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!


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!




Keeping your balance

One of the joys of a garden for me is that it will never be the same from one year to the next. It will grow, change, mature and eventually decline and the fun is to manage that development and create a balance between the plants so that each can fulfill its potential. Whether your garden is five years or 25 years old it will need ‘editing’ if you want to keep it looking at its best.

I am often brought in by clients who have inherited a mature garden and know that although they don’t want to dig up the whole thing and start again, there needs to be a process of revision to bring back the balance to the garden. This imbalance can happen because trees and shrubs have grown bigger than their allotted space and are competing for space, light and nutrients. They might be creating shade where once there was a bright, sunny space and smaller plants beneath the canopy are suffering. Spontaneous plant purchases often result in a plant growing too big for the only space available  when it was bought or not suitable for the soil or aspect. If you only visit the garden centre in the summer then your garden may be full of plants that look good at that time but with nothing for the rest of the year!DSC_0135


Winter is an excellent time to look critically at the borders. Try to be objective and plan to keep only those plants that contribute throughout the year to the overall picture. If something has outgrown its space but you love it then try giving it a renovation prune in the spring to within 60cm of the ground. Look at the RHS website for advice on which plants you can safely do this with. If two shrubs have grown into each other make a decision about which to keep and which can go based on performance and shape. Widening a border may make it easier to manage as shrubs can be allowed to reach their natural girth rather than having to be constantly pruned back. Think about the shape of the borders. Sweeping curves look better than bitty wiggles and are easier to maintain. If formal is more your style then make sure lawn edges are straight and crisp. Like humans, plants do have a lifetime which varies enormously so don’t be afraid to replace those that look tired and leggy. Would you choose the same plant again today? If it does’t earn its keep in terms of flowers/foliage/bark then harden your heart and take it out! Look at photos on Pinterest and Instagram as well as in magazines and books for inspiration and for a fresh view.

Take photographs of the border, cover with tracing paper and try sketching a visualisation of how you would like things to look like when you have removed/pruned shrubs or perennials. Mark the new shape of border edges on the ground with a hose-pipe or sitcks and string.


Spring is a great time to actually start work on renovations. Remove those plants that are dead, diseased or you have decided will not fit into the new border. Roots need to go too or you won’t be able to replant in that space and unwanted new growth may spring up. Prune those shrubs that you have decided to keep either by cutting right back or removing one third of the oldest branches referring to RHS website. Consider raising the canopy of shrubs so that you can plant perennials and bulbs beneath for an extra layer of interest. Keep stepping back to asses how the shrub looks as you prune. If the crowns of perennials are infested with weed then you could dig them up, shake off the soil and remove every scrap of weed root. Dig out weeds in the border by hand or, as a last resort, carefully spray really invasive weeds such as ground elder or bindweed with a glyphosate-based weedkiller.   It is so important to get as much weed root out as possible otherwise they will compete for light, water and nutrients with your new plants.


Perennials benefit from being dug up regularly in spring or autumn and splitting into smaller pieces, getting rid of the less vigorous centre pieces, and replanting further apart with space to grow.20150511a


Feeding and conditioning the soil with organic matter is much more beneficial (and better for the environment) than feeding the plant with artificial fertilisers. It improves the structure of the soil as well as feeding the plants. I specify digging in garden compost/well-rotted manure/green waste compost/leafmould/spent mushroom compost whenever I am renovating a border or planting a new one from scratch. A couple of bucketfuls per square metres dug into the top 30cm of soil will be an enormous long-term benefit. Many councils sell green waste compost created from the garden waste they collect from us.


Cut the new shape of the border into the lawn and lift unwanted turf with spade or a turf-lifter. Stack this turf upside down in a corner of the garden as it will rot down to produce excellent compost.057


Now the fun bit! Choose your new plants carefully having worked out the type of conditions you are going to be providing them with. Ask yourself what the aspect of the border is….sunny, shady or a mixture of both? Soil type is also key in choosing plants. Is it heavy clay which sticks to your boots or sandy soil which dries out quickly? Get a soil testing kit from the garden centre to work out pH (acidic, neutral or alkaline?). All these factors should guide your choice of plants. Next think about successional interest through the year. Choose some plants which look good in autumn and winter as well as spring and summer. This can be leaf or bark colour or structure from dead seed heads or the tracery of branches. Make sure you provide pollinators with nectar for as long season as possible. Research height and width of plants at maturity to make sure they will fit the space. One-third evergreen to two-thirds deciduous is a formula that works well for shrubs. And lastly, of course, decide on a colour scheme which helps to focus the choice of plants further. Remember this needs to fit in with any plants that remain from the original scheme. Phew! Now you know why planting plans take so long to create!


Take a tip from designers and place all the plants out in their pots on the border before you start to plant and move them around until  you are happy with how they combine. Plant perennials in groups of at least 3 to avoid a fussy,spotty look. Make sure all plants are at the same level in the soil as they were in the pots. Too high or too low may spell disaster for the plant. Water them in well so that each plant gets a couple of bucketfuls of water. Repeat once a week for the first season, a good soaking once a week is better than a sprinkling every day. Consider mulching with 75mm of pine bark nuggets which will help retain moisture and cut weeding by two-thirds. If you do, make sure mulch is kept away from the stems of shrubs.

All done! Pour yourself a well-deserved cup of tea or glass of wine and sit back and enjoy your fresh new garden!IMG_0503.jpg

Unveiling the beautiful Hellebore

Hellebores are stunning plants. I have pointed this out before, I know, but want to remind you that it really is worth braving the cold to trim back the old Hellebore leaves to reveal the unfolding flowers. Here is the ‘before’ example in a client’s garden this week:


Then 5 minutes later after some careful snipping:


See what is revealed! Not only are hellebores beautiful in cream’s, yellows, pinks, purples and blacks but they also provide nectar for early foraging insects. So everyone is happy. Some varieties do tend to droop their heads so we miss the beautiful markings within the flower, but planting them in a raised bed or container means we can see their beauty more easily.