Designing a more sustainable wildlife friendly garden

If you’re planning to redesign spaces within your garden and you’re environmentally conscious, this blog is for you. I’ve put together a list of all the ways we can make our outdoor space beautiful, productive and sustainable.

As we all know, the first way to become more sustainable is to make use of what you already have. If you’re pulling up paving or doing som building work, could you use the materials as a base for a gravel path? If you have tall trees in your garden that need pruning or taking down, could you make use of the wood - maybe as a bench or to edge a border? Could there be waste products from building work nearby which you could recycle in your project or could you visit a local reclamation yard? If you need to re-pave, it’s a great idea to choose a product manufactured in the UK or even close to where you live. Natural materials are more sustainable than man-made materials like concrete (as long as stone they have been quarried in a sustainable way). Alternatively, porcelain slabs are manmade but use natural raw materials and are incredibly hard wearing. Permeable block paving allows water to seep through and improves drainage, and gravel has the same benefits. When it comes to fencing, why not use a hedge as an alternative? They absorb pollution as well as providing a deterrent for intruders and shelter for animals. A combination of yew and clipped hornbeam works well.

When you opt for a natural look when it comes to your borders, you reduce the need for chemical weed killers and fertilisers. Plants of various heights packed in together and allowed to self seed will cover the ground and make it harder for aggressive plant species to colonise, and when you use pollinator- friendly flowers the pollinating insects will soon come buzzing in. Think about purple flowers which are easy for the bees to see and buddleja, wallflowers and lavender for the butterflies. It’s best to avoid double or multi-petalled flowers to give the insects easy access to the nectar (although I do keep a few pots of beautiful double petalled cutting flowers for the house). Using native plants and choosing the right plant for the right place will ensure you don’t have to put energy and resources into keeping plants alive and replacing them if they fail - you can look at what grows well locally for ideas. If you’re in a dry area, you could embrace that and opt for a Mediterranean garden packed with woody, fragrant plants like lavender and olive trees - RHS Hyde Hall is a great place to get inspiration for drought tolerant planting. Successional planting (planning for blooms throughout the year) is a great way to keep the pollinators coming, and collecting seeds and taking cuttings is a way to save some money. Trees are a great addition to a sustainably designed garden, offering shade for us and nesting opportunities for birds and insects, and there are plenty of varieties that grow well in smaller gardens - take a look at magnolias, acers, ornamental cherries and crab apples.

It goes without saying we should all be using peat-free compost when we buy it from the garden centre, but have you considered making your own? You can use kitchen scraps for nitrogen (including vegetable peelings, fruit scraps, coffee grounds and biodegradable tea bags), cut grass and garden cuttings, and add “browns” for fibre, carbon and aeration - cardboard and paper (my cartons and sacks are ideal), crushed egg shells and straw all work well. Compost can be made in a box or bin, and it can be as simple or complicated as you like. You can look at the three bin method, turning the compost into a separate bin at intervals, or hot composting using an insulated bin which massively speeds up the process. If you’re not using a hot composting bin, turn it regularly and you should have nutrient-rich, crumbly compost to use in your garden within a year (it takes 12-13 weeks in an insulated bin). To avoid buying plastic bottled fertilisers, take a look at making your own. Grass clippings are a great source of nitrogen, which helps your plants to grow green and robust. To make a simple grass-clipping fertiliser mix one part grass clippings to two parts water, stir it well and let it steep for two weeks. You can also use weeds pulled up from the garden (just make sure they don’t have a seedhead yet). Dilute it to one part grass-clipping mixture to five parts water when you water your plants. If you can stomach the smell, comfrey tea is a great fertiliser (comfrey can also be added to the compost heap to speed things up). To make some, fill a barrel with water and add 6kg of wilted comfrey leaves (you can put them into a hessian sack or old pillow case if your barrel has a tap at the bottom so they don’t block it). Allow to steep for two weeks in warm weather, but make sure the barrel is well away from where you plan to entertain (and other people’s houses - it truly stinks!) A water butt is a great way to reduce water consumption.

Try companion planting as an alternative to pesticides. You can grow rosemary, sage, garlic and onions between carrots to hide the smell of the carrots and prevent carrot fly. French marigolds have a fragrance that deters whitefly and blackfly and aphids dislike the smell of alliums, garlic and chives. Flies dislike the smell of basil and mosquitoes don’t like basil and rosemary. There are a huge number of plants disliked by slugs (see my blog for ideas) so you don’t need to use pesticides. Gardening Naturally offer a great range of pest-proof nets that can be used to cover seedlings and fruiting plants. Look at buying plants that have been bred for their disease resistance and can accommodate the mild winters and sharp frosts brought about by climate change. Make your garden a haven for wildlife including birds, frogs, toads, ladybirds, starlings and hedgehogs and they will repay you by eating the slugs, aphids and lacewing larvae. You can invite them in with nestboxes, hedgehog houses and bee hotels, or even just leave a quiet corner piled with logs to wildlife.

We all know we should be leaving at least sections of the lawn to grow, reducing the need for water and giving insects a place to go. If you can’t stand to leave the lawn altogether, try cutting only from June to September. Leave perennials in place over winter for wildlife, and when you do give them a chop leave them in a quiet corner for wildlife.