10 secrets of designing a bird-friendly garden


Prompted by the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch taking place again on the 28th – 30th January 2017, I am highlighting a few design secrets that will attract and support a varied range of birds to your garden

  1. Diversity. Create a rich and diverse habitat for birds and insects to breed, feed and shelter.Include layers of a wide a range of flowering and fruiting trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and wild flowers.                      IMG_0439.jpg
  2. Layering. If you are renovating an old garden keep some of the older shrubs and trees so you have layers of planting at different heights and stages of maturity to suit a variety of birds and insects who may use different parts of the canopy for feeding and breeding. With a brand new garden, try and create these layers by including plants of differing heights, shapes and habits.IMG_0505.jpg
  3. Native v non-native. A mix of native and non-native plants is fine. See RHS Plants For Bugs Project Birds seem to be as happy eating berries from exotic species such as Amelanchier and Pyracantha as they are from natives such as Holly.images.jpeg
  4. Tidiness. I am always banging on about this one! Don’t be too tidy! As summer progresses leave seedbeds on grasses and herbaceous perennials, and let them stand over winter if they will. Tidy up only in late winter when fresh growth starts. Leave piles of leaves, fallen fruit and pruned branches tucked away in the back of the border. They will rot down and attract beetles and other insects who will be food for birds.Unknown-1.jpeg
  5. Lawns. If you have the space, cut some of your lawn less frequently than other parts to encourage a more varied habitat and encourage wild flowerswildflower_border_turf5.jpg838c24628cef8ef3cfa7f32f7f01dcc4.jpg
  6. Water. Include water somewhere in the design. Evan a small pond will encourage a more varied habitat for birds, insects and other creatures. In a really tiny space make a pond in a bath, sink or barrel.garden-pond.jpg
  7. Hedges. If you have space, replace your fence by planting a hedge. They are great habitats for birds who will use them for shelter, nesting and feeding. They are also better at breaking down the wind in exposed sites than fences which cause damaging eddies on the leeward side. The best hedges are a mix of species though these can be more difficult to manage. Alternatively even in urban settings natives such as Hawthorn and Beech can make very neat hedges.Hawthorn hedge leaves flower and berries.jpg
  8. Hedge-cutting. Try to avoid cutting hedges between March and August as this is the main breeding season for birds.
  9. Potted gardens. Even a patio garden can become a home for birds by grouping collections of pots of different sizes and heights together containing trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs mimicking a wild habitat. Many trees will live for years in a pot and others on dwarfing rootstock all their lives if properly cared for.images-1.jpegUnknown-3.jpeg
  10. Extra help. Nestboxes and feeding stations for birds are also useful to supplement the natural sources of food provided by your garden plants, and if sited close to windows can provide you with an amazing, close up view of our feathery friends.Chapelwood-Complete-Dining-Station.jpg

To find out more and take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch click here. The pack the RSPB send you on request even includes free coffee and a biscuit recipe to keep you warm and well fed whilst you take part!


Devon Arts and Crafts garden

In the early 1920’s, the story goes that Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyle Carte were sailing their yacht along the south Devon coast when they spotted a farmstead at the head of a coombe leading down to the sea. They decided that they would like to build a house there as a seaside residence, and employed Oswald Milne (a pupil of Edwin Lutyens) to design it for them in the Arts and Crafts style. They created terraces around the house to make the most of the views and made a wonderful informal garden around it, tumbling down the valley to the cliffs. Today Coleton Fishacre is owned by the National Trust and is a magical place to spend an afternoon.DSC_0040.jpgThe mild coastal climate means that many half-hardy and more exotic plants, shrubs and trees can be grown there, so for the plants person some exciting discoveries are in wait



This Fuchsia arborescens caught my eye when I visited this year. It doesn’t look like a fuchsia at all, but it is. A tender shrub from Mexico and Central American cloud forests. Pretty purple fruits follow the delicately scented flowers. IMG_1349.jpg

Totally frost tender but could be taken into a conservatory in winter. love it. want it. Thompson and Morgan sell plug plants in spring.

The detailing of the Arts and Crafts style terraces, paving, walling and water features, using the stone found on site, harmonise beautifully with surroundings and the house.DSC_0049.jpgDSC_0057.jpgIMG_1348.jpgDSC_0030.jpgDSC_0037 (1).jpg

Love the idea of a window in the verandah to screen from the wind yet keep views open.


