Tag Archives: wildlife gardening

Taking stock of my wildlife garden

I’m not the world’s best or keenest gardener. My attempts at vegetable growing this year have largely failed (thwarted once again by slugs and lack of time). And weeds have rather taken over the border. So the bit of encouragement that came my via Surrey Wildlife Trust‘s Wildlife Garden Awards was most welcome.

Surrey Wildlife Trust are trying to encourage more people to provide shelter, food and drink for our wild neighbours in their gardens. Gardens have the potential to become havens for wildlife, if they’re managed the right way, no matter how small they are. So the Trust have set up a Wildlife Garden Award scheme for gardeners in Surrey.

Having previously lived in a flat without a garden, I was excited by the opportunities having a (tiny) garden offered when we moved here. For the first year or two we did quite a lot of work to try to make our garden more wildlife friendly. But having made those changes, and not had any major wildlife garden improvement projects on the go for a while, I’d lost a bit of perspective on how we were doing. So filling in the self-assessment form was a revelation – we’re not doing badly at all! I don’t find out the results until the end of September / beginning of October, but I was pleased by the number of boxes I was able to tick:

Food features:

  • Bird feeding station
    Bird feeding station

    Bird feeding station

  • Nectar rich flowers
  • Fruit trees or berry bearing shrubs
  • Perennials left un-cut until spring
  • Vegetable patch / container
  • Herb garden

Shelter features:

  • Dead wood / log pile

    Finished hedgehog box in situ
    Finished hedgehog box in situ
  • Climbing plants
  • Some lawn left to grow long
  • Mini wild flower meadow
  • Hedgehog and bird boxes
  • Insect hotel

Water features:

The mini pond
The mini pond
  • Wildlife pond – no fish!
  • Bird bath

Management features:

  • No use of pesticide & slug pellets
  • Avoid chemical weed killers
  • Compost heap & wormery
  • Rain butts
  • Use peat free compost

Some of the boxes I wasn’t able to tick were ones that I’d never be able to tick for my garden – it’s not near a stream or on boggy ground, and is too small for a native hedge. But being reminded that I am doing a reasonable job is reassuring, and it’s inspiring me to think about what else I could do to make my garden even more wildlife friendly. Longer term, I’d love to turn our flat roof into a green roof, although that will take a bit of planning and expense.

I guess it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to me, given the number of wild visitors our garden attracts (mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and birds). But we all need a bit of encouragement every now and then. So thanks, Surrey Wildlife Trust, for providing it.

If you’d like a bit of inspiration for how to make your garden or balcony super attractive to wildlife, visit:

Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife in a heatwave)

Firstly, an apology for my non-UK readers: this is a post about the weather, specifically, me moaning because it's a temperature that for many of you is perfectly normal. I can't help it, I'm English.

It’s too darn hot. I commute to London four days a week. It’s really not been fun lately – our train isn’t air conditioned, and there seems to be no air at all coming in through the windows. Everyone is sweaty – clothes cling, and everybody politely ignores the visible damp patches on shirts, as we’re all in the same position. But I get off lightly – I don’t have to enter the depths of hell that is the underground network at this time of year, nor wedge myself into a mobile greenhouse (otherwise known as a bus).

And night is little better. Yesterday evening it was 27 degrees C when I wanted to go to bed. I’m not made for extremes of heat or cold – give me 21 degrees C and sunshine, and I’m happy. Anything too far either side of that and I’m miserable.

But I am very lucky – I can carry a bottle of water with me, and my food supply is as easily accessible as ever. Spare a thought  for our wildlife, who aren’t as lucky. Here’s some easy things you can do to help your wild neighbours during a heatwave:

  • Keep a bird bath topped up with clean water
  • Don’t forget about creatures who can’t fly – if you don’t have an accessible pond with shallow sloping sides, put out a dish of fresh water on the ground each day and night
  • If you don’t have a pond, why not create one – it’s one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden. It needn’t be big – our mini pond gets used by lots of wildlife
  • Don’t forget to feed the birds and hedgehogs – it can be particularly hard for hedgehogs and blackbirds to find food when it’s been hot and dry for a long while, so leave out some cat food or mealworms for them
  • Water your garden plants when it’s cool (preferably with water from a water butt) to keep your garden a green oasis for wildlife
  • Build a log pile – this will provide damp shady places for insects, amphibians and mammals to keep cool during the day
  • Plant a tree or two in your garden to create some shade, if you don’t have some already (although a heatwave isn’t a great time to start planting trees – you might want to wait until the autumn / winter for this one)

You can find loads of useful wildlife gardening advice and practical instructions from the RSPB Make a Home for Wildlife site.

