Sometimes, it can feel impossible to have an impact on the climate crisis. It’s so big and nebulous, but one area where we can have a huge impact is protecting local biodiversity. What you do in your house, garden and community has a real, immediate and direct impact on wildlife where we live, and depending on what you do that can be a good or bad thing.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how to help wildlife, some of which is actually harmful, like putting human hair out for birds to use in the nest. Over the past few years, I’ve been compiling whatever information I can find on this subject, correcting as I go, and here it is for you now all in one place!
Nothing mentioned in this article has been sponsored. It’s all just my own personal opinion. If you like your sources to remain independent then please;
You’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only a handful of nectar and pollen-rich plants in the world. That’s simply not true, most plants that aren’t overbred for showiness, like bedding plants, have something to offer insects. When it comes to plant selection there are a few points to bear in mind:
Aim to plant for as long a flowering season as possible, from Jan right through to November if you can. Food is particularly scarce in Spring and early Winter. See the list below and my Creating an Ornamental Garden articles for suggestions.
The best flowers for pollinators are open, so not double flowers like pompom dahlias or peony style poppy flowers. Aim for a wide range of flower shapes to cater for as wide a range of insects as possible.
Flowers aren’t the only way to support insects; old roses with floppy leaves are useful for the leaf-cutter bee and furry plants like lambs ear for the wool carder bee to harvest for it’s nest.
Avoid bedding plants. They’ve very little pollen and therefore nutrition in them for insects. The same is true for daffodils and tulips. There are some exceptions to this rule and they include Bacopa, Bidens, Ageratum and Dianthus/Sweet William.
In order to survive, pollinators need flowers that produce lots of nectar (for energy) and pollen (for protein). Most of us think of plants and shrubs when we think of planting for pollinators, but hedges are far too often overlooked. If you have the space, consider planting a mixed variety hedge of native trees that will provide food all year long.
The list below is only some of the hundreds of plants mentioned in the draft version of a Pollinator-Friendly Planting Code, which I heartily recommend if you’re building a garden from scratch. I decided to include what I consider to be the best know plants because I suspect that if you’re already a gardener you’re going to have a large portion of them.
Some of the plants listed above under late summer will continue to flower on into Autumn but I didn’t want to list them twice. The ones that should continue to the first frost include Heleniums, Dahlias, Sedum/stonecrop, Echinacea/coneflower, Dahlias, Chrysanthemum (simple flowers), Japanese/Chinese Anenome, Ivy, Verbeba Borariensis,
A lot of the information above was sourced from the excellent Gardeners handbook to help pollinators and this handy two-page guide from the pollinators.ie website.
If you do want to add more plants to your garden, either ask neighbours and family for some of their plants or buy organic or chemical-free. Unfortunately, most of the plants in garden centres are coated in bee-killing pesticides but thankfully the organic plant nursery Caherhurley Nursery, sells very reasonably-priced plants around the country at ISNA plant fairs.
Grow a wildflower meadow or bed to attract pollinators
Butterfly caterpillars largely feed on native weeds so if you want more butterflies you’re going to have to tolerate more weeds. Unfortunately, the nitrogen spread on agricultural land is leading to the death of many caterpillars so having a patch of weeds in your garden offers a huge lifeline to these mini beasties. If you can’t bear the idea of looking at a patch of weeds out your kitchen window locate it out of the sight or plant a large attractive shrub to block your view of it. Here’s a list of host plants that butterfly caterpillars like to feed on.
It’s worth noting that ticks like to live in long grass, particularly if you live near wild deer. So if you’ve pets or young children it may be best to provide them with a play area with short grass and discourage them from playing in long grass.
In a similar vein if you want ladybirds and blue tits in your garden you’re going to have to tolerate aphids. If you keep getting rid of them, using natural methods or not, you’re getting rid of a valuable source of food for wildlife. It can be nerve-racking to play a waiting game till the predators arrive, but they will in time. I left the netting off my fruit bushes last year and I had very little damage from the gooseberry sawfly, whereas the year before the plant was decimated when I had the net on to protect the fruit from birds. It’s also worth remembering that wasps are predators to a lot of crop-eating insects so don’t be afraid of them if you see them in your garden. In fact, a lot of wasps are stingless or very unlikely to attack.
Wildlife garden ideas for wild birds
Providing food for birds in your garden
When it comes to putting out food for birds, you need to be in it for the long haul. Birds try to conserve energy by only visiting places that they know will have food. If you’re going to put food out it has be something that you’re able to commit to doing on a regular basis.
In the past, I’ve struggled to bring birds to feed from a feeding station in my garden, but with being around more in 2020 I was able to dedicate enough time to be consistent about putting food out at set times and it really paid off. Although it did take about 8 weeks for them to find the feeding station initially, 5 months on we now have a pair of robins, 5 blue tits, 3 great tits, a wren, a thrush, a pair of blackbirds, a pair of chaffinches, pigeons and some magpies.
