With over 15 million gardens in Britain, covering an area larger than all our national nature reserves put together, what we choose to do with our gardens really does matter for nature.
No matter the size of area you are looking after, or how much experience you have of gardening, we can all do more to help our struggling wildlife.
The first step to helping our wildlife, is to change our mindset, and start to think of our gardens as part of a much wider picture. Yes, they are man-made areas, but they have the potential to be much more than just a place that we can enjoy on a sunny day.
Whether we are in a city centre, or the countryside, our gardens have the ability to act as mini nature reserves for local wildlife, as well as forming habitat corridors – bridging gaps between surrounding areas of habitat.
An Ecosystem Approach
While it might be tempting to think about how we can encourage just one or two ‘attractive’ species (e.g. butterflies) into our gardens, we would advise against this. Instead, we want to encourage you to think bigger in terms of how your garden works as an ecosystem.
An ecosystem is made up of all the living things in one place, plus how they interact with each other and their physical environment. If we focus too narrowly on just helping one thing, we tend to miss the mark. For example, if we want a garden full of butterflies, it will take more than just having some attractive flowers there!
Yes, adult butterflies do require good sources of nectar from flowers. However, there is much more to their lifecycle than just the adult stage. We need to have the specific plants, called larval food plants, which the adult butterflies will choose to lay their eggs on. Once the eggs hatch, these plants will be eaten by the caterpillars. Some butterflies are actually very particular about what they eat during their larval stage, and will only use one particular species of plant – if they cannot find the plant, they will not breed. Most butterflies also require a place to hide and become dormant over the wintertime, before they reappear in the Spring. While some stay on their larval food plant, others require another place such as tussocky grass, other specific trees/plants or even log piles to overwinter in so they can complete their lifecycle.
So, as you can see – if we want a garden full of butterflies, we need to think bigger than just adding flowers. Instead of focusing on helping just one or two species, we need to start to think about our gardens as small ecosystems, and see what we can do to improve them as a whole. This means supporting a much wider variety of insect life by having the right plants and also habitat types within our gardens.
The good news is, when we start to think bigger, we improve things for much more than one species!
You can watch a recording of our recent Wildlife Gardening Talk and Q+A session from 18th March 2021, which was part of Climate Week North East.
The main slides from the talk can be found here.
During the main presentation, we used a variety of video clips. You can also watch the full version of Doug Gooday’s (Aberdeenshire Council Ranger Service) Garden Rewilding video below:
The document below, originally created by the late Bob Davis on behalf of the Partnership in 2002, contains a wealth of information on Creating Environmentally Friendly Gardens. This includes: planting advice for trees, wildflowers and pond plants specific to the North East of Scotland, as well as much, much more!
If you are looking for a good book on the subject of wildlife gardening from an ecological approach, there are two which we recommend: Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle and Kate Bradbury’s Wildlife Gardening: For Everyone and Everything.
There are already a huge range of superb resources available online about different aspects of how to create a wildlife friendly garden. The Partnership have gathered together useful information on a variety of topics below (linking to external webpages, videos or documents) in order to supplement the information given in the main Wildlife Talk video. This is not by any means an exhaustive or exclusive list of resources, but we hope it provides a good start to helping you create your very own wildlife-friendly garden.
Information on Plants
One of the websites mentioned in the talk was the BeeWatch website developed by Aberdeen University and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. As well as giving some very useful information on identifying bumblebees, a key feature is their Planting for Pollinators section, where the recommendations are based off of real scientific observations collected from across the country. The webpage allows you to select plants which you already have in your garden, and then proposes other things you could plant, in order to have year-round flowering plants available.
John Malster has kindly produced the guide to Growing local wildflowers in NE Scotland – seed collecting and sowing which is a great help if you want to collect your own wild seed for planting!
If you are looking for some general pollinator friendly planting advice throughout the seasons in Scotland, NatureScot produced a Planting for Pollinators Leaflet which contains the other table of plants shown in the talk, pictured below.
