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  • Debi Holland

Create a Wildlife Garden


Vanessa cardui, Painted Lady butterfly on lavender

At the end of last year I was asked by RHS Education to write an article for BBC Countryfile magazine about my journey into horticulture, studying the RHS diploma and my passion for creating wildlife gardens. The feature was published in the January 2020 issue of the magazine.

January 2020 BBC Countryfile magazine

In 2014 I decided to change careers. I realised it was essential to gain a professional qualification so booked myself onto the RHS Level 2 Theory course at Bristol Botanic Gardens and RHS Level 2 Practical Horticulture at Bridgwater & Taunton College, Cannington as well as taking up a volunteering role at Tyntesfield National Trust walled kitchen garden as a harvester.

I also started up my own gardening business from scratch and as my knowledge and confidence grew with the course, so did my business. It was certainly a fast track in to horticulture. I lived, breathed, ate and dreamt it! I have worked flat out for the past five and a half years running my garden maintenance and design business in North Somerset and as a writer for national garden magazines and companies and am now a full member of the Garden Media Guild.

Myself in the walled kitchen garden at Tyntesfield

Studying the RHS horticulture diploma allowed me to explore plants in detail; their ideal growing conditions and how they can influence each other, the garden and wildlife. The course gave me the foundations in which to build upon and develop my skills; teaching me scientific and practical knowledge of the botanical world, which I could then translate into creating wildlife friendly gardens throughout my work.

Our impact on nature and the environment is a topic very close to my heart and I have applied my RHS training to trying to make a difference, however small, one garden at a time. With the continual loss of habitat and biodiversity in our countryside’s our own gardens have become an essential refuge for wildlife.

Tomato hornworm catapillar

Home gardens in the UK cover a whopping 10 million acres amalgamating into the largest nature reserve this country has so what we do in them can really make a difference to the planet.

Anthocharis cardamines, female orange-tip butterfly

One of the most beneficial plants you can add to your garden is a tree. Trees provide great foliage, shade and structure and are a tremendous help to the local wildlife, providing food and shelter. Berries, blossoms, nectar, song posts and nesting all benefit birds, insects and pollinators. You are also doing your bit for climate change as trees are an important carbon catcher.

Crab apples (Malus sylvestris) are ideal for small gardens, have all year round interest, supports around 90 insects and is a compatible pollinator for most other apple trees. Try ‘Butterball’ or ‘Golden Hornet’ for honey-yellow fruits or for vibrant red fruits try ‘Sun Rival’ or ‘Red Sentinel.’

Crab apple trees provide food for birds and insects

Native hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a superb garden addition and supports around 150 insects. Need more inspiration? Try sorbus, silver birch, juniper or holly.

Compost heaps are an ecological way to recycle your garden waste

Think about your garden waste. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Set up a compost heap, before you know it the pile will be teaming with worms, slugs and snails all breaking down your garden waste and providing a natural food source for birds and amphibians. If you are lucky you may even find you have resident slow worms.

Slow worm found in the compost heap

Provide shelter, build a bat, hedgehog or bird box. Make a bug hotel. Recycle bamboo canes, pinecones, bricks and straw. Build it and they will come! Put pruned branches to use, pile them up in a quiet garden corner to attract hedgehogs, birds and mice and a heap of leaf litter will attract toads and frogs.

Log piles are incredibly useful homes for bugs such as woodlouse, beetles and spiders.

Common smooth newt emerging from rock crevices

Create a pond. However, small your garden is there is always room for a pond, be it landscaped or in a container. A water feature is a magnet for wildlife from dragonflies, frogs to newts. Pile stones around the edge, rock crevices make good habitats and help creatures get in and out of the pond.

Provide a drinking area for pollinators with a bee bath. Simply add rain water to a shallow dish with marbles or small stones in the bottom and this will provide places for bees to land and rest. Even bees need a drink on hot days.

Frogs love damp areas of the garden, stones and ponds

Plant bee and butterfly friendly flowers such as lavender, verbena, cosmos and scabious. Pollinators need nectar for energy and pollen for protein so planting a variety of flowers provides a balanced diet. Sow a wildflower border or plant bulbs; if you are tight for space, sow in a container.

Bumble bee on Giant Scabious

Many common weeds such as dandelions, field buttercup, daisies even fox and cubs are a huge food resource, infrequent lawn mowing will give wildflowers a chance to bloom – let the grass grow under your feet for a bit! The wildlife will thank you for it.

Peacock butterfly on 'Buzz Magenta' buddleja

Single flower heads are favourable to bees as doubles are harder to access and have less pollen. Annuals and herbs such as sunflowers, calendula, sweet peas, borage, rosemary, chamomile and grasses provide a diverse menu. Some bees have especially evolved long tongues to access the tubular flower heads of foxgloves, pulmonaria and salivas or tiny multi-headed flowers like Verbena bonareinsis.

Digitalis is popular with bumble bees

Go organic! Make your garden a chemical-free zone; you kill more than just weeds with weed killer.

Move pests by hand to a bug hotel or let natural predators control the ratio of garden pests to keep an even balance, companion plant to deter pests with strong smelling foliage.

Create a bug hotel

And finally, great news for busy people… it is ok to leave your garden messy or at least part of it. Nature is not a fan of pristine manicured borders, it prefers to grow unhampered, naturally so leave spent seed heads such as teasels, poppies and nigella to fade gracefully, they will look ethereal in the frosts and give mini beasts a winter home. Even stinging nettles have an important role to play supporting over 40 species of insects.

RHS Education article in BBC Countryfile magazine January 2020

Everything has its purpose in the delicate garden eco system.

My daily connection with nature, wildlife and cherished gardener friendships are things I will never take for granted.

BBC Countryfile magazine January 2020

All photos by Debi Holland © 2020