Sadly the trees have grown up and blocked the view to the sea but in the early years there must have been a terrific view from here. Sea mists roll in and out of the valley quickly, changing the atmosphere dramatically.DSC_0068.jpg

The house is equally atmospheric, giving the impression the D’Oyle Cartes have just gone for a spin to Dartmouth in the Bugatti and could be back any minute…..

I left reluctantly, but with a long list of interesting plants that I would like to try growing myself. A plea to the garden staff. The gardens are stunning but my only disappointment was that despite the garden being full of unusual and exotic plants, the garden shop mainly sold plants that can be found in an average garden centre. Many of the exotics must be grown on as cuttings each year, so how about putting some for sale too?

Coleton Fishacre is across the river from Dartmouth via the lower ferry.

RHS Plants for bugs project

We have come to realise over the last couple of decades what rich habitats our gardens are for wildlife. Yet gardens are very different to the British countryside, on average containing 70% non-native plants, but having much greater plant diversity. Because there was no consensus of opinion on whether planting UK natives in our gardens was better for wildlife than non-native plants, which originate elsewhere in the world, the Royal Horticultural Society began a rigorous scientific study in 2010 to find out, Plants for Bugs’.


36 3m x 3m plots were created at RHS Wisley and another site in Surrey and each plot was planted with a mix of 14 plant species native to one of 3 geographical zones: the UK (native), the northern hemisphere excluding UK (near-native) and the southern hemisphere (exotic). Each bed contained bulbs, perennials, shrubs, a climber, grasses and ferns. Sampling of invertebrates were recorded over four consecutive years. Tens of thousands of insects were recorded including eight species of bumble bees, more than 50 species of spider and 40 of ground beetle. In 2011, for example, more than 2,600 species of pollinating insects were recorded.

So what conclusions did they draw from all the data? A paper was recently published on pollinating insects recorded and the main finding relevant to gardeners and anyone who designs public or private green spaces was that there was no difference between the number of pollinating insects that visit native and non-native plants. Non-native plants can be just as valuable to pollinating insects as natives. It was found that the diversity of species is far more important than whether they are native or not. images.jpeg

Here are the 3 key things the RHS say we as gardeners and garden designers can do to help increase levels of pollinators in our gardens.

Plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions of the world. Place the emphasis on plants from the northern hemisphere including UK natives such as Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’-cultivar of Spiked Speedwell, or Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’-cultivar of Common Honeysuckle, with near- natives like Scabiosa caucasica- the Caucasian Scabious and Eupatorium maculatum ‘Atropupureum’ – Jo Pye weed. Then include ‘exotics’ from the southern hemisphere for late nectar such as Lobelia tupa, Fucshia and Osteospermum. Take a look at this list  for more ideas.

Plant for a long season. It is not only us that enjoy a long season of flower in our gardens. Pollinators need to find nectar right through the year, so including early flowering plants such as Hellebores, Crocus, Winter flowering Clematis, Snowdrop and Mahonia is important. Later flowering plants such as Asters, Dahlias, Anemone x hybrida and Aconitum carmichaelii and grasses such as are also useful to provide late nectar sources. Here is a list giving a guide to seasonal flowering plants for pollinators.

Pack as many species of plant in as you can manage. Not surprisingly, the more species you fit in the more bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects will be supported by your garden. And don’t despair if you only have a window box, pick the right plants and you will still be helping the pollinators in even the smallest space.  Layer plants starting with bulbs and perennials and working up to shrubs and trees. Try squeezing slender plants like Verbena bonariensis, Foxgloves or Linaria purpurea between other plants. Don’t forget climbers which will only take up vertical space if trained well. A sunny spot will be the greatest draw for insects but even in shade Sarcococca, Hydrangea and Bergenia, for example, will flower well. Trees can also be good providers of pollen and nectar. Willow, Birch, Maple and Lime are ideal for this in larger spaces.

And finally, take a note of which plants attract the most insects in your area and add more of those which are buzzing with insects! Oh and don’t forget your allotment, orchard or veggie patch. Let a few veg plants flower and plant an edging of annuals such as cornflower, larkspur or marigolds for cutting. I am going to plant a strip of wild flowers to edge my new veggie garden and draw in insects to pollinate my crops. If you have space for a few fruit trees then let the grass grow longer beneath them and add wild flower plugs and spring bulbs. The extra insect life attracted will help to pollinate my apples, pears and plums hopefully.




