Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Attracting Wildlife into Your Garden

We don't all garden for wildlife, but I suspect that we all enjoy watching birds, bees and butterflies feasting from the buffet that is in our gardens.
A bee enjoying the late-summer flowers of Aster (now Symphyotrichum)

I recently read the reissued RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines and his passion for all types of creatures has made me look at the creepy crawlies in our garden in a new way. I don't think anything can make me appreciate slugs, but I have started to notice all the different types of flies, bees and spiders, all going about their business and each playing an important part in the garden's ecosystem.
Sunlight catching a spider's web.
Even flies can be beautiful!
A spider stocking his larder.
It has also made me think about choosing some plants to attract specific creatures. I don't have enough room to leave areas to grow wild with nettles and other wildlife-friendly 'weeds' (or at least, I'm not prepared to give up any precious space), but incorporating British native wildflowers in existing borders will attract more birds and insects and will also create interesting and unique planting combinations. Top of my list of plants to grow next year is Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum). I think it will blend beautifully in our sunniest bed that is full of Alliums and Camassias in spring, followed by Thalictrum, Verbena bonariensis, Veronicastrum and grasses in summer. The Teasel flowers will attract butterflies and bees early in the year, and its seed heads will feed birds and give structural interest over winter. Best of all it grows on the heath near our house so I can collect some seed for free. I may regret this decision if it self-seeds all over the garden, but it's a risk I'm prepared to take.
Veronicastrum (plus bee) with the golden flowers of Stipa gigantea in the background. Hopefully Teasel will provide winter structure in this bed, which is mostly full of herbaceous perennials. 
Some of our cultivated plants are also highly attractive to insects and might be easier than wildflowers to incorporate into a garden setting. This year I noticed that the small, domed flower heads of Allium senescens were a very popular feeding spot for several weeks. I have also recently discovered Agastache (giant hyssop) which flowers later in the year, seems to be happy with our sunny, well-drained soil, and is loved by bees.
Allium senescens is a low, clump-forming evergreen allium. It flowers for weeks around June and is really useful at the front of a sunny border.
We grow several Cotoneasters in our garden, two of which we inherited and one of which we chose for its umbrella shape and attractive yellow berries. It is easy to dismiss them as municipal plants, but I have come to appreciate how valuable they are for insects and birds and they can often be trained or clipped to provide structural interest.
When this Cotoneaster salicifolius Rothschildianus was in full flower in June it was covered in dozens of different insects, all feasting on the nectar and pollen. It produces lovely yellow berries in autumn. They are the last berries that the birds eat and there are usually some left for me to cut and use in my Christmas wreath.
I have never seen a beetle like this before, but several appeared on the Cotoneaster to enjoy the buffet.
Having water in the garden is a real bonus for attracting wildlife. We are lucky to have enough space to build a pond and a stream that drops down in steps into the pond. In winter when the bog plants are hibernating, from my regular seat at the kitchen table I can see birds bathing in the shallow water that flows over the flat stones. I have even watched a juvenile sparrowhawk bathing for a good ten minutes in the shallow end of the pond. I keep a pair of binoculars handy to get a better look.
This flat stone at the bottom of our stream is a favourite spot for birds to wash.
In late spring we usually have dozens of colourful damselflies around the pond and, later in summer, dragonflies do circuits around and over the pond in the evening to catch their supper.
A dragonfly resting on a lily flower. 
I suspect that there is more going on in your garden than you appreciate. Autumn is the perfect time to wander round, with a cup of tea and maybe a camera, and spot all the creatures busy at work.

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