Do you have any other tips for helping wildlife through a heatwave?

Cherry thief

Bird feeding station
Bird feeding station

I like magpies. They’re clever, good looking birds. I know lots of people who feed birds aren’t keen on them. But they’re always welcome to help themselves to the food I put out for birds in my garden.

Having said that,  yesterday one really pushed my goodwill. We have a tiny cherry tree, which is currently laden with almost ripe fruit. Ignoring the bird table laden with different food purchased at great expense, the magpie decided to go for the cherries.

Cherry munched by magpies
Cherry munched by magpies

I love cherries. The tree is still quite young, so we haven’t had many to eat in previous years. And it’s so small (it’s a minaret tree in a big pot) that there isn’t enough to share. The magpie stealing from our precious supply cut me to the quick.

Now, my garden is very definitely primarily a wildlife garden. I take a laissez-faire approach to pest control, hoping that the slow worms, frogs and hedgehogs that visit will keep the slugs and other plant munchers under control. It doesn’t really work, which is why I have given up on growing peas and beans, and my courgette plants have all disappeared. But I am not prepared to sit idly by and watch my cherries get gobbled.

My first attempt at putting off the magpies is hanging a cd from the tree (as I don’t have a big enough net). I put it up yesterday lunchtime, and haven’t seen a magpie since. But I have been out most of this morning, so I can’t say for sure whether it works. The trouble is that magpies are clever birds, so it probably won’t take them long to suss it out.

My attempt at stopping magpies stealing my cherries - hanging an old CD from the tree
My attempt at stopping magpies stealing my cherries – hanging an old CD from the tree

It only has to work for long enough for the cherries to finish ripening. Will there be any left by then?

How to turn a pallet into a vertical flower planter

When a delivery left us with a wooden pallet, in battered but solid condition, my Womble instinct took over. There had to be a garden wildlife project we could use it for. A quick search for inspiration came up with the idea of turning it into a vertical planter. It’s perfect for making more space for flowers in a small garden like ours. Planted with flowers of a variety of colours and shapes it will be a good additional food source for insects. It took Dr C and I an afternoon to build and plant up. Here’s how we did it.

What we used:

  • A wooden pallet (you can probably find one for free – some garden centres etc. give them away)
  • Heavy duty landscaping fabric
    Heavy duty landscaping fabric

    Heavy-duty landscape fabric (you can get this from a garden centre / DIY store – either buy a roll, or by the metre – we used 3m)

  • Staple gun and lots of staples
  • Peat-free compost (we used four 50l bags  which cost £4 each)
  • Our irrigation system: overflow pipe with lots of little holes in it, joined by elbow joints
    Our irrigation system: overflow pipe with lots of little holes in it, joined by elbow joints

    Pipe to make an irrigation system (we used overflow pipe from a DIY store, which cost 86p for 1.5 metres – we used 3 metres worth, plus two elbow joints which cost 60p for two). A length of hosepipe would also work well, but seemed to cost quite a bit more

  • Hammer and nail to make small holes along the irrigation pipe
  • Screws and rawl plugs (and a drill and small screwdriver) to secure the pallet to the wall to stop it falling over)
  • A cheap plastic funnel
  • Plants and compost ready to fill the planter
    Plants and compost ready to fill the planter

    Lots of small plants (you can buy trays of bedding plants from a garden centre, or grow your own from seed in small pots)

Constructing the vertical planter

  1. Our pallet was a bit mucky, so we gave it a bit of a wash down and let it dry. I suppose you could paint yours with paint suitable for exterior woodwork if you wanted to, but we decided to stick with its battered look. Hopefully the plants will grow to cover it soon anyway.
  2. Work out where to position your pallet
    Work out where to position your pallet

    Work out where to position it. You’ll need a sturdy wall to attach it to, as otherwise it’s likely to fall over, and when filled with compost it will be heavy. We chose a small garden wall just opposite the window of my study. When choosing your site, pay attention to how much sun it gets, as that will affect which plants will thrive there.

