Design for a wildlife garden

Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
However big or small your garden, there are some simple steps you can take to make it more wildlife friendly. This garden design has lots of ideas you can use to attract more wildlife to your garden.  

Why attract wildlife to your garden?

Trying to attract wildlife to your garden is worthwhile for several reasons. 

  • Birds and insects are beautiful to look at and interesting to watch.
  • It can help us re-connect with the natural world, which is reportedly good for our wellbeing.
  • Many creatures will keep garden pests under control, so a balanced eco-system with a wide range of wildlife will make your garden healthier and reduce the need to use harmful chemicals.
  • For children it is an educational and enriching experience.
  • You'll be playing a small but significant part in helping to sustain many species, particularly pollinating insects, which we rely on to be able to grow crops easily, but whose natural habitats have been destroyed by human development. 
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Designing a wildlife garden

There are many ways of encouraging wildlife to visit and stay on your garden, and many ways of designing a garden to incorporate them. This is just one example of how it can be done. I hope you can take at least some of the ideas here and add them to your own garden, whatever style or size it is. 

Any garden can be attractive to wildlife to some extent. 

A garden doesn't have to be left completely wild and untidy to be full of life. All wildlife need food, water and shelter, and this design is about providing those things and putting them together so that the garden as a whole supports a wide range of creatures. 

Planning the garden

This garden is 14 metres long and 6 metres wide, flat and sheltered, in a suburban setting. It was designed for a client who wanted a wildlife friendly garden with a relaxed, informal style of planting, incorporating the feel of a wildflower meadow. 

To ensure there was some remaining structure in winter, evergreen shrubs were used to soften the edges of the patio and some of the boundaries. 
Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
Design for a wildlife garden

The path is a series of stepping stones set into the ground. This blends fairly naturally with the planting, and is arranged in a sinuous curve. This is both aesthetically pleasing and allows the path to disappear as it bends behind grasses and flowers rather than become a dominant feature itself.

Trees and shrubs used are distributed throughout the space, with the gaps filled by the wildlife friendly mix of annual and perennial flowers mentioned below. The existing shed was partially screened with the tall grasses, and space left for use of the washing line. 
That is the general layout of the garden. Here are the principles applied to make sure it had maximum opportunity to encourage and support wildlife:

Make your garden boundaries wildlife friendly

By planting climbers at the base of fences and walls and training them to grow up against them, the boundary walls and fences can be partially obscured. This softens their visual impact and makes the garden feel larger. Letting plants scramble their way all over the place provides cover, food, shelter and nesting sites for birds.
Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
This wall at Avebury Manor is covered in a mass of jasmine and climbing hydrangea

In this design I've used Ivy, Cotoneaster and Honeysuckle. Ivy can cover a wall or fence extremely effectively and when mature is often a favoured site for small birds to nest. It's berries are a valuable food source for birds in winter. Cotoneaster also has berries, and attracts pollinators to it's flowers too. Honeysuckle attracts pollinating insects, and smells fantastic to us humans too!

GREEN FINGERS TIP: Leave, or where possible create, small gaps in the bottom of walls and fences to allow creatures to move between gardens. Frogs, toads and hedgehogs will eat slugs and other pests for you, but they need a way to get in in the first place!

Add a hedge to support a range of wildlife

A hedge can offer wildlife shelter, nesting sites, protection from predators, as well as food. I've used Eleagnus, Holly, Hawthorn, Pyracantha and Privet to provide a mixed hedge offering flowers and berries at various times of year.

Plants like Pyracantha and Hawthorn offer a prickly refuge for birds to roost and nest. And they're a food source too - blackbirds absolutely love picking the berries of the pyracantha outside my back door!

The base of hedges can be an attractive place for hedgehogs or ground nesting birds to set up home too. 

In this design, a hedge forms part of the boundary on one side, but in a larger garden could be used within the garden to divide it into different areas. I've used several species to retain a less formal feel. But if preferred, more formal hedges of single plants will perform the same function. The only difference is the flowering or fruiting times would be shorter.  
Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
A pyracantha hedge offers shelter protection and berries

Include some trees in your garden

Trees act as a habitat for numerous invertebrates, which are a source of food for birds. They also give birds a safe place to perch. Many will add seasonal flowers, colour and fruit to your garden as well as being wildlife friendly.

People are often put off planting a tree in their garden for fear it will get too big. It's true that you should choose carefully to make sure you have something proportionate to the size of your garden. But with many fruit trees available on dwarf root stocks now, it should be possible to include at least one in almost any outdoor space.

Apples and pears, plums, and cherries, can all be grown in temperate climates. Check the plant label for root stocks  such as M9 or M27, as these restrict the trees to a manageable size. Nonetheless you can end up with a decent harvest of your preferred fruit, a range of insects get a home, and the birds and predatory insects will eat lots of smaller insects and keep them under control. This in turn will ensure you get your crop.

Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
Flowering crab apple
Ornamental trees are useful too. My design for this garden includes a fruit tree but also a twisted hazel for visual interest. It can be used to hang bird feeders from, and will surely act as a place for birds to gather and check out the rest of the garden.  

Here's a very useful list of trees for wildlife, from Cleeve Nursery, with details of a wide range of trees and why they are beneficial:

Trees for wildlife 

Attract wildlife with a garden pond

Often said to be the single most effective way of attracting wildlife, even a small and basic pond can make a difference. This garden already had one. If yours hasn't, adding one will bring in a whole new dimension of wildlife. The presence of a variety of insects will in turn attract more and different species of birds too.