What food should you give wild birds?
In my experience, the best food to buy are peanuts, sunflower hearts and dried mealworms. Nothing else seems to be of interest to the birds. I chose sunflower hearts over sunflower seeds in their shells because I heard that the shells are oleic, i.e. prevent plant growth, and will damage your grass if they fall on them.
You have to be careful to make sure that your peanuts and sunflower hearts don’t go rancid in the bird feeder. If you don’t have your bird feeding station under cover so that it’s kept dry you’ll find the food will go off. I avoid this by only putting out enough food for the day where I can, with a back-up supply of peanuts in a mesh finder which I change out after we’ve had a few days of rain.
What types of feeder work for garden birds?
I’ve noticed that the tits in our garden prefer to grab a peanut and fly off rather than eating from the mesh peanut holder. So I put a handful of peanuts in a fly-through ceramic bird feeder every morning, but because we’ve a very acrobatic squirrel that raids it regularly I have a back-up squirrel-proof mesh peanut feeder that I put some peanuts in too. I don’t put very many peanuts in this because we don’t get enough birds to justify it and the nuts would just go off. If I didn’t have a squirrel I’d probably do away with the mesh peanut feeder completely.
I also put up a Niger seed dispenser to attract chaffinches. I’m delighted to say that after 4 months of waiting we finally got chaffinches but they completely ignore the Niger seeds and just eat the sunflower heats on the ground, from a dish. Actually, along with the chaffinches, I’ve found that quite a few birds prefer to eat from the ground instead of a free-standing bird food station including the wren, robins, thrush, and blackbirds. Because of this I scatter dried mealworms directly on the ground and put the sunflower hearts into a dish under a bush. Robins in particular seem to hate perching on swaying feeders and prefer to eat on the ground or on tables.
Placing bird feeding stations your garden
When selecting where to put your food it’s crucial to locate it close to safe landing spots, like a wall, tree or shrub for birds. That way birds can check the coast is clear before heading to the feeding station. It also allows birds to wait their turn safely near the feeding station. If you can it may be worth putting up a few feeding stations instead of just one. This will help to keep birds further apart from one another, helping to avoid disease spreading around them easily.
I’ve also heard that it’s good to locate your feeding station either well away from windows or within 1 metre of them. That way the birds are less likely to mistake the reflection of the bird feeder in the window for the real thing and accidentally fly into it. Rather than take a risk we’ve put stickers on the window close to our bird feeding station, so that it’s easier for the birds to see.
Since we’ve had an active bird feeding station I’ve also realised the benefit of evergreens. I have a lovely Aubelia, which doesn’t shed its leaves in the winter and it’s been a godsend for ground-feeding birds. Going forward I’m going to make a point of growing more evergreen shrubs near the bird feeder.
Another way to feed wild birds without a feeding station is to provide over-wintering habitats for insects around your garden. This is easily done by leaving leaves on your beds and not cutting back branches until the average daily temp is above 10 degrees Celsius. I’ve cheated a bit with this and cut some leaves back where I have to but setting them to one side in a pile.
Another way to feed birds without a feeding station is to grow plants in your garden that provide them with food as and when they need it, like teasels, holly, ivy, hawthorn, rowan trees, cotoneaster, viburnum, shrub roses, honeysuckle. Here’s another good article on feeding wild birds
Some people are worried that feeding birds will make them less resilient but research has shown that feeding birds doesn’t make birds dependent on hand-outs.
All your garden wildlife needs water
All life needs water so you can do a lot by providing water for wildlife in your garden, whether it’s a birdbath or a pond. Whatever water you provide, make sure there are landing spots for insects and birds so that they can drink from the water. This could be as simple as a stone that sits just above the water line or a water lily pad. If you do have a pond make sure to provide a ramp in and out of it so that hedgehogs can drink from it or climb out if they accidentally fall in.
Providing water in winter is just as important as food for birds so if you’re in a position to reliably feed birds in cold weather then make sure to include some unfrozen water along with it.
Bees need clean water too but contrary to what you may have heard don’t leave sugared water out for bees. A drop of sugar water can revive an exhausted bee on a cool spring day but it doesn’t contain the nutrients of nectar or pollen and is like junk food for bees.
If you want to attract frogs to your pond, make sure that you shade any stones that might surround the pond. Froglets can get stuck on these on hot days.
Just a note about standing water; it can be a breeding ground for mosquitos so unless you have fish to eat mosquito larvae or a fountain or pump to move the water around then you should change the water every 7 days when temperatures are above 10 degrees Celsius.
