Gardens: Natural beauty

A peacock butterfly on a buddleia flower. Picture: Julie Watson
A peacock butterfly on a buddleia flower. Picture: Julie Watson
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Forget about mowing the lawn and pruning the roses, invite a little chaos into your garden and watch the wildlife flourish

It’s an unusual gardening book that extols the virtues of aphids – those sap-sucking insects which are the scourge of gardeners and farmers the world over.

Equally incongruous is a recommendation to leave spent plants in borders over the winter, or pile up autumn leaves under a hedge.

However, this is exactly what Kate Bradbury does in her book The Wildlife Gardener. Split into two parts, the first section of the book looks at the practical side of transforming your garden, patio or roof terrace into a habitat for wildlife while the second part is a mini guide to identifying the fauna in your outdoor space.

“I wanted to write a book that was really simple, accessible and easy,” says Bradbury.

While she claims the book isn’t a call to save the aphid or love the woodlouse, she hopes it will highlight the importance of these much-maligned creatures.

“Everything has evolved together,” she says. “By taking out stinging nettles or aphids we’re breaking a chain that’s thousands of years old. It’s having a bad effect.”

This negative effect is highlighted by the fact that in every class of animal, from reptiles to birds and mammals to insects, there has been a slump in numbers.

“There’s a decline right across the spectrum,” says Bradbury, who edits the Wild London magazine. “Butterflies are doing badly, and so are moths.

“Moths get a really bad press but they are really important pollinators of plants. The other thing to bear in mind is their caterpillars are bird food so it’s going to have a knock-on effect on species like blue tits. We’re already seeing a sparrow decline.”

Numbers of the once common garden tiger moth have decreased by a massive 92 per cent since 1968 and three-quarters of British butterflies are in decline.

Since 1977, house sparrow populations have slumped by nearly 71 per cent while in the last decade the number of hedgehogs has decreased by a quarter. Worst hit are bumblebees, with two species becoming extinct in the last 60 years. For Bradbury, one way to reverse this trend is to change the way we garden.

“Gardens are so brilliant for wildlife but have so much potential for more,” she says. “Really simple things can make a huge difference.”

For example, gathering all your autumn leaves and putting them under a hedge or to the back of your borders rather than in a bin bag can create a hibernation opportunity for hedgehogs, while leaving tree stumps to rot and not pruning all the dead material from trees and shrubs, provides habitats for a range of invertebrates from hoverflies to beetles.

The book includes step-by-step guidance on making a hibernation box for hedgehogs, a bird box, bee hotel and bumblebee nester as well as a shallow pond and a green roof box for the top of a shed.

Other ideas include creating a log pile in a shady part of the garden for invertebrates, building a stone cairn in a border to provide a home for frogs, newts and toads, or making a compost heap to attract worms, beetles and hedgehogs.

While some of these animals will eat pests such as slugs and snails, others are invaluable as a food source for larger creatures.

For those with larger gardens, Bradbury suggests converting a patch of lawn into a perennial meadow with a variety of grasses growing alongside wildflowers such as red clover, wild carrot and orchids to attract pollinators and provide a breeding ground for moths, butterflies, bees and small mammals.

Even a strip of grass or a circle of meadow around an old apple tree will make a difference.

Another attractive feature for a larger space is a pond. Sited in a sunny spot and surrounded by native plants such as bogbean and flag iris, this will become home to frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies, diving beetles and pond snails.

Those with a small garden can achieve a similar micro habitat by creating a container pond in an old tin bath or other small vessel.

However, for Bradbury, the best thing gardeners can do to encourage wildlife into their garden is to physically open it up by providing a way in and out through a hole in a fence or wall.

“The most important thing is to join up our gardens, to make sure the species which don’t fly, like hedgehogs and toads, can travel between gardens,” she says.

Second on her list of priorities is for gardeners to grow more flowering plants including fruit trees, herbs and vegetables such as peas or beans as well as flowers like foxgloves, honeysuckle and delphiniums.

“Even in a city, if you have only got a windowsill or balcony, you can grow nectar and pollen-rich plants for bees and butterflies.”

As an owner of a city garden herself, Bradbury is well equipped to give advice on how to attract more wildlife into an urban space.

“I have a tiny city garden. It used to be paved but I took up the paving stones, imported some top soil and turned it into a garden. I’ve got quite a lot of gold finches, great tits, robins and of course city pigeons. I rescued some frogs living in a drain and created a pond for them. Now it’s a haven instead of concrete.”

As someone who wants gardeners to learn to cherish the aphid – even if just a little – it comes as no surprise that Bradbury is against the use of pesticides in the garden.

In a chapter on pest control and pesticides she claims that as well as taking out the intended pest, bug sprays can kill other species and knock the whole garden ecosystem out of kilter.

Instead she suggests leaving the aphids on your broad beans where their predators – the ladybirds and hoverflies – can find them and if that fails, using an organic soap spray or squashing them with your fingers.

She also offers organic methods for getting rid of other pests such as slugs and snails, including the use of crushed eggshells or coffee grounds to deter them from eating your plants.

“I’m very passionate about gardening for wildlife,” she says. “Our gardens take up more space than all of Britain’s nature reserves put together. If everyone gardens for wildlife, we could make a real difference.”

• The Wildlife Gardener: creating a haven for birds, bees and butterflies by Kate Bradbury is published by Kyle Books and costs £16.99.

Jo Whittingham: Check containers daily, as rain rarely does them much good

It seems extraordinary to think that summer’s here already, when spring felt like it had only just arrived. With nights that should now be frost-free and a bit of decent weather, I hope normality is about to resume, with summer bedding and vegetables getting out into the garden on time. So, harden off your petunias, busy lizzies and pelargoniums to give pots, hanging baskets, borders, and your mood, a boost with plenty of bold colour.

I love planting out tender summer vegetable plants, such as French and runner beans, courgettes, winter squashes and sweetcorn, just as much as the flowers. Plants sown under cover in May and those bought at nurseries and garden centres should be hardened off and set outside soon, or you can try sowing seed directly into the soil now, ideally under cloches, horticultural fleece or even jam jars. Poor summer weather could still ruin crops, however, so I’m growing dwarf French beans and courgettes in the greenhouse too, as a back-up.

Focus the energy of greenhouse crops on fruit production by pinching out the sideshoots between the leaves and stem of tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s also beneficial to remove the first fruit produced by each pepper plant. This always seems ruthless, but will allow many more fruit to develop and ripen successfully.

Ornamental beds have filled out nicely now and there is already tidying up to do. Firstly, of course, there are the weeds to keep on top of. Then faded bulb foliage can be removed, and tatty spring-flowering perennials cut back hard to produce a fresh burst of foliage. While out, watch for nibbled and sticky leaves, particularly at shoot tips, which may be the first signs of pest damage. Finding and squashing a few aphids, lily beetles or sawfly larvae now, can save considerably more time and trouble later. Cream, c-shaped vine weevil larvae may also be munching through the succulent roots of primulas, cyclamen and many other plants. Watch out for unexpected wilting on warm days, especially in pot-grown plants, which are most vulnerable to attack.

Another explanation for wilting is that plants simply need watering. I’ve been out with the hose during fine weather to give my new perennials and shrubs the thorough soakings required to help them establish quickly. Also check containers daily where possible, as rain rarely does them much good, and remember to feed fortnightly through the growing season as well, to keep dazzling displays at their best.