I had the pleasure of attending the Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards this afternoon, and winning the ‘Small private gardens’ category. Dawn Fielding, the Surrey Wildlife Trust Community Engagement Officer, gave a short talk explaining the importance of gardens for wildlife, and the pressure wildlife in Surrey is under.
23% of Surrey’s species are extinct or under threat. Gardens are a big opportunity to help our wildlife. They make up 12% of the land area of the county – more than nature reserves, so have the potential to make an impact.
The awards recognised school gardens, community gardens, business grounds and private gardens that are havens for wildlife. This year there were 145 entries, with around half achieving gold award level, so I’m thrilled our garden has come top in its category (for the second time!).
It was very interesting to hear and see pictures of what others are doing in their gardens, and fascinating to look around the Therapy Garden (which won the Community Garden Category).
Neither Dr C nor I are particularly green-fingered, nor do we have massive amounts of time to spend gardening, but we do like the occasional Womble project (see the ‘How to‘ section for some examples). I like to think that if we can do it in our little garden, anyone can.
Nice as the award is, the real reward for wildlife gardening is watching the wildlife make use of the habitat, shelter and food we provide.
One of my WildGarden aims for this year was to increase the numbers of wildflower species in the garden. I set up a new planter in a shady spot, and planned out a selection of wildflowers that will attract insects over a large portion of the year. I got snowdrops in the green, and primroses as plug plants, as well as seeds for other species.
I’ve not had great success with the seeds – they took ages to germinate, and, once they had, the slugs eat them all while they were hardening off in the greenhouse. My second batch (including foxgloves, white clover and wood forget-me-not) are now in the greenhouse, and I am trying a couple of approaches to keeping the slugs away:
Standing the pots in a tray of wool pellets, which are meant to put slugs off
Or standing them in a tray of gravel.
Sticking a plastic bag over a few of the pots until the seedlings get too big
We’ll see if any of these approaches works.
Update: last night I caught a snail in one of the pots in the tray of gravel…
My August Wild Garden challenge was to revive the wormery. Worms are excellent recyclers, turning dead plant material into wonderful compost and liquid fertiliser. I set up a three-tiered wormery in my garden years ago, for fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen. But it fell into neglect after the council started a food waste collection, as it was easier to put all the food waste in one place, rather than separating out acidic and fishy/meaty waste from the worm-tasty other stuff.
Having had to buy lots of compost this year, it’s struck me that it just doesn’t make sense for me to send away good worm food for the council to compost, and then pay for and transport commercial compost. It was time to get the wormery going again.
I was trepidatious about what I would find when I lifted the lid from the long-neglected wormery. But what I found was a pleasant surprise. The bottom layer had beautiful, fine textured, non-smelly compost ready to go on the garden.
My first task was to get the few remaining worms in that layer out of that compost, and into the less digested layer. I did that by leaving the lid off for a while, then, once the worms had dug down a bit to escape the light, scooping of the top bit of compost, and repeating the process until the tray was empty, the worms rehomed, and the herbs and flowers given a compost treat.
As there were few worms left, to really get the wormery producing quickly I decided to add some reinforcements. There are various companies online that will send you worms via an unsuspecting delivery driver. I bought mine along with a block of coir as bedding, some worm treats and some lime pellets, to keep the compost at a worm-friendly neutral or slightly alkaline ph.
Once the coir block had been soaked, I added it and the worms to an empty wormery tray, together with some worm treats. I will add food waste gradually, until they get into their swing.
For the tray of almost ready compost, which has the remainder of the original worms (well, their descendents), I added some lime pellets and worm treats. Once they’ve finished work in that layer they can join the newbies in the tray above.
Hopefully this time I can keep the wormery going well. This will reduce the carbon cost of transporting some of my food waste to the council composting facility, and reduce my compost and fertiliser bill. I will give it my best shot.
I haven’t forgotten my wildlife gardening challenge – it’s just been a busy few months with lots of work travel. So here’s a quick update on what I have done lately to make my garden even more wildlife friendly.
June – wildflower disaster
I’ve been trying to increase the number of types of native wildflowers in my garden, particularly for the shade planter and pallet planter. I sowed foxgloves, common dog violets, white clover, and wood forget-me-not in my propagator earlier in the spring. They eventually germinated, and, in June, once big enough, I moved them to the greenhouse to harden off.