  3. Drill holes through the back of your pallet to help secure it to the wall
    Drill holes through the back of your pallet to help secure it to the wall

    Once you’ve worked out where you want it, drill a couple of holes through the pallet, and use a pencil to mark where this comes on the wall. Then drill a couple of holes into the wall, and insert a rawl plug. Don’t screw it in yet – you need to do some work on the planter first.

  4. Cover the back of your pallet with landscape fabric, and staple it well into place at the bottom and back
    Cover the back of your pallet with landscape fabric, and staple it well into place at the bottom and back, leaving the sides loose for now

    Cover the back and underneath of pallet with the landscaping fabric. Make sure there’s enough to cover the sides as well. Using the staple gun, attach the fabric to the pallet underneath and at the back. I used so many staples my hand muscles ached for days afterwards! You may want to use a double layer of landscape fabric for extra strength. Fold the cut ends in underneath before stapling, to give a neat finish and a bit more strength. Don’t staple the fabric in place at the sides yet, as you’ll need to be able to get to these to screw the pallet to the wall.

  5. Make lots of holes all along your irrigation pipe, in all different directions
    Make lots of holes all along your irrigation pipe, in all different directions – we used a hammer and nail to do this

    Using a hammer and nail, make lots of small holes randomly along the length of your irrigation pipe, so the water will reach all parts of your planter.

    Testing our irrigation system before installing it
    Testing our irrigation system before installing it

    The photo shows how we arranged ours – a big v that went from the middle of the bottom to the sides of the top, and a smaller v that went from halfway down to the top.

  6. You can just see the irrigation system in place inside the pallet
    You can just see the irrigation system in place inside the pallet

    Position your irrigation system in the pallet, making sure the tops of the pipes come out of the top of your planter so you can water it.

  7. Move your pallet into position, and screw it to the wall
    Move your pallet into position, and screw it to the wall

    Move your pallet into place, and screw it into the wall (a Swiss Army knife screwdriver was handy for this, as most other screwdrivers would be too long to fit in the gap).

  8. Staple the landscape fabric securely to the sides of your pallet (again tucking in the edge so you get a neat and strong finish).
  9. Fill your planter with compost, watering well as you go along
    Fill your planter with compost, watering well as you go along

    Holding your irrigation pipes in place, fill your planter with compost, giving it a good water every so often as you go, so not just the top compost gets wet. Make sure you firm the compost down a reasonable amount, otherwise the level will sink quite a bit later.

  10. Now it’s time for the fun bit – planting up your planter!

What plants to use

I’m definitely not an expert gardener, so can’t give you much advice on this, but here are a few points to consider:

  • If you think there’s a chance your pallet may have been treated with chemical preservatives its probably best not to grow plants for you to eat in it. Go for stuff that looks pretty instead.
  • Different sorts of insects prefer different shapes and colours of flowers, so try to pick a variety that will flower over a long period.
  • Trailing plants will look good cascading down the vertical planter – I chose a mix of trailing lobelia, petunias and other non-trailing flowers.
  • Go for single rather than double varieties, as these are easier for insects to get pollen from.
  • When choosing flowers, think about the conditions they’ll have where your planter is sited – do they like full sun, part shade or full shade?
  • If you’re not good at remembering to water plants every day you may want to pick varieties that don’t mind being a bit thirsty every now and then.
  • Pick ones that smell nice as well as look nice – this will help attract insects.
  • Growing from seed will be much cheaper than buying bedding plants from a garden centre, but requires greater organisation. We don’t have a greenhouse at the moment, which makes looking after young plants hard, so we went for the lazy option. I’m looking forward to being a bit more adventurous next year, and hope to choose some native wildflower species instead.

Planting it up

This is the fun bit. Make sure your compost is nice and damp (try out your irrigation system for the first time!), and water your plants well before starting. I started at the bottom row and used a wooden dibber to make a hole in the compost before poking the plant through. I planted it up quite densely (much closer than it said on the plant labels) to create the visual effect I wanted, but if you’re more patient than me then you could probably use fewer plants. I alternated different types of flowers, to try to keep it interesting visually.

The finished planter, all planted up
The finished planter, all planted up
The planted planter
The planted planter
Violas in the planter
Violas in the planter
Using the irrigation system
Using the irrigation system

For the first few days it’ll need plenty of water and TLC. Your funnel will help get the water into your irrigation system. Some of my lobelia have suffered as their roots aren’t well enough established yet, so I use a small watering can to make sure they get enough water. But others are doing well with the irrigation system. We’ll see how it does longer term… A few bumblebees have already started taking an interest.