A recent study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that small gardens are just as vital as large spaces when it comes to helping our struggling pollinators.
When small gardens, patios, courtyards and balconies are packed with nectar-rich plants, they provide essential food for bees, butterflies and other insects – especially when plants have been carefully chosen to bloom for much of the year.
And small gardens, when joined together with others, can create a network of wildlife-friendly spaces that benefits many different species. As different gardens tend to contain different plants, together they provide a rich and diverse source of nectar.
Bee populations across the world are declining, with climate change, habitat loss and use of pesticides just a few of the challenges faced by these vital pollinating insects.
And bees are not alone. According to conservation charity RSPB, more than 40% of UK wildlife has declined in the past 50 years. But any outdoor space – however big or small – can help boost biodiversity.
Creating a wildlife-friendly garden is good for wellbeing too. Nature-rich spaces are full of bright blooms, birdsong, bees and butterflies – all of which can make us feel good!
Here are a few ideas for turning a small outdoor space into a haven for wildlife – and, in particular, pollinating insects.
Shrubs are dense with flowers, making it easy for pollinators to get all the food they need in one place without expending energy flying from plant to plant. Many shrubs are easy to grow and can be pruned to keep them compact and manageable.
Shrubs can also help to provide nectar throughout the year. Mahonia flowers in winter, its bright yellow blooms offering nectar for early-foraging bees.
Hebes and lavenders, meanwhile, produce flowers in summer. These shrubs grow well in containers, are low maintenance, and attract bees, bumblebees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Create a herb garden
Many herbs grow well in containers, and are ideal for small spaces. It’s lovely to have a few pots of herbs growing by the back door – the fresh leaves add flavour to all sorts of dishes.
The blooms of sage, thyme and rosemary are attractive to bees and butterflies. Borage is one of the best herbs to grow for bumblebees – and it’s also a magnet for butterflies and hoverflies.
It’s cheap and easy to grow from seed – and the flowers are edible, making a pretty addition to drinks and salads.
Herbs should be grown in full sun, and will benefit from frequent harvesting.
Pots full of flowers
Lots of perennial and annual flowers can be grown in pots, hanging baskets and window boxes. Choose nectar-rich varieties with single blooms, as it’s hard for insects to access the nectar in fancy, frilly flowers.
Compact plants for small spaces include crocus (fantastic for early spring nectar), hardy geraniums, scabious and catmint. Verbena bonariensis is popular with bees and butterflies and flowers into autumn. Alliums produce tall spherical flowers that are loved by bees, and wallflowers such as erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ continue to flower for months, attracting an array of pollinating insects including solitary bees.
Growing pots full of nectar-rich flowers needn’t be expensive. Annual flower seeds are cheap to buy, and you can buy mixed, pollinator-friendly blends for just a couple of pounds. Easy to grow annuals include calendula, cosmos, sunflowers, poppies and cleome.
Grow climbing plants
Where space is at a premium, choose plants that climb upwards to maximise every available inch. Climbers can cover unsightly fences, or can be grown up a trellis. A bare fence has little wildlife benefit – but cover it with a climber, and you create a nesting site for birds, a place for hibernating insects to shelter, and food in the form of blooms and berries.
Honeysuckle smells gorgeous, and – as the scent is released most strongly at night – it’s a good source of nectar for moths.
Ivy is an all-round winner for wildlife. It produces thick, evergreen cover for birds and insects, its blossoms are loved by bees, the leaves are a source of food for butterfly caterpillars, and birds enjoy the berries.
Other good climbers for wildlife include pyracantha, clematis and wisteria.
Let lawns grow
If you have a lawn, leaving a small area unmown is a fantastic way to boost biodiversity.
All sorts of wildflowers quickly emerge when you leave lawns to grow. Clover, buttercups, dandelions, common daisies, ox-eye daisies, teasels and forget-me-nots are some of the most common wildflowers found in long grass – and these are all an excellent source of nectar for all kinds of insects.
Birds also feed on the seeds of long grasses, as well as on the seeds of dandelions and teasels.
You don’t need a lot of space to achieve this – even a square-metre patch of grass can become a mini meadow that will attract all kinds of wildlife.
Build bug houses
You can buy bee houses, or make your own. They are good for solitary bees such as mason bees and leaf-cutter bees.
Cut the top off a plastic bottle and fill with short lengths of bamboo canes – you can put some plasticene into the base of the bottle, and push the canes into it to stop them slipping out. Position the bee house close to nectar-rich plants, and tilt it down slightly to prevent the container filling with rain water.
Creating a wigwam of sticks and filling with natural materials such dry leaves or fir cones is another way to create shelter for small creatures. Position your wigwam in a quiet corner where it won’t be disturbed.
Make a bee bowl
Bees need water as well as food. Many natural sources are too deep or fast-flowing for bees, and they can they drown in water bowls and birdbaths.
To make a bee bowl, fill a shallow container, such as a terracotta saucer, with small pebbles. Then add water, making sure that plenty of pebbles stand out to allow the bees to land.
In hot weather, bee bowls need topping up with fresh water daily. Position the bowl in a sunny place alongside some nectar-rich flowers, so the insects don’t need to travel too far to find a drink.