Making a Wildlife Garden in a small space – simple steps!

No matter how small your garden or backyard space there are lots of things you can do to make it wildlife friendly. Its simply a matter of providing the right habitats, shelter , food and water .

  • Create cover and shelter.

If you want to entice birds into your tiny garden then adding leafy cover in the form of small trees or shrubs will help to lure them in. Many birds instinctively seek the shelter offered by bushy shrubs and trees, using them as landing sites and cover against potential predators. My garden had no trees or shrubs in it at all to begin with and even though I put out several bird-feeders, I hardly saw any birds. My neighbour though (who didn’t feed birds and had a tiny artificial “lawn” ), seemed to get a lot more visiting birds than I did. Why? Because she had a tall, scraggly pussy willow tree growing through the cracks in her concrete drive, offering ideal perching sites and leafy cover to tits, starlings, sparrows and goldfinches exploring the neighbourhood.

Not only providing leafy ” landing beacons ” to passing birds , small fruit trees such as this semi-dwarf rooted apple tree provide both nectar and pollen to bees when in flower

Even in a tiny space, its possible to plant dwarf rooting fruit trees such as plum , apple or cherry which, because of their dwarfing roots , won’t get too big and can be grown in raised beds or even 90 litre dustbins. Not only will they provide fruit for wildlife, as well as nectar and pollen for bees, they will also provide reassuring height and cover to birds , who will use them as both landing sites and “stepping stones” in to your garden space . With this sort of leafy cover in place birds will soon start to explore your garden and make use of any bird feeders, birdbaths and nest boxes you have provided.

If you’re not too bothered about planting trees for edible fruit, then there are a number of small native trees which you could plant instead, such as mountain ash, crab apple and silver birch . Having said that, in a small garden you might need to grow them in large containers or raised beds which would help to restrict their height by restricting their root growth. With these being native species trees they also have the added advantage of supporting a wider variety of insects which have evolved to feed on their leaves which, in turn, help to feed other creatures further up the food chain.

If you can squeeze in some small shrubs too, then that will also help to attract birds in to your small outdoor space. I opted for planting soft fruiting shrubs including, black currants, red currants, gooseberries, jostaberry, and elderberry because in flower they provided both pollen and nectar for bees, fruit for the birds , could be planted into small raised beds (or big dustbins) and were easy to keep to a manageable size.

When creating a wildlife friendly garden in a small area , adding climbers to walls and fences can be a great way of adding both wildlife shelter and food to a tiny garden and is an excellent way of making good use of your limited space. Ivy , for example, is a food plant for the caterpillars of the holy blue butterfly and its autumn flowers provide nectar to bees, butterflies and hoverflies at a time when most other flowers have finished blooming. Its evergreen leaves also provide shelter and nesting sites for many birds, insects and even bats and its dark berries provide an important source of food for many birds at time when most other berries have already been eaten during the winter months.

After after fixing some wires up a sunny wall in my garden, I trained this hop plant up them and was amazed to see it shoot up some 20ft in just one seasons growth. I was even more amazed (and delighted) to see that the climber quickly became colonised and used as a food plant by the ravenous caterpillars of the beautiful Comma butterfly. I’ve never been so pleased to see a garden plant almost completely stripped of its leaves!

Of course, there are numerous other wildlife friendly climbers which can be a great addition to your small garden area and the links here and here are well worth checking out to help decide which ones might be best for you.

  • Choose the right plants

As much as possible, try to plant a variety of wild flowers (native species). Our native insects have evolved alongside them over thousands of years and have adapted to using their flowers and leaves as a source of food.

Wild flowers can look absolutely stunning in any garden and by introducing them to your garden, you are not only supporting our rapidly dwindling pollinators but also helping to support insect feeding birds and other animals further up the food chain  . And in the tiniest garden or balcony you can even create your very own “dustbin lid meadow

Birds foot trefoil wild flower im my “dustbin lid meadow”. A magnet to bees and also an important food plant for the caterpillars of the common blue butterfly
This “Potter Wasp” has just caught a tiny caterpillar for lunch. The unfortunate caterpillar had been feeding on the leaves of my native “Meadow Cranesbill,” where it had created a little cocoon for itself. I watched as the wasp carefully probed and nibbled at the rolled up leaf where the caterpillar had been cocooned until it eventually managed to extract it. This illustrates the point about using native wild flowers wherever possible as the leaves are often a food source for many of our native insects which in turn become the food of other creatures higher up the food-chain . In this case, its not only the leaves of the meadow cranesbill which supported insects but also its purple blue flowers – which have been a magnet for nectar hungry bumblebees visiting my tiny garden

If you want your small garden space buzzing with bees and fluttering with butterflies then most garden centres now sell a wide variety wild flowers which will help to draw them in. They can also be easily purchased online too. Plantlife and Wild Flower Lawns and Meadows both have good guides on how to introduce wild flowers to your garden as well as selling them online.

