Wild gardens and community green spaces can be havens for wildlife in autumn. An estimated 22 million people have access to a garden in Britain – so if people start gardening in a way that helps nature bounce back, that can have a huge impact.
A few wild areas here and there could be a winter home for hedgehogs, a roosting site for birds, or a nectar-rich feeding station for pollinators.
Creating wild, nature-rich spaces is not expensive or time consuming – in fact it’s often a case of doing less, not more. Some people value ‘neat and tidy’ above everything else – but a wild garden, full of colour and life, can be much more beautiful than a carefully managed and manicured plot.
Numerous studies have shown that contact with nature benefits people – from improving mental health and wellbeing to physical health advantages such as lowered blood pressure.
So, to help nature, people and the environment, here are eight tips for rewilding your garden or community green space this autumn.
Don’t burn a bonfire – build a log pile!
Burning bonfires can be dangerous for hedgehogs. Because bonfires are often built up over several days before burning, it gives a hedgehog the chance to shelter unseen amongst the piled-up branches – it’s exactly the sort of habitat that hedgehogs look for when searching for a hibernation site.
So instead of burning garden debris, create a pile of branches, sticks and leaves in a quiet corner. Not only will this provide an ideal habitat for hedgehogs, but frogs, toads, slow worms and all sorts of invertebrates may take up residence too.
In fact, log piles – especially where the wood is left to rot – can support a remarkable variety of species throughout the year.
Leave dead stems
Many plants will start to die back in autumn, leaving behind dry stems and seed heads. It may be tempting to tidy these up with shears or a strimmer, but it’s best to leave them in situ until early spring.
Just like hedgehogs and amphibians, many insects need a safe place to spend the winter – and the nooks and crannies offered by the dead stems and seed heads of many herbaceous plants are ideal. Teasels, for example, produce dry, hollow stems that harbour beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybirds.
Plant for autumn nectar
Plants that flower into autumn provide late-season nectar for bees, bumblebees and butterflies. For insects that hibernate through winter, a nectar-rich energy boost is vital for helping them survive the colder months ahead. Some plants, such as mahonia, ivy and snowdrops, offer nectar in winter – particularly useful for bumblebees emerging early from hibernation during warm spells.
Sedums, Michaelmas daisies, verbena bonariensis, hebe, single-flowered dahlias and perennial wallflowers all offer autumn colour and nectar.
Let ivy grow
As mentioned above, ivy offers late-season nectar for pollinators. But it’s useful in all sorts of other ways too.
The berries that ivy produces feed birds. And birds will nest in the thick tangle of branches found in mature plants. Overwintering brimstone butterflies also shelter amongst the evergreen leaves. Bats and other small mammals take shelter in the foliage.
In fact, ivy is a veritable ‘super plant’ – so please save it from the shears!
Leave some grass long
Long grass and wildflower meadow areas need to be cut at the end of summer, ideally in September – this maintains the quality of the meadow and encourages more wildflowers to grow, as the seeds are dispersed.
But, whether you usually mow your lawn throughout summer or let it grow long, keeping a small area unmown throughout winter can benefit wildlife. Long grass offers protection to all sorts of creatures, from beetles and bumblebees to frogs and toads.
Create a wild corner
If you have enough space, creating an undisturbed corner can be one of the best ways to help wildlife.
In fact, there’s not really any ‘creating’ involved, as to achieve a wild corner, you don’t have to do anything at all. Leave the area to grow wild. Let nettles, thistles, teasels, dandelions and other wild plants grow.
This can become a fabulous habitat for hibernating hedgehogs and other creatures – and some of the plants that will appear are vital food sources for the caterpillars of many moth and butterfly species. Nettles, for example, support more than 40 different species of insect. Dandelion, thistle and teasel seeds are a food source for goldfinches and other birds.
If you don’t like the look of your wild corner, it can be hidden by a trellis or screen. And if you grow a climber – ivy, perhaps – over the screen you’ll provide shelter for nesting birds and hibernating insects, as well as nectar for pollinators.
Plant a hedge
Britain has lost 100,000s miles of hedgerow in living memory. Planting a native hedgerow can help hedgehogs, bumblebees, blackbirds, frogs, butterflies, robins, bats, hoverflies, wrens and many more creatures, while soaking up carbon dioxide.
Hedgerows also act as wildlife corridors, allowing creatures to travel safely from one habitat to another.
Native species to include in a hedgerow include hawthorn, hazel, blackthorn, and holly. You can also plant blackberries to scramble through a hedgerow, providing a fruitful crop for you, and a habitat for insects – bramble leaves are a useful food source for caterpillars, and butterflies and bees enjoy the nectar offered by the blossoms.
Say no to chemicals
Plants are more likely to thrive when the garden ecosystem is working properly. Beneficial insects, like lacewings and ladybirds, will keep pests at bay – and hedgehogs help keep slug and snail numbers in check. Thrushes also help control snail populations, while blue tits eat pests such as aphids. The presence of pollinating insects – attracted by nectar-rich blooms – can boost crops in the vegetable garden.
Using chemicals such as insecticides and weedkillers is counter-productive because it upsets this delicate balance. It harms and kills insects, and the poisons in slug pellets get into the food chain, endangering hedgehogs and other animals.
There are lots of ways to maintain a healthy garden or community green space without resorting to chemicals. Just boosting the biodiversity in your little green space by following some of the tips suggested here will work wonders!