Sadly the slugs came and ate them
all (apart from two little clover seedlings), so it was back to square one. I’m now just waiting for the new seedlings to get big enough to transplant.
I need to find a solution to the slug problem – they ate all my basil and chilli plants as well. I was hoping that eventually we’d get enough slug predators in the garden to keep the population under control. But that hasn’t happened. The hedgehogs ignore slugs, and if the slow worm is still around it’s not making a dent in slug numbers. Obviously slug pellets aren’t an option for my wildlife garden. I don’t want to use nematodes, as I don’t want to get rid of all the slugs, just stop them eating my precious plants. I don’t want to trap them, as I don’t know what to do with them once caught. I think some kind of barrier is the approach for me – I’ve bought some wool pellets (that deter rather than kill slugs) in the hope they will keep the slugs off my precious plants.
July – insect-friendly plants
July’s gardening has been about planting flowers for insects. We’ve dramtically increased the number of flowering plants in the garden, including:
even more lavender
several types of salvia, including Patio Deep Blue and Amistad
vivid violet scabious
red, velvety Cosmos
Lady Boothby fuscia
First Lady Veronica
At the garden centre we hunted out plants with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators‘ logo on the label. This was quite straightforward for perennials and shrubs for the border – plenty to choose from. We made a shortlist, and tried to pick a mix of species with different colours, flower shapes and flowering times, to suit as wide a variety of insects as possible. It was harder with bedding plants for our pallet planter – most of the petunias, marigolds etc. on offer have been bred for their looks, rather than accessibility and attractiveness to insects. In the end we managed to find some antirrhinum with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo, and then squeezed some lavender and lobellia (for its looks) in as well. If you can’t find plants with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo, watch which ones the insects at the garden centre head towards.
The bees at home couldn’t wait for us to get the new plants in the ground! I knew I had made a good choice when a bee landed on one of the salvias when it was still in its plastic bag in the garden.
Seeing the effect of previous Wild Garden tasks
We’re already seeing the benefit of some of our earlier Wild Garden activities – the solitary bee house seems to have lots of residents, which is very satisfying. If you build it (or install it), they will come.
And the bog garden plants are growing nicely, with the loosestrife looking good and attracting insects at the moment.
Frogbert and Frogmilla are regularly spotted keeping cool in the pond (when the coast is clear of next door’s kittens). And the buddleia has exploded with flowers, attracting butterflies. The garden is full of life right now.
Boggy areas are excellent for encouraging more wildlife into your garden. They’re particularly good for amphibians and insects. But if your garden isn’t on the edge of a stream, how can you create such an area? The answer involves rather a lot of digging. Dr C and I like a bank holiday project, so that’s what we set out to do at the beginning of May.
Perennial plants suitable for boggy or moist areas (see below for how to pick them)
Some logs or stones to edge the bed, hiding the pond liner
1. Pick your site
In the wild, these sorts of habitats often occur next to streams or ponds, so we chose to create ours next to our barrel pond. If your pond is level with where you want to create your bog garden, you can create a beautiful uninterrupted effect. That wasn’t an option for us, but being next to the pond will make life easier for the frogs and insects.
A pond isn’t a prerequisite for a bog garden (and if you can’t have a pond, a bog garden is a good alternative). But ponds are brilliant for all sorts of wildlife, even if they are tiny, like ours, so do consider creating one – it’s another very satisfying weekend project.
2. Mark out your bog area
You can use pegs and string to mark it out, or, like us, mark the edges with spade cuts. We went for a curved shape to match the shape of the pond.
3. Start digging
Once you’re happy with the shape and size of the bed, start digging. This is the time consuming bit. You’re aiming for a straight sided hole 50-60cm deep. Dr C did most of the hard work (as usual), but I did enough digging to ache all over for the next few days.
First we took off the turf, using it to thatch the hedgehog house. Then the serious digging starts. How hard this stage is depends on the type of ground you’re digging. In our case, it was pretty tough, as the ground under our lawn seems to be 60% building rubble. We dug up bricks, paving slabs, carpet and even a buried pipe (not connected to anything, thankfully), as well as a load of stones, and plenty of earthworms. It felt like we were on a Time Team excavation, digging up the inevitable small wall.