Websites such as Butterfly Conservation have detailed lists of plants which will provide nectar plants for butterflies and food plants for butterflies, as well as nectar plants for moths and food plants for moths. If you already have identified specific butterfly or moth species in your area, you can try and support their food and nectar needs. Remember it is important to have food plants as well as nectar sources! Below is the list from the talk of some of our butterfly species found locally and which larval food plants they require.
All the other insects we have in our garden need the right plants as well, so adding native trees or shrubs is an excellent way to support them. Remember, that we want to help more than just our pollinators! Below is the table shown in the talk which looks at how many different insects species are associated with some of our native trees – making them the best for helping support our wildlife.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has also done some interesting research into the best ways to garden for helping our invertebrates, which also does a good job of explaining the different roles insects have in our gardens and the food chain. This was mentioned in the talk when discussing the benefits of having a variety of native plants which are densely planted, as well as some patches of bare ground.
In terms of turning your lawn into a more wildflower friendly area, we already have some great information on our website including videos from the Edinburgh Living Landscape Project. You may find these videos useful for helping you decide if you already have a potentially biodiverse lawn, and also how to manage low-growing wildflower areas.
During the talk and Q+A a number of plant lists were requested in addition to ones already mentioned. As already stated, these are by no means exclusive or exhaustive lists, but can be good starting points for finding what might work well for your garden areas.
- Bulbs: Scottish Bluebell, Lesser Celandine, Snakes Head Fritillary, Snowdrops, Wood Anemone, Ramsons (Wild Garlic), Crocus, Winter Aconite, Grape Hyacinth
- Garden Herbs: Lavender, Sage, Wild Thyme, Fennel, Wild Marjoram, Rosemary, Chives, Mint, Carraway
- Veg (left to flower): Garlic/Allium Family, Carrots, Artichokes
- Fruit: Gooseberries, Currants, Wild Strawberries as well as soft fruit trees such as Apple, Cherry, Pears and Plums
- Mixed Native Hedges: Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Bird Cherry, Rowan, Gean (Wild Cherry), Elder
- Climbing Plants: Ivy, Wild Rose, Honeysuckle, Clematis, Pyracantha
- Trees from John’s Presentation: Birch, Goat Willow, Grey Willow, Purple Willow, Kilmarnock Willow, Hazel
- Wildflowers from John’s Presentation: Yarrow, Devil’s Bit Scabious, Mugwort, Watermint, Selfheal, Clover, Creeping Buttercup, Ragwort
- Pond Plants: Water Mint, Water Forget-me-not, Greater Spearwort, Gipsywort, Yellow Flag Iris, Marsh Cinquefoil, Marsh Marigold, Water Plantain, Brooklime, Amphibious Bistort, Bogbean, Watercress, Pendulous Sedge, Great Pond Sedge, Meadowsweet, Bittersweet, Valerian, Water Avens, Marsh Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Marsh Bedstraw, Marsh Woundwort, Cuckoo Flower
- Local Native Plants for Sandy Soils: Lesser Meadow Rue, Kidney Vetch, Red Clover, Lady’s Bedstraw, Wild Onion, Thyme, Marjoram, Goldenrod, Restharrow, Thrift, White Campion, Bird’s-foot Trefoil
- Local Native Plants for Shady Places: Red Campion, Herb Robert, Lesser Celandine, Wood Anemone, Ramsons, Wood Avens, Ground Ivy, Bugle, Dog Violet, Pignut, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Hedge Bedstraw, Fern Species
- Local Native Plants for Living Walls: Thrift, Roseroot, Sea Campion, Harebell, Sedum spp, Ivy, Thyme, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Ground Ivy
- Wildflowers for Containers: Hairy St. John’s Wort, Marjoram, Thrift, Water Avens, Red Campion, Herb Robert, Meadow Cranesbill, Marjoram
Adding Water to Your Garden
In terms of ponds, the charity now known as the Freshwater Habitats Trust (previously Pond Conservation) created a great leaflet on creating your garden pond filled with simple instructions including: what plants to use/avoid, a calendar for maintenance, an FAQ section and an Invertebrate ID guide. If you are keen to learn more on this subject, we would also recommend their own book titled, The Pond Book which is available from their website as well.
