Recently at RSPB Forsinard Flows we’ve been renovating the stone planters in the Visitor Centre car park. Our Visitor Operations Volunteer, Naomi Dalton, came up with a plan to make the flower beds nicer but also friendly for wildlife. She's been pulling up the scattering of weeds and planting a selection of plants that are both attractive and great for wildlife in their place. She's written this blog about Gardening for Wildlife with useful information for anyone keen on helping wildlife in this easy way.
We all know that wildlife is having a tough time of late, with pressures from habitat degradation and changing climate. In the UK, 60% of species are in decline. However, it’s not all bad news. To counteract the challenges, fantastic effort is being put into giving nature a home, whether through large nature reserves or on a smaller, but still effective, scale in our gardens.
Gardens cover half a million hectares in the UK, equivalent to 4% of the land area. Recent research has shown that, per unit area, gardens can be more biodiverse than rainforests! In addition, gardens are now the main habitat for some important species, such as stag beetles, house sparrows and pipistrelle bats. There are many ways you can make your garden even more attractive to wildlife, from bird feeders and nest boxes to building bug hotels and digging ponds. But a feature common to nearly all gardens is a flower bed, either in the form of a couple of window boxes or pots, or as a classic mixed border. Just by growing a selection of wildlife-friendly plants, a wide diversity of native species can be supported.
Target Audience: what wildlife do garden plants support?
The 3 Bs (Birds, Bees and Butterflies) are normally top of the list. But there’s more …
The biodiversity of a garden is dependent on the invertebrates – the little things that make the world work. By creating habitats in a garden for worms, spiders, caterpillars and other insects, you will be indirectly feeding many garden birds as well. Feeders are great to provide seeds and nuts for birds. However, this isn’t the sole component of their diet. Protein is sourced from invertebrates, which is especially important for baby birds if they are to grow strong and healthy.
Did you know that there are more than 250 different kinds of bees in the UK? Only the honeybee makes honey, but all others, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, will also be collecting nectar and pollen. Whilst foraging at flowers they will be pollinating them – transferring pollen to allow seeds and fruits to develop. This function is vitally important for the viability of wild flowers and production of many of our crops. And it’s not just bees that pollinate, the service is also carried out by hoverflies, flies, wasps and beetles – anything that visits a flower! So supporting them in our gardens will also ensure that our shopping baskets are full of apples, strawberries, peas, tomatoes and much more!
Whilst adult hoverflies are useful pollinators, the larvae of some hoverflies are aggressive carnivores, demolishing some of our garden pests, such as aphids. Their allies are the ladybirds; one larva will eat 500 aphids in the 3 weeks it takes for them to develop. Meanwhile, at ground level, beetles venture out at night to hunt slugs. By supporting all stages of a food chain a garden can be a mini self-sufficient ecosystem.
Top Tips: choosing wildlife-friendly plants
With this diversity of customers in mind, suitable plants can be chosen. Browsing a garden centre you’ll see many labels with the familiar RHS ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ bee logo. This is a good place to start, but gathering a garden collection requires a little more consideration. Below are five pointers that influenced our choice of plants for the Forsinard Flows flower beds.
1) Not just nectar
Just as we need a balanced diet, so do bees and other insects. Nectar contains sugars and provides insects with an energy source, while pollen contains essential proteins and oils. Combined they provide a complete meal for the adults and larvae. Whilst bees and butterflies are the main consumers of nectar, pollen is eaten by a much wider range of insects, including many flower beetles and hoverflies. Therefore choose some plants that provide copious amounts of pollen, such as Hibiscus and Cosmos. Avoid elaborate cultivars, such as double-headed Roses and Dahlias, as they have much diminished supplies of nectar and pollen. Many annuals, for example Sunflowers and Coneflowers, will extend their offering into the autumn with seed. Delay deadheading these plants and you will have a supply of home grown bird food!
2) Flowers of all shapes and sizes
The structure of an insect’s mouth determines what they feed on. Butterflies have very long tongues, this means they can reach into flowers with nectar at the base of a narrow petal tube, such as Honeysuckle and Buddleia. Still with long tongues, but of variable lengths are bees, they can wriggle into Foxgloves and Penstemon or probe the nectaries of Phlox or Verbena. Wide, open flowers, such as Geraniums and Poppies are widely accessible to both bees and hoverflies. The best of the bunch are broad flat-headed flowers, such as in the Daisy and Carrot family. Hoverflies and relatives have sponge-like mouthparts so they can easily wander about on these, dabbing at the flowers to pick up pollen. The flower heads are also a landing platform for a whole community of insects; beetles will congregate to mate and wasps will visit in search of prey. Choosing plants that include a wide range of flower shapes and sizes will therefore support the most diverse of invertebrate wildlife.
3) Seasonal interest
A well-chosen collection of garden plants will also have something for wildlife all year round. Early spring blooms, such as Crocus, Mahonia and Aubreta, are important for the first insects to emerge after winter. Supplies at the tail-end of summer, when there is less in flower for insects to forage, can be topped up with Michaelmas Daisies, Sedums and Hebe. By planting two or more varieties of a plant you can increase the flowering time and therefore the period of your garden’s attractiveness for wildlife and people. Take on the challenge of having something in flower every month! For moths on the night-shift, grow night-scented plants such as Nicotiana and Honeysuckle to help them find nectar in the dark.
4) Natural refuges
Aside from food, other wildlife requirements can be met by the plants in a garden. Shrubs provide shelter from wind and create small micro-climates to host a diversity of invertebrates. They also provide a safe haven for small birds, protecting them from predators, especially if the shrub is prickly, such as Rose or Hawthorn. Low growing vegetation provides ground cover, offering both excellent hiding spots or hunting ground – depending on where in the food chain you sit! And as an advantage to the gardener, ground cover plants suppress weed so reduce the amount of work needed.
With lots of requirements for biodiversity, there may not be room to fill a garden with a plant for every job and animal. However, it’s quite easy to pick plants that can fill multiple purposes. Dogwoods or Guelder Rose are good structure for shrubbery all year round, but also have flowers and berries. Likewise, willow also provides pollen and the leaves are popular for many moth caterpillars to feed on. By letting a few things in the veg patch or herb garden flower the garden can be useful for people and wildlife.
By gardening for wildlife and giving nature a home, your back garden can be both a decorative show and also your nearest nature reserve.
Come and visit Forsinard to see the selection of wildlife-friendly plants we chose. Thanks to Corry Croft Nursery for growing some excellent, healthy plants for us!
Written by Naomi Dalton, Visitor Operations Volunteer from April to July at Forsinard Flows.
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