4. Line your hole
After trying to get rid of any sharp stones on the edge and bottom of the hole, we put a layer of sand on the bottom, to try to prevent anything piercing the lining. We then put the pond liner in place, pushing it into the corners of the hole, then trimming generously. We then stabbed a couple of small holes in the bottom, to allow water to drain away slowly. From what I have read, the general recommendation is a garden fork’s worth of holes per square metre. Our hole was about half that, so we went with 2 holes. The more holes you make, the faster it will drain and the less boggy, but you will need some drainage.
5. Fill in the hole
Time to undo all that hard work. First add a layer of smoothish stones, to prevent the holes becoming blocked by soil. Then chuck all the soil back in your hole. We also added some compost, but you could also add some manure.
We watered the new bog garden bed with a couple of cans of water, then let the soil level settle overnight, before topping up with soil then watering and letting it settle for a few more hours.
7. Trim and edge
Trim the pond liner more neatly, and tuck it away. We used a mix of logs and stones to edge the bog garden. These make it neater, hiding the pond liner, and provide some good hiding places for small creatures.
8. Choose your plants
I chose a mix of native plants that like boggy or moist ground. My selection includes a variety of flower shapes, colours and flowering times, to try to provide food for as many difference insects as possible. I also chose a mix of heights. The plants I went for are:
Devils bit scabious
Marsh marigold (otherwise known as kingcup)
An iris (a relative of the native yellow flag iris, but smaller and blue)
If you’re in the UK, here are a couple of nurseries that specialise in pond plants and have a good selection of native species (and do mail order):
The plants seem to be settling in well – we’ve had flowers from the meadowsweet and marsh marigold already. An insects seem to enjoy it. Next door’s kittens also seem to enjoy walking along the logs at the edge, so I hope amphibians will avoid it until the plants provide more secure cover…
One of our top priority wildlife garden tasks for March was making it safe for hedgehogs. It’s mostly pretty safe, with no slug pellets or trailing nets, and our tiny pond has a hedgehog escape route. But there was still one area that needed improvement.
My study is lower than the rest of the house, and there’s a small area of gravel outside it, surrounded on three sides by walls, with steep steps up to the rest of the garden. There’s a gate at the top of the steps, but the wood had rotted so the latch no longer held it shut.
We know that hedgehogs can get trapped in that area. One of Fat Cat’s rare moments of Lassie-like heroism was when she alerted us one morning that there was a hedgehog down there, unable to climb the steps. That hedgehog was fortunate, as it wasn’t stuck for too long, and was able to scurry away when carried up the steps. But we can’t rely on every hog being so lucky.
So, Dr C has repaired the latch, and we’ve installed a mini fence to hopefully stop daredevil hedgehogs falling down from the garden above. The hedgehogs are visiting our garden every night. At least I know they are safe there now.
One of my wildlife garden priorities this year was to make the garden more insect friendly by providing more food sources. This means more flowers, blooming for a larger proportion of the year. Our garden is small, so squeezing more flowers in requires some innovation.
There’s a strip of my garden that had no value for wildlife. A narrow passage 3-4m long, it runs between the fence and the wall of our extension. It’s almost completely in the shade, and is mostly decked, with an even narrower strip of gravel. How could I make this more wildlife friendly, short of knocking down the extension and landscaping it?
While most flowers need some direct sunshine to thrive, there are some that are used to deep shade – mostly flowers you’d find in woodland. A planter full of shade loving plants was the answer.
Identifying which flowers to go for took some time. I decided that I wanted shade-dwelling wildflowers that are native to Britain, good for pollinators, and between them bloomed for a large proportion of the year. I also wanted a variety of colours and flower shapes, as different pollinators are attracted to different flowers. They also needed to be quite compact, as I didn’t have much space.
I worked my way through the list suggested in the Surrey Wildlife Trust Wildlife Gardening Guide I got as part of my prize. I compiled a shortlist that fulfilled my criteria (and that I could buy seeds or plugs from a reputable wildflower supplier). From that, I picked 5 species that would hopefully ensure nectar between February and October once the bed was established, and placed my order. The species I chose were:
Common dog violet
To hold the plants, I chose a micro manger from Harrod Horticultural, as it fitted the space, and I have been pleased with the quality of the raised bed we bought from them years ago. It was quite straightforward to put together, with the aid of Dr C and an electric screwdriver.