A novel idea you may not have thought of, is to utilise your house’s drainpipe which collects rain water. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has a fantastic webpage and video explaining the process of making a mini drainpipe wetland for wildlife! This has the added benefit of slowing down the run-off of rain water into our drainage systems, which is especially important in urban areas which are full of hard surfaces that do not absorb water. By slowing water flow, we can reduce the chances of drains filling up too quickly and overflowing.
Another option is to create a new (or encourage an existing!) boggy area of your garden. Again the WWT has a very informative webpage and video on how to create a standalone boggy area, or add this beside an existing pond, without affecting things such as building foundations.
The RSPB also provide advice on things like siting and maintaining much smaller water features and creating a good birdbath. Don’t discount the value of having something as simple as a small dish filled with clean water and pebbles – even our smallest creatures need access to drinking water. Just make sure to clean such a dish out regularly!
Adding Animal Homes to your Garden
The most common animal homes added to a garden are bird boxes. However, just as birds differ greatly in characteristics such as size, shape and behaviour – so do their homes! Try to supply your garden with homes for the specific type of birds you can see throughout the year, including migrant visitors like Swifts, Swallows and House Martins. The RSPB website hosts a wide range of information about wildlife which can help you identify what type of birds you are seeing. This information will help you figure out the right type of home needed, so that you can then purchase or even make a nest box and site it in the right location. Maintenance of any bird nest boxes should take place yearly between 1st August- 31st January in Scotland, as it is illegal to intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild birds during the nesting season.
Other common animals homes include amphibian homes such as Frog or Toad homes to replicate shelter in damp and dark corners of gardens, and Hedgehog homes for hibernating in over winter or maternity nests in warmer months. Bat boxes are another good addition to gardens to help support our native midge-eaters.
Bug Hotels have become a big thing in recent years for trying to help struggling insects. However the designs of some of pre-made versions are not always well thought out, for example by trying to cater to too many different types or by using unsuitable materials. Creating natural insect habitats will always be better in your garden, by keeping areas such as log piles, stone piles and leaf litter.
Some pre-made bug hotel designs can work well – for example solitary bee hotels. A helpful article on the subject of what works well, and what doesn’t, includes things to think about such as insect types, material types and any maintenance involved.
One bug ‘hotel’ you may not have heard of before, but which can be very effective, is a Hoverfly Lagoon or Rot Pot. They are easy to create and aim to simulate holes in trees filled with leaf litter, which would be home for the larval stages of some species of hoverfly.
Providing Food for Animals
If you do decide to provide food for wildlife, please always remember to: check with a reputable source that what you are putting out is safe for wildlife, and to remove and properly clean any feeding resources regularly.
The most common animals people put food out for are garden birds. Unsurprisingly, the RSPB have extensive information about exactly what you should (and should not!) be feeding a range of different birds. Please note that what you can put out depends not only on the type of birds you have, but also factors such as the time of year. The RSPB website also contains lots of additional information on important aspects such as hygiene and maintenance and keeping your bird table healthy.
Another common animal people like to put food out for are hedgehogs. Advice from our local hedgehog experts includes to put out dry kitten biscuits and water for local hogs. If you have concerns about other unwanted animals eating this food, then the website Hedgehog Street, has some good diagrams of setting up a hedgehog feeding station as well as much more about making your area hedgehog friendly.
“Ugly or beautiful, it is the little creatures that make the world go round. We should celebrate and appreciated them in all their wonderful diversity.” – Dave Goulson
NESBiP Coordinator (July 2019 – Present)
Interested in Wildflowers?
Wildflowers are an important part of our biodiversity, and you can help protect them!
The charity Plantlife’s website is a great resource to help you learn about many wild plants
Learn about our project to support local wildflowers, and find out what a Living Lawn is
By managing our grass areas differently, we can encourage our wildflowers and reduce our carbon footprint