Doing what comes naturally

Wildflowers in a meadow garden.
Wildflowers in a meadow garden.

As the trend towards naturalistic gardens continues this year, tidy gardeners with pristine plots may need to chill out a bit if they want to really contribute to the balance of nature.

Yet having a wildlife-friendly garden doesn’t have to mean a chaotic onslaught of weeds, nettles and overgrown areas. With a little forethought and just a few changes, you could incorporate some measures that will make your garden far more welcoming.

Bowling green lawns, weed-free beds, no debris and not a twig out of place may not be the best for wildlife, so relax a little and you may find your garden becomes a much more interesting place.

Many of us don’t want to make our garden into a small-scale nature reserve, but there are ways we can make it more attractive to wildlife while staying in control. Just carefully placing a couple of bird feeders and baths in strategic positions can welcome nature while remaining unobtrusive.

Work out what features you would like - it may be a butterfly border, mini-woodland or meadow, or simply a bird-feeding station, but plan that to maximise the view you’ll get of the wildlife activity from your patio and your house.

Also, get to know your weeds. Some garden plants and wildflowers will self-sow just as enthusiastically as weeds and are frequently treated as such. Enthusiastic self-seeders include foxglove, cow parsley, ox-eye daisy, columbine (aquilegia) and hellebores. Don’t dig them out if you want to attract wildlife. If they really aren’t where you want them, move them to start a colony in a different place.

Grass can be a tricky issue if you don’t have an area where you can leave it to grow longer. However, leaving a few low-growing flowering weeds such as clover and daisies in it will attract insects. Just cut the grass less frequently and leave it slightly longer, but it doesn’t have to be up to your knees.

Alternatively, those with a bigger garden could opt for a flowering meadow with a mown path in the centre, which guides the visitor and gives the path a natural border of wildflowers and grasses. If you’re making a meadow from scratch, it’s more likely to succeed on poor soil. On moist, clay soils the effect is harder to achieve.

If you plan to create a wildflower meadow consult a specialist seed supplier who deals in native flora, to get the right mix of grasses and indigenous flora for your soil type. The main challenge is to stop the grass from overwhelming the flowers, hence the need for poor soil, where the lack of nutrients should limit the spread of tough, vigorous grasses.

On bare earth, special wildflower meadow seed mixtures can be sown in spring or early autumn. Simply sprinkling seeds over established grass won’t work as the grass will offer too much competition. Alternatively, when the grass is short, plant primroses, cowslips, field scabious and knapweed in divots removed from the grass and water them in well.

Cut meadow grass once the last flowers have finished and set seed, after midsummer or in early autumn. While the meadow may look tired at that point, it should come back stronger in subsequent years.

Tidying your flower borders in spring rather than autumn is another tactic that will suit wildlife, as insects and birds will welcome the shelter or food in winter. Weather-resistant perennials such as Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ can be left standing, as their seedheads will provide wildlife with food and winter havens and provide shape for the winter garden.

In borders, ornamental thistles, grasses and other plants with seed-filled heads like teasel and sunflowers will attract finches, while nectar-rich flowers including the coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), foxgloves, red valerian, and herbs such as chives, borage and thyme will attract bees and butterflies.

Beds containing old-fashioned cottage garden flowers or a collection of herbs and lavenders in a sunny, sheltered part of the garden will look wonderful as a double border with a path running through it and will be alive with insects.

Remember too, to plant nectar-rich plants that flower at the time when pollinating insects are emerging from or preparing for hibernation. These include Cornus mas, Crocus tommasinianus, winter aconites, Michaelmas daisies, and Solidago ‘Cloth of Gold’.

Even the tidiest gardener should have room for some of these in a border.