The primroses and snowdrops I ordered as plants; plugs in the case of primroses, as their seeds need the cold of winter to germinate, and I am impatient, and snowdrops in the green, as they don’t do well if moved once their leaves have died off. The rest I ordered as seeds, which I will plant once I have built my new mini greenhouse.
The plants turned up early last week, so I have planted the snowdrops in the planter (and in the lawn and the meadow – there were lots of them!) and potted the primrose plugs into small pots to grow on a bit. The snowdrops have already flowered for the year before they arrived, so I won’t get to see the results until next year.
At the moment the planter is pretty empty (although not as empty as in the photo of it above!). Tempting as it was to fill it with snowdrops, I had to leave space for the other flowers that will hopefully germinate in a month or two. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully by next year it will turn a dark, neglected corner of the garden into a useful pitstop for insects, as well as brightening the place up.
I have been itching to get to work on the garden since my new year’s resolution. At last, this weekend, we had some dry weather coinciding with me having some spare time, so I lit the chiminea for warmth, and set to work. My priority for this month was improving the wildflower meadow.
Calling it a meadow is perhaps stretching the point. My garden is tiny, so the meadow is only a few metres square. Nevertheless, it does have wildflowers, and the insects seem to love it.
When we decided to turn half our lawn into a wildflower meadow a few years ago, we tried a couple of approaches. In one small area we skimmed off the top layer of turf, and sowed a ready-made mix of wildflower seeds. This patch has done well, with a variety of wildflowers growing and setting seed each year. All it needs is a couple of trims a year, and the bees get a feast.
In another patch of the meadow I planted some plug plants of various wildflowers. These haven’t done so well, but nature seems to have seized advantage of the twice yearly mowing schedule to invade the area with a buttercup-like flower (botany is not my strong point). The patch is ok (a definite step up in terms of biodiversity from the lawn), but not as flowery as the first patch.
The remaining bit of meadow is in the shade, on the north side of the fence. It was taken over by ground elder, so, months ago I covered the area with old carpet, to combat the invasion. The carpet kept the plants down, but I knew the real problem remained – a dense network of roots just below the surface.
Armed with a hand fork and rake, I did battle with the roots. It’s quite addictive (and that comes from me, a very occasional weeder). The trouble is that the roots go beyond the patch I wanted to work on, so it was hard to stop. Still, it was good to be out in the garden, working with the soil, and seeing the signs of spring (even if it was mainly embryonic ground elder leaves). I’m pretty sure that the war against the ground elder isn’t over, but, hopefully I have set it back enough to give a wider variety of wildflowers a chance.
Once again, I am comparing a couple of different approaches to sowing wildflowers. The first is a wildflower mat: two layers of biodegradable fabric, with wildflower seeds sown in at appropriate spacing. I have heard that these can work well. You just place the mat on top of your prepared soil, and cover with a thin layer of soil. The other approach was rather less measured and evenly spaced. I mixed up a load of wildflower seeds, a chucked them on the ground, raking in lightly. As it’s a shady area, I used some seeds from wildflowers used to the shade of woodlands: primroses and violets. But because I am also impatient and not always terribly well organised, I also mixed in leftover seeds from commercial wildflower seed mixes that I had lying around in my seed box. I am not sure how well these will do, as they’re probably better fitted to sunnier areas, but nothing ventured…
My other concern is that it may be a little early to sow the seeds. I know some wildflowers need a bit of frost before they germinate, and I hope the others will get by, as spring seems to be coming early this year. Time will tell. I am looking forward to seeing what comes up. And anything will be an improvement on layers of old carpet.
The other wildlife garden related achievement from yesterday is that Dr C put up a hedgehog highway sign by the hole in our fence (the neighbours have one for their side as well). The sign is a bit of fun, but also, if we move house before the fence falls down, it will encourage future owners to keep access clear for hedgehogs, and look out for them (particularly if they end up strimming my beautiful meadow – maybe we should never move – I’m not sure I could cope with letting someone else be in charge of my wild garden).
