Sustainable gardening and creating a wildlife haven

Lockdown 2020 saw a rise in gardening around the world – the tighter the restrictions, the greater the increase in gardening. The benefits are multifold: not only is gardening an activity that can take place within the confines of your home borders, it also provides exercise, time outside (perfect during the extremely long 2020 summer), mental health benefits and, for those planting vegetables, the promise of delicious food – meaning fewer stressful trips to the supermarket!

Sales of compost rose by 41% by the end of June 2020 and a report by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that 42% of Britons took to gardening to cope with lockdown – a statistic I enthusiastically contributed to. The trend has continued into 2021, with sales of garden furniture jumping by 308% as early as January this year. By May, many styles had fully sold out, signalling peak garden-mania in the UK and beyond. 

Getting out into nature is one of the best ways of maintaining good mental health, but, when it comes to attracting wildlife, not all gardens are created equal. With an estimated 24 million gardens in the UK covering more area than all our nature reserves combined, making your garden wildlife friendly is a key contributor to the health of the natural world in this country, especially in and around cities. Wildlife isn’t the only factor to take into consideration, however. The way you garden and the materials you use also will affect the overall impact of your outdoor space both during construction and long after you’re done. 

Landscaping

Heavy landscaping if often done using machinery such as diggers, but for smaller spaces, hand digging is not only effective but also cheaper, less hassle and of course uses no fuel. It’s a great form of exercise too and extremely rewarding! We’ve hand-dug tonnes and tonnes of soil (which we are re-using!) and I swear my shoulders are a different shape to when we started.

Resource conservation

When you’re planning your garden, consider how many new materials you’ll have to bring in, and how many you’ll have to throw out. Choose a plan that maximises the amount you can reuse in different areas. 

For example, when we moved in we decided to re-terrace our garden and re-pave. The soil from each terrace would usually be thrown in a skip (potentially heading for landfill, releasing methane), but instead we are re-structuring the soil so none goes to waste. The old paving may have been chucked, but we are smashing it up to use as hardcore (the solid structure used under paving). We had a sandpit covered in bark for the previous owners’ children, which we will be removing, but instead of throwing out the sand and bark, we reused the sand for mortar and the bark for mulching around the trees (see fern pic below) – great for preserving moisture! Gravel was used in concrete and all the plants have been dug up and potted to be replanted elsewhere. So far only 1 bag has gone to waste. 

If you don’t have lots of random building materials in your garden, take a look at Gumtree and Facebook marketplace, and in your local skips. Chances are people will be desperate to get rid of large quantities of items such as sand, hardcore, bark, soil, pallets etc – usually for free – which can be invaluable in your garden. Save money and resources by choosing to reuse as much as possible. 

Green waste

If you are able to, compost your green waste. This recycled the nutrients into high-quality compost, which will be able to help your new garden grow within a few years. Composting is preferable to green waste bins, as these are sometimes incinerated for cheap energy (which releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases). If you don’t have a compost bin, speak to your neighbours or any local allotments, who may be happy to take your green waste. 

Our homemade compost heap made using wood found in a skip

Planting

Native plants are the preferred plants for both wildlife gardening and sustainable gardening. Native plants are those that grow naturally in your region without additional water or special growing conditions. They’re not only cheaper, but also much easier to grow and maintain, and are loved by local wildlife, which have co-evolved to live in symbiosis with many of these plants. Even if you would like some exotic plants in your garden, make sure to mix in native plants to benefits the birds and insects in your area. Entirely non-native gardens may look beautiful, but can effectively be green deserts for local wildlife, providing no benefit whatsoever.

Planting that mimics natural UK habitats will attract more wildlife – like these Hart’s Tongue ferns!

Watering 

Planting helps retain moisture in the soil, which is beneficial during hotter summer days, meaning less watering (and lower water bills!). By having a variety of plants, and not simply a barren lawn, you’ll be less likely to have to water frequently, and also provide greater habitats for birds and other wildlife. When you do water, do so extensively. Light watering will encourage roots to grow shallow, reducing water retention and making your plants more thirsty in the long run.

If you do have to water, invest in a water butt/rain barrel to capture rainwater from your roof guttering. This helps save water and is better for your plants, as rainwater tends to have more nutrients in that help plants grow.

If you have a lawn, consider letting it go dormant over the summer months. If may not look pretty, but grasses are extremely hardy and designed to bounce back after dry periods.

Lawns

Lawns may be the preferred ‘low maintenance’ garden for many, but they’re neither particularly low maintenance, nor much of a garden (at least not for wildlife). Standard turf lawns require regular regular mowing, feeding and watering. 

If you can, incorporate a variety of plants into your garden, and consider leaving sections of your lawn un-mown. Longer grasses can produce habitats for animals such as frogs and hedgehogs, and if left, can produce flowers such as daises, buttercups and clovers, which are great food sources for many native animals. 

Don’t use treatments to get rid of moss. Not only is moss great as it is low maintenance and will grow almost anywhere, it also provides food and nesting materials for birds. 

Pest control 

If your garden is prone to weeds and pests, it can be tempting to try weed killer or pesticide, but both of these will have unintended effects on local wildlife too. For weeds, maintain a regular weeding schedule to keep them at bay – it’s not only better for the wildlife but also better exercise for you! Also remember – there is no official definition of a weed, other than a plant growing where you don’t want it’. So if you choose to keep something, it is no longer a weed!

Bio-control can be a good method of keeping pests at bay. Introduce ladybirds to keep aphid numbers under control and attract birds to eat snails and slugs. If you have a vegetable patch, consider covering it to reduce the impact of invertebrates. Nature lives in equilibrium, so while herbicides and pesticides methods may be quicker than bio control, they can be extremely harmful in the long run – not just in your garden but further afield too. 

Feeders and bird nests

One of the biggest delights of having a garden is watching garden birds enjoy it. By providing feeders with a wide variety of food sources, you’re more likely to attract birds to your garden. Place feeders in trees or next to shrubs – most birds won’t enjoy exposed feeders in the centre of a barren lawn. If you have kids (or are interested in birds!), consider starting a ‘bird list’, adding which species you see in your garden. 

If you have a suitable environment, add a nest box or two to your garden – in the UK there is a shortage of nesting sites leading to the decline of several species. Different species prefer different types of boxes placed in different areas – do research according to the species you’d like to see. We have a blue-tit nesting box in our crab-apple tree and another at the opposite corner of our garden, and a couple of birds nesting in there already! 

Seeing the results of your efforts in the form of adorable garden birds is extremely rewarding, and a great way of getting the whole family involved. 

Goldfinch hanging out next to some of our feeders – aren’t they beautiful?
A blue tit checking out one of our nest boxes within a few days of putting it up

Other habitats

Many things that are considered a ‘mess’ in most gardens may also be considered a home for many animals. If you’re cleaning up your garden, consider making it hedgehog friendly by building them a hedgehog home. Piling wood and leaf litter also provides homes for invertebrates, which in turn attract birds and other wildlife. 

It’s easy to build insect hotels to provide shelter for some of our key garden pollinators.

Foxes aren’t rare in Bristol, but do enjoy an undisturbed garden
Natural stone walls provide habitats for solitary bees and other invertebrates.

Water features

Water features are not only beautiful, but they also provide great habitats for invertebrates and amphibians, whose population numbers have declined considerably in recent years. Make sure to build a wildlife pond with access and escape points to prevent drowning. 

If you don’t have space for a full wildlife pond, even just adding a small water feature can act as a bird bath and water hole for local wildlife. You can add a solar powered water pump to add some movement and interest to the water feature. 

There are so many ways in which we can improve our gardens for wildlife whilst also improving quality of life for ourselves too. No matter the size of your outdoor space, there will always be some way in which you can make it better for local wildlife, whether by providing much needed shelter, food or a breeding place for birds, butterflies and more. 

If you enjoyed this post please do share on Instagram and don’t forget to tag @foodfitnessflora and @backtobristol! Happy gardening!

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