10 secrets of designing a bird-friendly garden

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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!

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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’.

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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.