Unused to such physical exertion, I’ve spent all today groaning each time I stand up or sit down. But the temporary pain is outweighed by the excitement of seeing what germinates, and then what creatures will make use of the new flowers for food or shelter.
I love a challenge. Particularly if it involves lots of plotting, scheming, research and planning. So, inspired by my recent success in the Surrey Wildlife Garden awards, my challenge for 2016 is to make my garden even more wildlife-friendly. I want to do something each month to improve my wildlife garden.
Why is it important to make our gardens wildlife friendly? In a densely populated country like England, gardens make up a large proportion of our green space. Gardens have become increasingly important as farming practices have changed, reducing the food sources and shelter for wildlife that was traditionally available in our countryside. Gardens can be brilliant for wildlife, but they can also be deserts – just because something is green doesn’t mean it’s wildlife-friendly. If everyone with a garden took some steps to make their garden more wildlife-friendly it could have a big impact. (You don’t need green fingers to do this, nor do you need to let your garden get as scruffy as mine!)
So what’s my garden like for wildlife at the moment? I took stock of it a few months ago, when applying for the award. It’s not doing too badly for a patch only 7m by 7m. But I’m convinced it could be even better.
I spent new year’s eve sitting by the fire, listing all the things I could feasibly do to make my garden more wildlife friendly. I’m not going to tell you what all the ideas are now – you’ll have to keep following to find out. To help keep track, I’ve added a wildlife gardening menu to my blog, where you can find all my posts about wildlife gardening. Some of the activities will be quick wins (helped by kind Christmas presents from my family). Others are bigger projects that will take more time, energy and money, but potentially have a larger impact.
Dr C has kindly agreed to go along with my plan, which is just as well, as I’ll need his muscle power for some of the ideas. Now all I need is a dry weekend day to get cracking!
Why not join me on this #wildgarden2016 challenge over the year? Seeing wildlife move in to the new habitats I’ve made in my garden has been massively rewarding. We could share ideas, encourage each other, and report back on changes we see. If you’re up for it, leave a comment or tweet using #wildgarden2016 .
Need some inspiration? These websites are helpful:
I have an award-winning garden! I never thought I’d end up saying that, and anyone who could see it now would be equally surprised. But it’s true – the garden been awarded a Gold Award in the inaugral Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards. Not only that: it came top in the small private garden category. I officially have the best small private wildlife garden in Surrey!
Suffice to say, the award is not for the decorative appeal of the borders, or the precision neatness of the lawn. Nor is it for the volume of fruit and veg I get from the garden (which is just as well, as the wildlife seems to munch most of that before I can get hold of it). To look at, my garden’s nothing special; small and scruffy. But it does have quite a lot of wildlife-friendly features, which in turn means there’s also quite a lot of wildlife.
Today I got an early Christmas present, as Dawn Fielding from Surrey Wildlife Trust dropped round my prize – a signed book on a Surrey garden’s natural history, a wildlife gardening information pack, some notecards and a calendar. I’m looking forward to reading/using it all – the wildlife gardening information pack looks like it’s got some good new ideas to try out, and the book looks inspiring.
Of course, to me the most exciting prize from having a wildlife-friendly garden is seeing the wildlife enjoy it. It was so satisfying when we found the first frog in our pond, just weeks after we created it. And one of my most memorable wildlife experiences of this year was when we were sitting out in the garden, and a hedgehog walked right past our toes, unaware or unconcerned by our presence. Having hoglets born in the hedgehog house we made was fantastic – thinking that our efforts could help these creatures really gives me a buzz.
I think the purpose of the awards was to encourage people to think about how they can make their gardens more wildlife-friendly. Hopefully our garden shows that you don’t need a big garden to make a difference, and you certainly don’t need green fingers, or to put in lots of time each week.
It also spurs me on to think about next year – what can we do to make the garden even more wildlife friendly? Well, I have a few ideas, and my prize will help me identify a few more. I feel a new challenge coming on… I’m secretly very competitive, so intend to give holding onto my crown my best shot. Why not take me on, if you live in Surrey? The awards process will open in April next year, so there’s plenty of time for a few wildlife-friendly gardening projects before then… The Wild About Gardens website has lots of ideas.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 15 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk