Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden

Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden is about designing your garden around yourself, your family, your pets and still finding space for garden wildlife.

Last week’s blog – Wild about Gardens, Garden Design ideas – was an overview of wildlife gardens with some planting design and garden design suggestions. This week I’m looking at specific habitats for wildlife that you could incorporate into your own garden.

These Plews blogs to encourage others to both enjoy and share outdoor spaces with our disappearing garden wildlife are partly inspired by Wild about Gardens Week. In 2016, this takes place during 24-30 October.

Wildlife gardening and organic gardening go hand in hand and are remarkably easy for “ordinary gardeners” to get to grips with in their own gardens and allotments. However, a lack of knowledge and a lack of time prevents many people form realising the full potential of their garden spaces. I hope that by presenting you with some ideas, you may feel inspired to make a few changes in your gardening habits.

One of the reasons I teach gardening lessons in my students’ own gardens is so that we can develop their knowledge of the green space outside their back door. With the gardening theory applied to the practical tasks which we do together, confidence grows and students / clients find a greater pleasure in their garden.

pricked out seedlings, pricking out, gardening lessons, grow your own

As well as lack of knowledge, lack of time is an oft-cited reason for wanting an easy maintenance garden. This is totally reasonable! But garden design clients often express a desire to have a wildlife friendly garden, perhaps when the children are older or when they have a less demanding job. They’re surprised to learn that an easy maintenance garden is compatible with creating one or more wildlife habitats in your garden.

There are four main types of wildlife habitats within the British Isles; and they each have subdivisions. The plants which grow in these habitats will, to a certain degree, vary across the country. This is due predominantly to the different soils found, but also to other factors, for example, height above sea level.


Woodland Habitats

  • Managed woodland
  • Natural / unmanaged woodland
  • Woodland edge
  • Hedgerows


Wetland Habitats

  • Still freshwater – ponds and pools
  • Running freshwater – streams and rivers
  • Bogs and Marshes
  • Coastal habitats

pond, grass, clouds, reflection

Grassland Habitats

  • Wild flower meadow
  • Cornfield
  • Heathland
  • Sandy dunes
  • Wasteland


Rockland Habitats

  • Cliffs – coastal and inland
  • Scree beds (at base of cliffs)
  • Shingle beds (shoreline)
  • Pavements, for example, limestone pavements


Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden – ideas to inspire plans and action

I will re-visit these different habitats on a more individual basis in later blogs. That will enable us to look at the history as well as the potential for your garden. For now, I would like to consider how easy they might be to create and to maintain.

The size of your garden is of major relevance. So to keep it simple, I will only be suggesting garden wildlife habitats for gardens of less than a quarter acre. I hesitate to say ‘an average suburban garden’ as this size does vary across the country, but that is a rough rule of thumb for these design suggestions. Smaller urban gardens and courtyard gardens do get an extra section. Although many of the ideas can be scaled down as well as up to suit larger gardens nearer the quarter acre size.

dog violets, viola canina, Viola riviniana

The majority of the plant species mentioned are native to or naturalised in the UK. Some imported species will support native wildlife. If you’re not sure, then, for simple queries, why not ask us on Twitter, Facebook or Google plus?


Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden – Woodland Habitats

Under planting with spring and autumn flowering bulbs and small perennials is essential. For example, daffodils (Narcissus), crocus, cyclamen, bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta, not the larger hybrid!) wood anemones and bugle (Ajuga reptans).

Natural / unmanaged woodland

This would be more relevant for larger gardens. Although if you have an existing large tree in your garden such as an oak (Quercus) or ash, (Fraxinus) planting underneath with small daffodils for spring would give you some extra colour.


Managed woodland

Yes, you could have a small, managed woodland in your garden! There are a few options. Choose trees which can be coppiced such as hazel (Corylus) and shrubs such as dogwood (Cornus). For slightly larger gardens, beech (Fagus sylvatica) can also be used. Coppicing may be carried out annually or on a 3-5 year rotation. Small standard trees could also be used for a more formal garden.


Woodland edge

This is possible to accomplish even in tiny gardens. Think of those vertical spaces in your garden. Then think of honeysuckle (Lonicera), climbing roses and rambling roses, Clematis, ivy. Ivy, Hedera helix, is evergreen and bears berries over winter.

Rosa canina, dog rose, native species, scented pink flowers


If you need to plant a new hedge, then making it a wildlife friendly one is easy. Depending on the eventual height, density of growth and whether you need it as a security barrier will affect your choice of plants. For example, guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), hazel, dog rose (Rosa canina) privet (Ligustrum) beech and yew (Taxus baccata).

When to prune a new or existing hedge is critical. Not when birds are nesting in it may seem obvious, but also consider if you want the hedge to provide food. In which case remember you’ll need to leave flowers so that there’s pollen and then berries in the autumn.
And of course, for any woodland habitat, leave some leaf litter on the ground for small invertebrates and hedgehogs.

clematis twined through yew hedge Chelsea flower show 2014

Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden – Wetland Habitats

Still freshwater – ponds and pools

This is probably the most obvious wetland wildlife habitat. For preference, ponds should be sunk in the ground rather than raised, although a ramp may be attached to one side to allow access. A sloping edge within the pool is also essential to ensure small animals that fall in aren’t drowned.

Strictly speaking fountains and wildlife aren’t compatible. However, so long as the fountain isn’t running continuously, it should be fine, and will help to aerate the water.


Running freshwater – streams and rivers

It is possible to create an artificial stream within your garden. Done properly, it can look stunning and provides a play opportunity for children as well as a habitat for wildlife.


Bogs and Marshes

Where a pond or pool is not possible, a bog or marsh garden can provide a similar habitat. As with natural ponds, such gardens look best situated in the lower levels of a garden, where water would naturally settle. Bog gardens can also be created next to a pool, adding to the decorative planting effect.

lobelia and sanguisorba, bog garden, howick hall gardens

Coastal habitats

It could be a bit tricky recreating an estuary or a beach shoreline within your garden…But, particularly if you live near the coast and have a stream, it is worth checking out the salinity of the water. Freshwater is lighter than saltwater so tends on float on top. Alder (Alnus glutinosa) ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cucili) and great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) would be some plants you could grow to give the effect of a coastal wetland.

World Wetlands Day takes place annually on February 2nd.


Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden – Grassland Habitats

Wild flower meadow

These can be spring flowering or summer flowering and may contain a mix of annual and perennial plants. Perennial spring flowering species such as the ubiquitous daisy (Bellis perennis) and cowslip (Primula veris). Summer perennials ox eye daisy (Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) both have white flowers.


Corn meadow

These flowery meads contain specific flowers that grow, or used to grow in cornfields amongst the wheat crops. For example, corn cockle (Agrostemma githago), field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and the annual cornflower (Centaurea cyanus).
All these wildflower meadows could be quite easily incorporated into a corner of an existing grass lawn. Perhaps as a central feature, a 1-2m circle of meadow, or as a curved meadow border between lawn and fence.

annual blue cornflower, wild flower, British native species


If you have an acid soil then try delicate harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), heathers (Erica species) and the edible bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus).

For a more alkaline soil on chalk, grow ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) betony (Stachys officinalis) and gorse (Ulex europeaus).

This style of gardening is informal and may not suit those with smaller gardens.

yellow erica carnea, heather

Sandy dunes

Another informal wildlife garden, perhaps best suited to those in coastal areas as the plants will thrive in the salt air.

Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) with its metallic blue foliage and sea campion (Silene vulgaris subsp. maritima) with white flowers are particularly decorative.


Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden – Rockland Habitats

Cliffs – coastal and inland

If you don’t have a convenient cliff in your garden, why not use a drystone wall as an alternative? Even a brick wall could be home to a range of small, crevice loving plants that are attractive to insects.

Rock gardens are another form of cliff habitat.


Scree beds

These are found at base of cliffs. A planted up scree bed would look natural at the base of a rock garden. A gentle slope is preferred for a natural effect. Plants such as stonecrop and stone pepper (Sedum species) and the pretty herb robert (Geranium robertianum) would be appropriate and wildlife friendly.


Shingle beds

Often considered the shoreline version of a scree bed they are also found alongside sand dunes.

These could make an attractive, informal front garden in coastal areas. Easy maintenance and wildlife friendly. As with scree beds, using a weed suppressant membrane underneath helps with the maintenance.


Pavements, for example, limestone pavements

Probably only suitable in larger gardens, as a concept it could be extended to include your paths and patio. Growing ground hugging thymes between paving stones is a simple way to increase the diversity of plant life within your garden.


Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden – Container Growing for Courtyard Gardens and Balconies

If you would like your balcony to look attractive year round as well as wildlife friendly, careful planning is required. This is a topic we will revisit when it’s the only item.

Courtyard gardens can make lovely and easy maintenance wildlife habitats. You could choose an informal style, perhaps growing the plants through a gravel mulch. Or add more formality and neatness with raised beds; some or all of these containing wildlife habitats in your garden.

raised bed, mixed planting, sempervirens, flowering bulbs

As you can see from the whistle-stop tour above, there is much more to creating wildlife habitats in your garden than scattering a few seeds and hoping for the best.
But this shouldn’t dissuade you from scattering those few wildflower seeds in your flower border!

If you would like to incorporate small habitats for wildlife within your existing garden, Plews offers conservation advice as a separate gardening service. We can also include such elements as part of a whole garden design. And of course, create a garden design where humans, their pets and their garden wildlife can all live in harmony.

Do please get in touch if you would like to discuss being wild about gardens in your own garden.


Related Gardening blogs you may enjoy

Why are there Changes to Your Garden Growing Season?
Wild about Gardens – Design Ideas for Humans and Wildlife
Should I Plant a Garden Hedge?
Garden Ponds in Autumn
Summer Gardens, Ten Herbaceous Perennials for Pollinating Insects


wild about gardens 1345-rhs-wagweek-logo-gradient2


Wild About Gardens Week is a joint initiative by the RHS, The Wildlife Trusts and Bat Conservation Trust to encourage people to support wildlife in their gardens. In 2016 the focus is on UK bat species.

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garden designer, gardening writer, gardening teacher, garden advisor

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