Little Green Space
by Penny Bunting
When we work with nature, rather than against it, wonderful things can happen in our gardens, allotments and community green spaces. Boosting biodiversity is one of the best ways to ensure vegetable crops and flower borders are in tip-top condition. And by focusing on attracting beneficial insects, animals and plants, it’s possible to garden without the use of chemicals.
There are some plants and animals that are particularly useful to have around. These garden superheroes can help boost crops and tackle unwanted pests.
Here are a few of our favourites.
There are more than 40 different species of ladybird in the UK, and these instantly recognisable insects are a common sight in the garden.
A single ladybird can munch its way through around 5,000 aphids in its lifetime. There are hundreds of different species of aphid – including greenfly and blackfly – and these tiny, sap-sucking insects can attack and damage cabbages, tomatoes, beans, salads and roses, to name just a few.
So attracting lots of ladybirds to your garden is a good – and organic – way to help protect your crops and flowers.
How to get them: Like other insects, ladybirds will be attracted by nectar-rich flowers. Flat-shaped blooms are best – try fennel, dill and calendula. Ladybirds also need places to shelter during cold weather, and will hunker down in cracks and crevices, leaf litter and hollow stems. For this reason, it's best to wait until they emerge from hibernation – usually in April – before you tidy up the garden by raking leaves and cutting down dead plants.
Harlequin ladybirds have been a source of concern for several years. Introduced from Asia in 2004, they're also predatory – but often feed on native ladybirds as well as aphids and other small insects. The two most common forms of harlequin ladybird are black with two or four red spots, or orange with 15-21 black spots. They can be distinguished from common ladybirds by their size – at 8-10mm harlequins are considerably larger than most native species. If you do spot these in your garden, report your sightings to the UK Ladybird Survey ( coccinellidae/home), so that the impact of this invasive species on native populations can be monitored.
Butterflies and moths
When people think of pollinators, it's often bees and bumblebees that first spring to mind. But butterflies and moths are also excellent pollinators. Add to this the wellbeing benefit of having these beautiful, colourful insects fluttering about, and why wouldn't you want them in your garden?
There are 2,500 species of butterflies and moths in the UK, and they form an important part of the food chain – the caterpillars and adult insects are a source of nutrition for birds, bats and other creatures. So by attracting butterflies and moths, you'll be attracting other wildlife too.
How to get them: To attract butterflies, plant nectar-rich plants in a sunny sheltered spot. Marjoram, lavender, verbena bonariensis, perennial wallflower (Bowles Mauve), hebe and cosmos are all good choices.
Although there are some day-flying moths, they mostly come out at night, so flowers that release their scent at night are needed – try jasmine, evening primrose, nicotiana, night-scented stock and honeysuckle. Allowing a few nettles to grow in an undisturbed corner will also help – nettles are an important food source for the caterpillars of several butterfly and moth species.
There are more than 250 species of hoverfly in the UK. Many of these have yellow and black striped bodies, so are often confused with bees and wasps – but unlike bees and wasps, hoverflies have no sting. They can often be seen hovering over flowers, and can fly at speeds of up to 40km per hour.
Hoverflies are wonderful, beneficial insects to encourage into the garden. During their larva stage, they can eat up to 1,000 aphids – making them valuable to organic gardeners who want to reduce the number of pests on crops and flowers. Hoverflies are also important pollinators.
How to get them: Grow nectar-rich flowers such as sweet peas, alyssum, dill, poached-egg plant and marigolds. Hoverflies seem to be particularly keen on yellow blooms, especially dandelions.
Wriggly and fascinating to watch, finding lots of earthworms in your garden usually indicates that your soil is nice and healthy.
Earthworms aerate the soil, improving its structure, drainage and fertility. They pull dead leaves and other vegetation down from the surface, mixing it up with animal waste and minerals. All this matter passes through the worms, and what comes out the other end is a rich compost that's full of nutrients that will benefit your plants.
How to get them: Earthworms thrive in healthy soil, so ensuring your soil is in good condition is the first step. They feed on soil, dead or decaying plant remains, and animal waste – so add plenty of organic matter in the form of compost, well-rotted manure or green manure to the surface of the soil. There's no need to dig it in, as the worms will do that for you! Earthworms like moist conditions, so water your crops during very dry weather. Try not to tread on the soil, as this compacts it and makes it harder for worms to travel through. And avoid using toxic substances such as pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers.
Bumblebees are important pollinators of fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, peas and strawberries, as well as wildflowers. This is true in both private kitchen gardens and for commercial crops – if we didn't have bumblebees and other pollinators, it's estimated that alternative pollination methods could cost UK farmers £1.8 billion per year.
In fact, one in three mouthfuls of food are due to the hard work of pollinating insects. But bumblebee populations have crashed, with eight of the UK's 24 species now classed as rare.
Loss of flower-rich habitat, as well as climate change, disease and pesticides are the biggest threat to bumblebees' survival – and our gardens are increasingly a lifeline for these amazing insects.
How to get them: Make space for bumblebee nests by not disturbing compost heaps and letting areas of grass grow long. Grow nectar-rich plants, and allow patches of dandelions and clover to flower in gardens and green spaces.