer soon after Adrian's visit, but we've really ramped it up since then and this week’s blog is all about planting at a large scale. This followed on from my mega bee hotel that I've been adding sticks too in the last few days, blown down by the storms.

Whips not fences
I have a rather strange aversion to storms and particularly strong winds. It would appear it comes from when I was a child and hated to see my Mum’s washing bellowing and flapping on the washing line, fearful of it blowing away. Therefore, back-to-back weekends enduring Storm Chiara and Storm Dennis did not make for a pleasant weekend at home and particularly when, as expected, our wobbly fence gave way in two places leading to a bill of £355. Thanks Chiara.

Fences are generally rubbish for wildlife anyway. If I had my way, I’d replace the lot with hedgerows and would certainly make a Hedgehog hole in every new fence that is put up in this country. Hedges are better for wildlife by far, much more attractive to look at and allows the free movement of things that can’t fly. They also filter the wind rather than take it full in the face like a fence and would save a fortune in fence repairs and replacements. Hopefully someone who could help pass such a law is reading this blog!

I’ve wanted to plant more and thicken up existing “semi-hedging” I’ve planted in my garden for a while now, so when Adrian recommended we plant more, it was a must-do.I have some hazel, hornbeam, beech and a few others growing well in a single line in front of some of the fences bordering our garden and now was the time to create a  REAL hedge.

It is now the time of year to buy “bare-root” hedging (does what it says on the tine) and where else would I go to get the best advice and best product? The RSPB’s very own range of bird-friendly hedging.

So while the storm was raging and ripping out my fenceposts at will, I went online and ordered my hedging and went for the "Ultimate" option for variety and also the bigger size whips. A few days later, five of each of these 10 super wildlife-friendly species arrived in a long cardboard box, all conveniently labelled up and  ready to go:

Buy bare-root hedging at this time of year and it is is very easy to plant in your garden.

The dream team for a cracking wildlife-friendly hedge

  • Hawthorn
  • Blackthorn
  • Guelder Rose (was out of stock so I got Wayfaring Tree, but all good)
  • Spindle
  • Alder
  • Juneberry
  • Field Maple
  • Wild Privet
  • Wild Cherry
  • Bird Cherry

Light-bulb moment
Adrian Thomas also encouraged us to create a woodland planting area under some of the trees in the garden that just had boring grass, so I ordered 200 bluebell bulbs, 100 snowdrop bulbs 100 wood anemone bulbs and 100 winter aconites while I had my credit card out and dusted off. To be fair, buying bulbs is way cheaper than mature plants all the bulbs came to around £50.

"Green" bulbs such as my bag of winter aconites to bring late winter colour to the garden, arrive ready to go and have a high chance of success.

Apparently buying them “green” (ie have just flowered and have been dug up) rather than dry and planting in the autumn gives a better chance of them establishing, so all good and with all the recent rain, it was the time to buy – and plant. The bulbs arrived in rapid time as well and were also ready to go at the same time as my hedging.

Rapid planting
What I hadn’t realised was that you need to plant these bulbs, ideally, within a couple of days or so max of them arriving and that bare-root hedging needs the roots keeping wet, but that you should also plant fairly quickly so it was time to get busy.

Snowdrops will provide late winter colour and early nectar

Therefore, once Storm Dennis was over (not a patch on Chiara but still not pleasant, especially for those poor folk suffering much more badly in other parts of the UK), I was out on the Sunday thinking I could get all the bulbs in and all 50 of the 90cm hedge whips in before the England Six Nations game at three o’clock.  Ha! Hilarious. Dream on Mark…

The hedging came first and I marked out the area. I opted to go for the thicker, double-rowed approach, as I just had enough whips. Not only would I create a whole load of new fantastic wildlife-habitat, I’d get some cover in front of those flipping fences. I opted for the slightly more expensive tall whips in the interests of “getting on with it”, but you can buy smaller. Great news about bare-root hedging is that you can “heel” it in. Simply create a deep enough slit in the ground, pop your whip in behind the spade, pull our your spade and firmly pack in the solid and heel it down to ensure good root to soil contact ratio.

I decided to operate on a equally spaced out approach for each species on a rotational basis, for variety across all the garden. Thanks to all the rain, it was dead easy heeling in the whips and I’d soon got all my fences now nicely “fronted” with whips.

I was feeling great having got my hedge in and looking good, but by now it was lunchtime and England v Scotland was looking a slightly more distant prospect.

Rapid hands
A bag of 100 bulbs may not look like much, but appearances can be misleading and of course you want to select the very best spots for them, ensure the hole is dug at the right depth and that you back fill carefully before finally watering them in. It takes a lot of time!

I found three relatively shaded spots in the garden for making brilliant bluebell carpets. Site one was beneath two apple trees in a spot shady that only catches the last of the afternoon sunlight.

Make some boring grass great by planting English bluebells (above). Make sure they are they are not the invasive Spanish that are far less good for wildlife and hybridise with the native species

Site two was under a big tree and site three was under a mature elder right outside the utility room window. That was where I wanted most winter aconites too for that beautiful bright yellow, late winter display and I also split the wood anemones between all three sites.

Planting my shade-loving bulbs forced me to get to know my garden a bit better too - seeing which parts were shady and sunlit at different times of the day

The anemone tubers (looking just like bits of twig) needed soaking for a couple of hours so they went in a bucket while I used an old piece of piping left over from the build to create the necessary holes in the soil. They had to be planted horizontally so yet another different planting style for the day to perform.

I seriously underestimated how much work was needed and so it was only as the last glimmer of daylight remained in the west that I was able to pack up with everything safely in and head bent-backed into the house. Even though I limped in, bent double, with hands covered in scratches and splinters, I thought to myself – that was a very good day’s work indeed. A few days later I leaf mulched the hedging to help it even more and several days of rain ensured both the whips and the bulbs were looking in fabulous form already.