Talking all things wildlife with Wildlife Gardening

Recently we were fortunate enough to interview Jenny Steel from Wildlife Gardening about all things to do with having a wildlife garden, helping wildlife, and not using chemicals in your garden! Check out the interview below.

Our Wildlife Gardening Interview

1. As someone with a keen interest in wildlife gardening, what are your top tips for encouraging wildlife to come to your garden?

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about butterflies, birds, mammals or the smallest invertebrates – all wildlife visitors need food and shelter and some need water, so thinking about these basic necessities is a good way to start. Once you have a better feel for the wildlife that is using your garden, you can be more specific about providing what those local creatures need.

2. Pollinators like bees and butterflies are all under pressure at the moment. How can gardeners do more to help?

The first very obvious thing is to garden without using any chemicals at all but especially without pesticides.  For some gardeners the idea of ‘going organic’ can be quite frightening, but if you do stop using pesticides you soon find that the natural predators of, for example, blackfly, build up quickly and you no longer have a major problem. The natural world has a way of keeping these things in balance as long as we don’t interfere too much. After that, it is as simple as finding out which plants they are likely to feed on (and many are very specific) and growing those plants for them in your borders, pots or ‘meadow’ areas.

3. Once we have pollinators in our gardens, how can we keep them and their habitats safe?

Finding out more about the life cycles of different pollinators and the conditions they require is very helpful. Many bumblebee species make their nests in holes in the ground, especially in old vole nests, so having grassy areas in the garden that are undisturbed and not frequently mown can be beneficial to voles and therefore to bumblebees. Solitary bees can be encouraged by providing them with special ‘bee homes’ but these must be properly constructed!  Many ‘bee hotels’ and ‘insect habitats’ available in Garden Centres are completely useless because the holes are the wrong diameter and the tubes are open at both ends – they should be closed at the back.  Look out for those that are specifically for Red Mason Bees as these have holes that are perfect for solitary bees of several species. Management of your garden is also very important especially in the winter as most pollinators spend the cold months in dead vegetation, in the soil or in log or leaf piles so leaving your borders untouched through the winter is very beneficial.

4. How important are wildflowers for a wildlife garden? Do these help attract specific wildlife to your garden?

It is possible to have a wildlife garden of sorts with no native wildflowers or wild shrubs at all, but with native flowers and shrubs it will be so much better! There are plenty of non-native flowers that provide pollen and nectar for wildlife and it is important to grow some of these, but native species provide so much more than nectar and pollen – breeding opportunities for butterflies, moths and many other insects and that means food for nestling birds or shrews, voles and hedgehogs, all of which eat caterpillars.   All garden wildlife is interdependent and the greater the variety of plants you have in your garden, especially wildflowers, the more wildlife you will cater for.

5. Wildlife gardening is about much more than just feeding the animals that come into your garden. What advice could you give to people who want to start a wildlife garden?

Firstly, read something about the ecology of gardens and the interdependence of the life that uses our gardens.  Once you consider that, things fall into place and it becomes second nature to think about which insects depend on which plants or type of habitat. Buy a book or use the website of a well-known organisation for your information.  Wildlife gardening is so popular now that there is lots out there that is completely inaccurate, misleading or simply wrong! Once you have a little good background information you will see your garden in a different light.

6. As well as the pollinators, it is important to cater for other wildlife as well. How can you prepare your garden for multiple animals with different needs?

If you are gardening in a wildlife-friendly way you don’t need to think too much about specific groups such as mammals or birds.  Not interfering too much, leaving borders uncut in the winter, trimming hedges at the right time and leaving a few undisturbed areas all year round will benefit all garden wildlife whether it is a mammal, bird, amphibian or invertebrate.  The only other requirement is water!  A pond caters for a huge range of wildlife needs – from somewhere to spawn for amphibians to a place to drink and bathe for birds.

7. Not using chemicals in your garden is crucial to providing a safe habitat for animals. How easy is it to garden without using chemicals?

It is easy, and it is essential. Once you stop there may be a short time when aphids or slugs become more prevalent in your garden, but soon the wildlife that eats those aphids and slugs – the birds, small mammals and larger insects that depend on them for food – will find that source of food and their numbers will build up naturally. A balance between predator and prey occurs as they regulate each other.

8. What other aspects of organic gardening do you follow?

Composting or recycling all organic matter that is produced in the garden – whether that is the hay from my wildflower meadow or the hedge trimmings - is very important in my garden. Our compost is used in the vegetable garden and for mulching nectar borders and hedge trimmings are piled up to create twig piles under shrubs and in other out of the way places – vital for small mammals and some nesting birds. I also plant plenty of annual flowers such as Calendula around the vegetable garden. These encourage pollinators to the right places and bring hoverflies and ladybirds to other plants that are susceptible to aphids. Nest homes for red mason bees are located near our fruit area to pollinate for us.

9. Having been in Garden Ecology for over 25 years, what got you interested in the field to begin with?

I was fascinated by wildlife as a small child and kept ‘pet’ caterpillars and had sticklebacks in a small aquarium.  Spending lots of time in the Oxfordshire countryside fired my interest, but spending even more time in my parents’ small garden in Oxford gave me an opportunity to get up close to garden wildlife, learn about it and watch wildlife activity on a daily basis.  The ‘scientist‘ in me was counting hoverflies on different flowers and watching bird behaviour, including the dates when swallows and swifts were arriving each spring.  I kept these observations in a notebook. I also carried out a little ‘ecological’ study of a small local neglected field where I discovered great diving beetles in a small pond and a tawny owl nest in a hollow tree.  I found it infinitely fascinating then, and still do now.

10. Do you have any advice for people thinking about becoming more involved with wildlife gardening? Is it ever too late to start?

It is certainly never too late to start. Wildlife gardening isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ activity.  For some people (like me) it is the only way to manage a garden, but other people may simply want to feed the birds, or grow some good butterfly and bee plants.  Doing anything is better than doing nothing at all.

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