Garden Pond -  Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
A pond pretty much guarantees wildlife in a garden
As well as being a source of water, ponds are a place to breed for amphibians like toads, newts and frogs, and also many insects, including more unusual ones like dragonflies and mayflies. 
Mayfly Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
A mayfly

Sitting next to the stream at the bottom of our garden, I've watched a robin swoop and catch a mayfly in mid air, and found the casing of a dragonfly larvae after it has metamorphosed and flown off. These are fascinating insights into the natural world around us which are close at hand if we can provide the right environment.

A pond should ideally have a few changes of depth to create different habitats, and an easy way for mammals and other wildlife to get in and out safely. This could be a shallow area with stones in, or a very gentle gradient into the water.  

Leave part of the garden wild

There is little doubt that simply leaving part of the garden to more or less do its own thing will increase the amount of wildlife. This can be difficult to design into an overall garden plan though, since the usual objective is still to make it look attractive to human eyes.
Wild area - Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
This area has been left to its own devices behind a fence at the bottom of the garden

So by all means hide the wild bit down the bottom, behind the shed or round the corner. In this design it's the area at the side of the shed, which can't really be accessed anyway, and on the far side of the pond. It'll act as a naturalistic backdrop to the pond area, and plants allowed to spread will simply disguise the boundary fence behind.

An alternative approach would be for a similar area to appear relatively tidy but include wilder plants that would normally be weeded out elsewhere. For example, nettles are a fantastic habitat for a number of caterpillars, and without them you won't have butterflies! Dandelions are a good source of nectar for many pollinators.

Leaving grass to grow long, letting plants die back naturally and fall on the ground without being tidied up, and allowing a few "weeds" (pick off the flowers before they set seed  to keep them from running amok) will all help wildlife.

Even if its hidden from normal view, a slightly wilder area will allow many types of creature to thrive, and you can enjoy many of them when they visit the visible parts of the garden.

Choose the right plants for wildlife

The client for whom this garden was designed specifically requested a wildflower meadow style of planting. 

Wildflowers, rather than hybridised cultivars, are often more rich in nectar and therefore attract more beneficial insects like hoverflies or ladybirds, that feed on aphids and other pests. 
Meadow planting - Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
Meadow planting can look fantastic in summer

The tall, upright, meadow style planting is the perfect habitat for crickets, grasshoppers and spiders.  
Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
A cricket roaming through my garden

GREEN FINGERS TIP: Choose plants with single flowers, not double ones, as single flowers tend to have more pollen and nectar. Aim for a combination of plants that will have flowers at different times of year. All these things increase the amount of wildlife than will benefit.

Choosing native plants is usually, (though not exclusively) a good way to attract wildlife. 

The creatures in the local area will be naturally adapted to the environment in which those plants do well, or to benefit from specific features of those plants themselves.

Here in the UK, good examples are teasels and thistles which attract birds, and wild flowers like foxglove, campion, ox-eye daisy, clover, cornflowers and cowslips: 

Gardeners World: 10 UK Native Wildflowers to Grow

David Domoney: Top 10 plants to attract bees and pollinators

GREEN FINGERS TIP: Be warned that some native species can be a bit invasive in a garden environment, and take over. They do well on poor soils, and can runaway on better cultivated garden soils. Alternatively, some species will be overrun by ordinary grasses in good growing conditions. Remove a couple of inches of the top soil if you plan to sow a wildflower area, and get rid of any turf. This will reduce the quality of the soil and improve your chances of the right plants growing well. 

The RSPB have a handy guide to starting a wildflower meadow:

RSPB: Start a wildflower meadow

They've also published an excellent book by Adrian Thomas, which is a comprehensive guide to gardening for wildlife. It covers a variety of different environments, so whether you are gardening in an area that's hot and dry, or cooler and wet, there is loads of useful advice. It covers a wide range of wildlife and all sizes of garden, with details of many suitable plants for wildlife gardening. It's been a useful reference for me when formulating ideas for this garden design and would be of great help to anyone looking for ways of making their garden wildlife friendly. 


Extra help for garden wildlife

There are a number of other cheap and simple ways to help garden wildlife by giving them the food, water and shelter they need. My design for this garden includes:

  • A bird table
  • Bird boxes - different styles and different locations suit different birds
  • A toad house  - made from an upturned pot
    Toad House Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
    A broken old pot can become a cosy home for toads
  • A butterfly bath - a saucer on an upturned pot can be used to leave citrus fruit and other foods
  • A bee bar - a saucer full of pebbles and water provides an accessible water source for pollinators
    A bee bar Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
    A bee bar is a simple addition to your garden,
    but could make all the difference to thirsty pollinators
  • Bug hotels - just a log with holes drilled in it or more elaborate structures stuffed with hollow stems, stones, bark, straw etc create nooks and crannies where insects can hibernate and lay eggs.
    Bug hotel Design for a wildlife garden Green Fingered Blog
    Bug hotels are cheap and easy to make
  • A hedgehog house (the client has had hedgehogs hibernating in the garden in the past). 

Even simple piles of logs, leaves, bark, bits of broken pot, stones and twigs will help insects, birds and others find food or a place to shelter.

See also:

Cheap and easy ways to help pollinating insects in your garden: ideas from the RHS Cardiff Show  

The cheapest and simplest way to make a bug hotel for your garden

Make a hedgehog house from recycled garden waste

Helping wildlife in your garden is as easy as it is important. This garden was designed with that as it's primary purpose, but there are so many simple ways of making your garden a haven for all sorts of living things. What wildlife would you most like to see in your garden, and how are going to encourage them? 


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. It was so very informative. Thank you!

    1. Great to hear that Pam, thank you. What else would you like to read about in the Green Fingered Blog?


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