Wild About Gardens Week, the annual Royal Horticultural Society initiative that encourages us to care for wildlife and work with nature, runs all next week (15-21 September), and can only benefit our plots at home.
The event, in conjunction with The Wildlife Trusts, focuses this year on creating winter habitats for 1,500 species of hibernating pollinators, including bees, butterflies and hoverflies, which are vital not just to pollinate our garden flowers, but the country’s food crops, too.
This doesn’t mean turning your garden into a weed-ridden wildlife sanctuary — just leaving things a little messy around the edges will greatly help insects to find food and shelter.
Andrew Salisbury, RHS senior entomologist, says: “Pollinators need sheltered places to spend the cold winter months. By being a little less tidy, particularly around the base of hedges and in garden borders, and by creating bug hotels and log piles, we can provide much-needed overwintering sites. This will also give pollinators in the garden a head start in spring.”
The advice from the RHS and TWT is to cut back on the cutting back this autumn. Instead of chopping down dead stems to make borders tidy, leave them until early spring. The hollow stems provide shelter for overwintering insects while berries and seedheads make good foraging for birds. Some stems and seedheads, such as allium heads and grasses, are a decorative asset, too.
Resist the temptation to give the lawn a final scalp of the season, and leave it to grow a little longer. Ideally, turn a patch over to nature so the long grass becomes a safe haven. You might find a few wildflowers crop up as a bonus.
You can buy bug boxes ranging from motels to five-star hotels, but they all basically offer insect-friendly nooks and crannies, notably hollow straws and canes. Creative gardeners can make their own luxury flats, building storeys from wooden pallets and bricks, and infilling with pebbles, bark, tiles and small plant pots. Learn how at wildaboutgardensweek.org.uk/buildabughotel and enter the contest for the most inventive.
Pin up a couple of bird boxes this autumn. Some species of butterflies will also hibernate in them.
A diversity of plants — trees, shrubs and perennials — not only makes for a livelier, more vibrant garden, but encourages a diversity of wildlife. Climbers on walls and fences provide leafy shelter and even tightly clipped evergreens in formal town gardens make great ladybird refuges.
Through the lean months, pollen and nectar sources are scarce, so consider autumn and winter nectar providers such as sweet box Sarcococca confusa, winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis, crocus species, winter-flowering Clematis cirrhosa and honeysuckle Lonicera purpusii. Ivy is a great source of late nectar provided it isn’t cut back, but allowed to flower.
Log piles — chunks of wood or tree stumps — make good habitats for pollinating insects. Turn them into a design feature rather than an eyesore with the RHS’s suggestion of using them to fill a gabion, or cube-shaped cage, so they double as stylish seating.
Lastly, ditch the pesticides. They don’t do any living creature any good. Paul Wilkinson, The Wildlife Trusts’ head of living landscape, says: “It’s looking after the small stuff which helps to create a bigger picture for wildlife and the natural environment. Collectively, our gardens make up the biggest nature reserve in the UK. Let’s make it the biggest and best it can be.”