The best plants for wildlife

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Grow a variety of wild and cultivated plants in your garden and you’ll attract lots of invertebrates, birds and mammals. 

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Grow plants to attract wildlife to your garden article spread

Grow a variety of wild and cultivated plants and you’ll attract lots of invertebrates, birds and mammals to your garden.

If you want wildlife to thrive in your garden, the plants you choose are critical, especially with our milder winters and changing climate. In southern England, for instance, whole colonies of white-tailed bumblebees now survive the winter, so if you can ensure there is a supply of nectar-rich plants for them, they will do even better and use your garden more.
 
In the same way, you need to provide natural food for birds. Their density in gardens can be very high, especially some of the commoner species. Breeding blue tits make about 100 trips to the nest per nestling per day, which amounts to 15,000 caterpillars and even more spiders and aphids by the time an average brood fledges. House sparrows are probably declining because they can’t find enough invertebrate food when raising their chicks, so do your bit to reverse this.
 
Urban areas are important habitats for invertebrates, too: holly blue butterflies are more likely to be seen in gardens than rural areas, for example. Good planting design is essential to support a wide diversity of these creatures and all the species that depend on them.
 
OUR SEASON-BY-SEASON GUIDE TO THE BEST PLANTS FOR WILDLIFE
 
Spring:

  • Comfrey
  • Cowlsips
  • Violets
  • Geranium
  • Viburnum
  • Honesty
  • Primrose
  • Jack By The Hedge
  • Pulmonaria
 
Summer:
  • Salvia
  • Monarda
  • Teasel
  • Lavender
  • Chicory
  • Dog Rose
  • Penstemons
 
Autumn:
  • Hogweed
  • Allium
  • Helenium
  • Sedum
  • Aster
  • Echinops
 
Winter:
In winter the garden may look quiet, but if you have prepared it well (see WINTER) then your wildlife should have both food and shelter. 
 
 
WILDLIFE TO WATCH OUT FOR: 
 
  • Hoverflies
    Umbels of all sorts attract a wide range of flying insects. Hogweed is particularly good and will flower for much of the year.
     
  • Leafcutter bees
    Adult patchwork leafcutter bees emerge in late spring and will soon be seen cutting neat holes in the leaves of garden and wild roses before transporting the foliage back to their nest tunnels.
     
  • Ladybirds
    In a well-managed wildlife garden, aphid numbers rarely get out of control. They provide a valuable food source for insects such as ladybirds, which are voracious predators in both their adult and larval stages.
     
  • Froghopper larvae
    Plants such as lavender and rosemary are ideal food sources for froghopper nymphs (spittle-bugs), which spend the spring and early summer in a frothy nest called cuckoo spit, and emerge as adults in midsummer.
     
  • Red admirals
    Hebes flower in late summer and autumn (some continue during a mild winter) and provide a nectar source for butterflies, such as red admirals.
     
  • Earwigs
    These insects are omnivores and nibble petals, young leaves and pests, such as aphids. They are often seen on daisies or burrowed into the flowers of thistles, such as Jerusalem artichokes.
  • Garden chafer beetle
    Chafers and beetles nibble leaves, flowers and pollen. Garden chafers are particularly common on fruit trees and ornamental shrubs; others prefer herbaceous plants.
     
  • Goldfinches
    In summer, teasel flowers are fantastic for bees. Once the flowers have died in autumn, a wide range of finches (notably goldfinches) will feast on their seeds.
     
  • Small tortoiseshells
    Thistles, Sedum and lateflowering daisies, such as the Michaelmas daisy, provide a food source for late-flying butterflies, including small tortoiseshells and peacocks, as well as a wide range of flies.
 
WHAT TO PLANT: For the best results, grow a mix of native and garden plants.
 
Don’t just plant native wildflowers. Many domestic and non-native species also provide food and shelter for invertebrates. The important thing is to ensure that you include plants that flower at different times of year, as they will provide a range of benefits some for nectar and berries, others for shelter, and a few to be chomped by hungry insects.
 
To ensure a year-round supply of nectar, plant Aubretia and flowering currant for the spring; Achillea, Buddleia, lavender, foxgloves and thyme for the summer; and Sedum, Michaelmas daisies and Hebe for the autumn. IT’S NOT just flowers that are important: you need to include plants whose leaves can be eaten (native ones are better as larval food) or cut up for nesting material. Berries are also vital, and spiny bushes, such as Pyracantha and Berberis, provide secure nesting sites.
 
Ivy is a must – invertebrates overwinter in the evergreen leaves, and robins, wrens, sparrows and blackbirds will nest within its foliage. Holly blue caterpillars eat the flowers, buds and berries, hoverflies and butterflies take nectar from the flowers, and birds eat the berries. Grow it on fences and up tree trunks.
 
Plants are still important in the winter: dead stems and flowerheads provide shelter for many insects, and seeds feed insects, birds and mammals. So don’t cut them off – indeed, the less tidying up you do in the autumn, the better.
 
 
STEVE'S TOP TIPS:
 
  • Assess the value of each plant in your garden: if it’s not being eaten by something or the flowers are not attracting a range of insects, consider replacing it with an alternative that makes a greater contribution to the diversity of your patch.
     
  • Visit garden centres on sunny days to see which plants are being visited by bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Then select those that are inundated with a wide variety of insects.
     
  • Avoid plants that are double-flowered (a flower within a flower) as they are merely showy and not good for wildlife. Try to avoid infertile flowers, too, though they are difficult to spot. Horse chestnut flowers should be white – the red ones are sterile and attract few insects.
     
  • Buy wildflowers from a reputable dealer. Plugs are cheaper, but difficult to start off. It may be worth paying a little more for ones that are properly established, or growing plugs in pots until they’re stronger. Then plant them out.
     
  • Select plants that complement each other: umbels (hogweeds) and Compositae (daisies, sunflowers) are good for beetles and hoverflies; bell-shaped flowers for bees; thistles, knapweeds, Sedum and Buddleia for butterflies.
     
  • Grow winter and early-flowering plants, too, as they are particularly important for bees, which need food from the moment they emerge. Pulmonaria (lungwort) is ideal: it is rich in nectar, as are forget-me-nots and comfreys. Comfrey leaves are also great for enhancing your compost.

 

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