Falling for a view

I may be a Yorkshire-woman by birth, but my heart has been in the West Country since I first visited 40 years ago. Living close to the coast has always been a dream, not only for the beauty and the wildness; but also for the opportunity to grow some more unusual plants in the milder coastal conditions. IMG_1343.jpgSo excitement was high in June as I left behind what had been my base for most of my adult life and headed to the South Hams of Devon to set up a new home and garden advice business. What is more, for the first time in my life I owned a garden bigger than a postage stamp! One third of an acre of garden, orchard and woodland perched high above the Avon Valley near Kingsbridge. The sensational views across the valley which put us on birds-eye level and make me sometimes feel I am living in a tree-house, also come with a very steeply sloping garden in places. IMG_1356.jpg

The garden finishes just beyond the lonesome Pine in this photo, most of which is hidden as the slope drops off quickly beyond the Rose hedge which is just coming into flower in this photo taken the week after we arrived.IMG_1142.jpg

We started with the veggie garden which had been rather neglected.DSC_0132.jpgLevelling an area to build a greenhouse and shed, and turning over the soil ready for creating a fruit and veg garden as soon as possible

IMG_1158.jpgIMG_1253.jpgNote the water butts and the compost bins, crucial elements of sustainable gardening. I are committed to gardening organically and always encourage my clients to do the same. Other improvements have included building new steps to the main lawn using sleepers and slate chippings

.IMG_1323.jpgIMG_1365.jpgThe borders either side will become a tapestry of ferns, Hellebores, and other textural woodland perennials. Here are a mixture ready to be planted.IMG_4520.jpg

We have also started to renovate the mini orchard by mowing paths through the rough grass and planting apples, pears and plums. Wild flower plugs and spring bulbs for naturalisation will also go in this autumn.IMG_1327.jpg

The moist, mild west country climate is perfect for Hydrangeas and here are a few that have graced the garden for the last 3 months. I think I might just have fallen in love with their generosity of flower as they tumble down the slopes; some a little blowsy, others very elegant. They will need a little extra pruning in spring to bring them back under control as you can see!IMG_1207.jpgIMG_1206.jpgIMG_1205.jpgRoses also seem to thrive in the conditions here. The previous owner of our house trained these Ramblers beautifully over a low fence.IMG_1148.jpgI purposely did not deadhead the Roses as they faded as I knew we would have an amazing show of hips too if I left them alone.  And we have.


The joy of my new garden is the mixture of habitats and conditions, each suiting different types of plants and planting styles, and the wonderful countryside surrounding us. Creating a garden which acknowledges all of this and sits comfortably as a foreground to the view is going to be a lot of fun. Oh, and here is my neighbour, Fudge. He keeps an eye on what I am up to over the fence!




Exploring the High Line

High above New York’s bustling streets there is a green surprise in wait. A garden in the sky. DSC_0198.jpg

This is The High Line, an elevated, linear park that was opened in 2009 on a disused freight rail track that had closed in the 1980’s.

Unknown.jpeg images-2.jpeg

Archive photos before work began.

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running.  Today, the High Line includes more than 500 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. 043838e1a896aff62f093901e4cf271f.jpg

Piet Oudolf designed the planting.

DSC_0171.jpgA walk along the High Line gives spectacular views of the Hudson River14435.jpgAnd down onto the streets of New YorkDSC_0184.jpg

Running through various ‘habitats’ of prairie


and woodlandDSC_0160.jpgDSC_0162.jpgPlaces to soak up the sun or sit in the shade.DSC_0153 (2).jpgAnd glimpse some of New York’s iconic buildings.DSC_0174.jpgDSC_0169.jpgGrabbed a few ideas such as Corten steel for raised bedsDSC_0163 (3).jpgAnd cloud-pruning smoke bush Cotinus ‘Grace’ to prevent it swamping the underplanting


But sadly all good things must come to an end….and it did!DSC_0164.jpg

Looking very strange; a piece of woodland looming over the busy New York streets! I loved the planting and the atmosphere it created, and admired all the work put in by the energetic and passionate ‘Friends of the High Line’.

If you are in New York please try to visit. Ninety-eight percent of the High Line’s operating budget is covered by voluntary contributions.