OLR Diaries – gardening for invertebrates!

Having attended the Learning through Landscapes conference on Wildlife Gardening this last week I’ve been inspired to write on that topic for this months blog. Always something that has been a passion in my life, combining gardens with habitats and feeding grounds for wildlife of all kinds is both a delight and a challenge. I have been talking about aspects of wildlife gardening throughout my professional life but so much more so in our day though, is this topic so important to implement – not just in gardens but also in school grounds, community spaces, parks & roadside verges.

When we think of the wildlife that visits our gardens we might think of birds and mammals but really, the most frequent visitors are invertebrates. Jennifer Owen is not well known but as a scientist who studied her own garden in Leicestershire over 30 years she proved the value of ordinary gardens all over the UK. She recorded a total of 2,673 species, 2,135 of which were invertebrates! Taken on a square meter basis, her ordinary UK garden had more biodiversity than a tropical rainforest. We see the potential, and as the combined landmass of our gardens is estimated to be in the region of 433,000 ha, (not counting schools grounds or public parks) we have quite an area to get busy on.

Gardening for invertebrates is not just an altruistic move of course, we desperately need pollinators for a range of food crops and what’s more, if we foster a range of insects in our garden, they will repay us by keeping down those that are sometimes less welcome such as aphids and cabbage white caterpillars.

A range of native and non-native plants growing together providing a haven for insects
Having a mixture of native and non native plants and letting some of the ‘weed’ species flower will encourage insects into your garden

Elements of the wildlife garden

All greenspace and gardens that have some plants in them will benefit wildlife to some extent but there is often much we can do to improve them. Having at least one of the following elements in your garden area will improve its value for wildlife: Long grass, short grass, mature trees, fruit trees, soft fruit bushes / canes, stone / log piles, pond / bird bath, bird / bee homes or boxes, hedges, plants that have simple open type flowers and plants that flower over a long period.

As with all projects, start small and build on your success over time. Try to change a tidy mindset to a more relaxed one. Gardening for wildlife is not however about letting the area become a wilderness. Its the very act of human intervention eg: planting a range of species, digging up area, weeding out invasive plants, pruning fruit and other trees and shrubs to maintain their productiveness that makes the garden such as special environment. Even if you are not able to change anything else, change your habits – be more relaxed in your approach, cut the grass less often, this enables flowering plants to set seed and the insects that need them to prosper, let the flowering heads of herbaceous perennials persist over winter, this will provide not only something beautiful to look at as the frost coats them but also somewhere for insects to over winter in relative safety.

A hover fly feeding off ground elder flowers
This hover fly (Syrphus robesii) is finding the flowers of the ground elder in our garden irresistible, the larvae of many hover fly species predate on aphids and caterpillars thereby helping to maintain a natural balance

Application for schools gardens / grounds

Like other gardens, schools grounds vary greatly in terms of their area but as stated before, any greenspace is beneficial. If you only have a concrete yard, don’t despair, planting up containers of all sorts even old wellies or tyres can give you lots of places to grow flowers and even fruit or vegetables that will give all delight as well as provide food and habitat for insects. If you have larger grounds, try to find a corner of the playing field area or maybe a hedge boundary where you can let the grass grow long, plant a few trees maybe even an orchard (only need 6 fruit trees to be called an orchard). If possible, talk to the grounds maintenance team so that they don’t inadvertently damage your new project.. even better, put up some physical barriers such as logs etc. to stop them mowing off the area.

Whatever your gardening for wildlife project, involving the children in the planning, horticultural aspects and implementation of any actions you decide on is key for enabling the next generation to grow to love and respect all things natural as well as all that specific and softer skills learning that just happens when you do projects like this together. Keeping records of the actions you have decided to take and monitoring this over time will elevate your wildlife gardening efforts to scientific status. Its amazing how much of the curriculum you will find you can cover in your efforts to garden for wildlife!

If you or your school would like further advice on gardening for wildlife contact us for further details.

This Geranium pratense flower gives easy access to nectaries and an open, flat landing place.