Tips for creating wildlife habitats
Bee habitats – facts and myths
On my sustainable gardening course, I learned that bee hotels are really a load of nonsense as most of our native bees are solitary and won’t want to share their living quarters with any other insects. Some bees will live beside other bees, like leafcutter bees, but this isn’t natural behaviour for them and grouping them all together makes them a bigger target for predators and disease. Also unless they’re cleaned regularly mites and mould can build up in them cause more harm than good to the poor little bees. Here are some more natural ways to provide living quarters for bees:
Carve out a few crevices in an existing wall.
Scrape back the vegetation on a south or east facing bank or patch of soil for mining bees.
Leave long grass around walls and hedges for bumble bee nests
Leave some stems uncut when flowers go over. Some bees like to nest in old raspberry canes.
Don’t rake up leaves in Autumn, some bubble bees might use them to hibernate under.
Drill south or east-facing holes in wooden fencing for solitary bees to nest in. These holes should be 10cm deep and range from 4-8mm in diameter. Add them at a height of at least 1.5-2m.
Should you put bee hotels in your garden?
15 out of the 98 types of Irish wild bees may use small bee hotels, but if you do use/make one make sure it’s from removable breathable materials like card bee nesting tubes or hollow stems in natural timber – no bamboo – and remember to clean it out every spring after larvae have left.
You may have to clean bit by bit if the hotel is populated by different species that emerge from their cocoons at different time. In springtime, check the tubes regularly and remove any tubes that are empty. If the tubes are reusable, give them a good scrub, leave them out to dry and then place in a new bee hotel. Do this for all the tubes. If any of the tubes haven’t emptied by mid-summer simply remove and place somewhere out of the way for nature to take its course. Clean out the entire bee hotel housing, scrub with water and leave to dry in the sun. Leave for filling up next spring.
Having read this guide to cleaning your bee hotel you’ve probably realised that a lot of bee hotels on the market aren’t designed to be cleaned out completely – like the one I bought 2 years ago! – so only buy one that can or better still repurpose something from around the house for your bee hotel. Just make sure it can be cleaned out, keeps the nesting tubes dry, isn’t backless, or can be placed up against a solid structure (Source: wildlife gardening by Kate Bradbury).
Instead of reusable tubes, you can get replaceable tubes, linked to above. I don’t often recommend single-use items but these help avoid the build-up of mites and in the grand scheme of things are better in my view than bamboo rods.
I recently came across very stylish bee blocks made by UK-based B Corp Green & Blue from waste from the Cornish China industry and harvested rainwater. It wouldn’t really make environmental sense to ship these over to Ireland but for anyone in the UK they are a more sustainable option than bamboo ones shipped from China.
Bird boxes and nesting locations in your garden
Bird boxes need to be fitted in the right location for each species and be designed specifically for each species. You will find directions on how to make and place a nest box on the RSPB website and on British Trust for Ornithology. If, like me, you don’t want to make your own nest box you can get ones according to RSPB guidelines from Irish company Nestbox Ireland.
If you want something that’s contemporary in design, check out the products by UK-based B Corp Green & Blue. Their china bird boxes and feeders are made from clay in their Cornish factory, which runs on green energy. Their products are shipped in locally-made boxes made with FSC certified paper, packed with locally sourced recycled materials and sealed with paper packing tape. The company uses recycled office supplies and a local carbon-neutral printer for their wraps and promotional literature. They will also supply replacement parts for their products.
Whatever bird box you buy or make, it is also essential that bird boxes are cleaned out once a year to prevent the build-up of mites etc that could kill the young birds.
Nesting boxes aren’t the only way to provide habitats for birds. I would argue that it’s much easier to facilitate natural nesting spots for birds with planting. Your mind may automatically go to trees when I say that, but a lot of birds will also nest in hedges, shrubs or densely grown climbers. If you have these in your garden well done, just be mindful not to prune them after the 1st of March or you risk disturbing nests.
I’ve seen suggestions on social media to put hair out for birds to use in their nests. DON’T. The hair gets wrapped around appendages of the baby birds and can cut off the blood supply.
Here’s a good article from someone that has successfully attracted nesting birds to his Irish garden.
Final thoughts on creating a wildlife-friendly garden
Other ways you can help wildlife include;
Change your mindset. If you want wildlife rich garden, you have to get comfortable with all wildlife. You can’t invite ladybirds and not have their food source, aphids. You can’t invite frogs and not have frog spawn. You can’t have butterflies and not have caterpillars. You can invite leaf cutter bees and grumble about holes in your roses. And stop killing ants! They’re the tidy-uppers of the garden. Learn to love them.
To encourage wildlife to come into your garden in the first place, you need to provide them with save areas to explore. So aim to have lots of coverage for amphibians and birds to allow them to avoid the clutches of cats and birds of prey.