Author Topic: Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden  (Read 440 times)

Marie Shallcross

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Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden
« on: February 28, 2018, 09:08:45 pm »
Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden

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 from 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, and those of your clients.

There are four main types of wildlife habitats within the British Isles. These are: -

•   Woodland Habitats
•   Wetland Habitats
•   Grassland Habitats
•   Rockland Habitats

And they each have subdivisions, as we shall see below. 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

Grassland Habitats
•   Wild flower meadow
•   Corn meadow
•   Heathland
•   Sandy dunes

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 articles. And other contributors have covered some habitats, so do have a look around the site. Looking at the different wildlife habitats individually will enable us to peruse their history as well as the potential for your garden. For now, I would like to briefly consider how easy it is to create and maintain these habitats.

The majority of the plant species mentioned are native to or naturalised in the UK. Some imported species will support native wildlife.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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? These offer spaces to a range of small, crevice loving plants that are attractive to insects.

Rock gardens are another form of cliff habitat. Properly built that can be a decorative as well as a wildlife garden feature.

Scree beds (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 (shoreline)

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.

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!

Wild about Gardens, Garden Design ideas – was an overview of wildlife gardens with some planting design and garden design suggestions.
Written to encourage others to both enjoy and share outdoor spaces with our disappearing garden wildlife it is partly inspired by Wild about Gardens Week.
This is a joint initiative by the RHS and the Wildlife Trusts to encourage people to support wildlife in their gardens.

Marie Shallcross