Of course, its not just our native wild flowers which can be highly beneficial for our native wildlife. Many of our cultivated garden varieties can be marvellous too. When considering which cultivated garden flowers to introduce , try to select ones which have simple, open flowers rather than over-bred hybrid ones who’s complex petal structures can make it difficult , if not impossible, for pollinators to reach their nectar. Many common bedding plants are equally useless for pollinators and a good list of which ones to avoid can be found here.

Asters. A great source of pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies in late summer and autumn

Typical “cottage garden” type flowers, however, are great for many pollinators including bees , hoverflies and butterflies . Ideally, you want to have a variety of plants which can provide a succession of nectar and pollen rich flowers throughout spring , summer, autumn and winter. The RHS have published a very comprehensive list of cultivated plants, herbs and shrubs which are great for our pollinators (throughout all of the 4 seasons) and can be seen here.

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly sipping nectar from my garden’s Anise Hyssop flowers

Of course , there are so many flowers which can be great for pollinators that there are always new ones for us to discover and introduce to our gardens. With this in mind, I regularly pop down to my local garden centre to see which ones are in flower and attracting pollinators at the time of my visit. If I see any that are receiving a lot of “pollinator attention”, then they usually go in the shopping basket! I’ll be posting more about individual plants and highlighting their benefits as and when they are in flower or supporting wildlife in other ways . If you want to follow these future posts then please feel free to subscribe to this blog via my home page

Food Plants for herbivores

When thinking about which plants to introduce in to a wildlife friendly garden, its very easy to concentrate on those which will provide sources of nectar , pollen , berries or seeds but overlook the specific food plant needs of other creatures such as the caterpillars of butterflies and moths , for example. To illustrate my point , the flowers of Buddliea bushes can be an excellent source of nectar for visiting butterflies, yet we simply wouldn’t have them visiting in the first place were it not for the presence of certain plants which their caterpillars are entirely dependent upon as a source of food. For example, the humble (and unfairly maligned) nettle is a food plant for the caterpillars of several native butterflies, not to mention around 40 other insect species, including many moth caterpillars . A good list of other food plants which we can provide for our butterfly caterpillars can be seen here and a great explanation about the need to provide food plants for a wider variety of species can be seen here.

Nasturtiums are a real boon for garden wildlife Their juicy stems are loved by blackfly and greenfly(aphids), which in turn provide an important food source for ladybirds, hoverflies and birds (especially tits when feeding their young). As can be seen in this photo, the leaves are eaten by cabbage white butterfly caterpillars . The flowers are also a great source of pollen for bumble bees and any leaves or flowers not eaten by the caterpillars made a lovely “peppery” addition to my summer salads!

Ditch the pesticides

Whilst some insects , slugs and snails are often seen as “pests” in most conventional gardens, in a “wildlife friendly” garden there are no such things as  “pests”. Every single creature is but a potential source of food for another creature higher up the “food chain”. Pesticides disrupt  nature’s “natural balance” by killing the very creatures which would eat the so called “pests” in the first place and so have NO place in a “wildlife friendly” garden. By encouraging slug eating hedgehogs and amphibians in to our gardens, for example, we can help to reduce their numbers. But if we use slug pellets in the garden, the poisoned slugs might well die but then so will the hedgehogs , frogs and birds who go on to eat them. Most healthy plants will survive the sap-sucking antics of aphids. However, ladybirds, hoverflies and any other wildlife fed on a diet of “poisoned-soaked” aphids, won’t. In a wildlife friendly garden it’s much better to work with nature and allow the so called pests to be controlled by their natural predators – which eventually arrive and provide a natural balance in your garden . The RSPB have some good suggestions and ideas on how to manage and control so called pests by using mostly organic methods here

Creating habitats

There are a great number of other practical steps we can take to help develop our small garden areas for the benefit of wildlife, such as putting in a small wildlife pond, creating mini-meadows, putting up bird and bat boxes, providing hedgehog houses and log pile habitats to name a few. Whilst I’ll be blogging about these and more over the coming months, if what you’ve read so far has already “wetted your appetite” for creating a more wildlife friendly garden , then I would strongly recommend getting yourself a good wildlife gardening book. One of the first and most inspirational books I have ever read on the subject is “How to make a wildlife Garden” by Chris Baines and is considered by many as the “bible” on the subject. A review of his recently updated and republished book can be read by clicking on this link .

Happy Habitating!