As our need to preserve the planet becomes more urgent, gardeners can get to grips with the ecological as well as the aesthetic value of their plots by catering to the needs of their local wildlife. The benefits of an eco friendly garden include providing a refuge for many critically endangered insects and birds, whilst also offering a valuable opportunity for families to spend time together.
So get your children outside and get them to help you maintain your garden – you could save the planet and get some free ‘pets’ – what more could you ask for?
An ecosystem is a growth enterprise that requires diligence and ambition and it won't happen overnight - over the winter, however, is entirely plausible and now in the autumn is the ideal time for planting to see results next year.
Hedera helix is a good starting point. The common English ivy is easy to grow and quickly lays a durable green foundation to flat surfaces, covering unsightly new, orange fences and softening dominating outbuildings. The ivy is evergreen and will encourage and protect insects and a variety of plant that will bear fruit in the spring to entice blackbirds and thrushes. The tiny Jenny Wren also likes to nest among the ivy’s network of branching stems.
Natural hedgerows, as you would expect, house and sustain a myriad of different insects but you can replicate them, providing boundaries to your garden and an early incentive for autumn starlings.
There are many plants that you can include in your garden:
Hazel – if you’re lucky the squirrels will leave some nuts for you
Rosa rugosa or Japanese Rose is both hardy and gorgeous, giving pink-purple blooms in March with which to encourage early bumble bees, followed by large juicy hips for the birds
Hawthorn – pretty blossom in the spring followed by red berries
and Viburnum opulus – large flower heads in spring followed again by clusters of tasty red berries for the birds
In fact most plants that have berries will encourage birds into your garden, so if you don’t want to go completely naturalistic, you can grow much more ornamental specimens such as Callicarpa, which has unusual, polished-looking purple berries,
or the evergreen Pyracantha, which can have yellow, orange or red berries and which is also very prickly so can be good to protect boundaries.
Other forms of wildlife can be attracted in different ways. The shrub Hebe ‘Great Orme’, which is also evergreen, has attractive pink flowers and releases a scent in the evening attracting moths. Moths are also an important food source for bats, so you’re not just supporting the moth population, but the bats too.
Verbena bonariensis does the same thing and both this and the Hebe are also a magnet to bees and butterflies during the day.
There is the well-named ‘butterfly bush’ – Buddleia – very easy to grow and so nectar rich - on a warm summer’s day it will be covered in butterflies.
Bees also love Lavender, Ceanothus and Cistus – all very simple to look after and making colourful additions to any sunny garden.
The bumblebee is having a particularly hard time surviving at the moment so it is crucial that we do a our bit to ensure it’s survival.
The image that springs to mind when we think of the bee is honey, however they effectively act as farm staff without wages. Alfalfa, one of the world's essential cattle foods, is 90% dependant on the cross pollination by bees, not to mention many of our domestic produce like soft fruits, runner beans, carrots, cabbages and cauliflower. So, without bees, do we have no food?
If you have children, they too can help you plant and maintain all these shrubs, but to cope with their eagerness to see fast results, what about something they can see grow from seed to flower in a season?
Nasturtiums make a colourful and low maintenance addition to any temperate garden, they are self sustaining and their petals make a spicy addition to summer salads. They grow really quickly from seed which are big enough for children to handle easily. The Cabbage White Butterfly loves to lay its eggs on the undersides of the leaves and your children can watch the wriggly caterpillars hatch from them.
Another speedy grower is the Sunflower, shooting up to dizzy heights in a single season. Leave the smiley seedheads on after the flower has faded and provide a feast for the local birds.
The Poached Egg Flower (Limnanthes) is another easy annual for children to grow and it will be covered in bees all summer.
But don't worry, while you wait for your microlife to flourish there's plenty of DIY tactics to attract animals, birds and insects.
A bee box requires only a pair of two by fours cut to a rectangular frame and a dozen bamboo canes cut to half inch tubes. Cut another plank as backing to the box and tilt the tray backward to pack the space with tubes, discarding any that are malformed. It is best to use untreated timber and dot larger tubes among the smaller to accentuate the box’s aesthetic appeal.
A nesting box for small birds is a similarly easy project, but make sure you mount it on the shady side of a tree or structure so that the chicks don’t get too hot!
At the weekend you can also arrange a log pile to house the local stag beetles – another endangered insect. It is best to place these some distance from seating and play areas as they can also attract the Devil's Coach Horse - a large beetle emitting a foul-smelling fluid from both ends when threatened and also capable of delivering a painful bite! The size and proximity of the individual logs is inconsequential so you can position them in whatever style suits your creative talents.
Hedgehogs will also be attracted to a log pile. Introducing earthworms to your garden will provide the hedgehogs with food, whilst also providing natural aeration of the soil. The hedgehogs also eat garden pests such as slugs and snails and so are very valuable guests to have – in fact it may be possible to adopt a family of hedgehogs – try contacting your local rescue centre for details. However, never feed hedgehogs with bread or milk – they can’t digest them and it will make them ill. The presence of hedgehogs will very likely attract foxes and thus the ecosystem will be complete, at the price of a little green work.
If all this is too much for you, how about just leaving a little bit of your garden to go wild – let the grass grow long and see how many native reptiles, such as the common lizard and the slow worm you can spot. Let stinging nettles grow and watch some of the 40 species of insects and butterflies they can support flock into your garden to set up home.
So, even the lazy gardener can support our endangered species!
Above all, get yourself and your children outside and interested. It will feed their curiosity and provide a fascination and love of all things green that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.