The best advice for a wildlife garden is to relax and enjoy it, observe the species coming and going over the seasons and try to work out what the ones you enjoy are and what they need in your situation. The great thing about gardens is that there are so many and they are all so different. What works in one place may not be so good somewhere else, because wildlife species do not occur uniformly across the country. It’s also important that you cater for the wildlife that interests you and which you can enjoy – it is, after all, your garden. If you don’t like frogs and toads, don’t provide a pond for them! If you are always at work during the day then butterflies may not be the best thing to try for, as they fly during the warm part of the day when you will miss them. Also, look around your area and see if something is missing which you could provide; if drinking water is the limiting factor locally putting a pond in will make your garden really important to a lot of wildlife. It may be that the missing link in your area is a good hibernation site for wildlife, or nectar at a particular time of the year.
The amount of space you have available for a wildlife garden will dictate to some extent what you can do, as will other things like soil type, aspect, and your time and financial resources available to do the work. It’s generally best not to try too many different things into one small space, as most wildlife habitats work better if they are large. Nonetheless, a good wildlife garden should try to include some or all of the following features; a pond or other water feature, natural meadow, native hedge or some shrubs and trees, and a habitat feature such as a log pile, rockery or compost heap.
The general principle is to build biodiversity from the bottom up; most people hope to see the bigger species like birds, hedgehogs and such like, but they need plenty of natural food and cover to really thrive. Artificial feeding helps bring these larger species into places where we can see them, but shouldn’t be the only food source available – we are talking about wildlife, so some element of their existence should be wild, they are not free-range pets! It has been shown that blue tits nesting in areas with lots of non-native trees (which have few caterpillars) produce much smaller numbers of chicks than those nesting in native woodland, and it is only because of the artificial food supplied that the birds occur in the garden area.
This brings us to the key to building up biodiversity, which is to grow native and local species in your garden as the backbone to your wildlife haven. This includes native species of tree and shrub in your hedges as well as flowering plant species in your meadow and pond plants. While some exotic species are very attractive to wildlife in certain ways (buddleia for butterflies, pyracantha shrubs bearing berries for birds) they do not provide the whole package, which includes the important caterpillars and bugs that feed on leaves and sap for example; we don’t notice these too often, but they are a very important base to the food chain in your garden.
Some plants provide a big mix of benefits, and these are usually the commonest native species; this is because the majority of our wildlife is adapted to these common plant species. It is no coincidence that oak trees, which occur everywhere in Britain, support the highest number of insect species. While we may not have room for an oak, smaller species like bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn are very effective; they have abundant blossom with good pollen and nectar, many insects feed on their leaves, birds find safe nesting places in the thorny heart of them and the fruits are good food for many birds and small mammals.