ISSUE 89  |  Back in Business

Required Reading: The Wildlife Gardener

September 09, 2013 5:00 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

“Imagine a world in which blades of grass tower above you,” writes Kate Bradbury in The Wildlife Gardener. “Where trees are giants and flowers big plates of food.” Crawling through the undergrowth, Kate leads us through a fascinating place inhabited by small animals and minibeasts. Before we know it, we want to be growing everything on her “top ten weeds” list, forgetting to ask “Do we want to grow weeds?” This is one of our favorite books this year.

Photographs by Julie Watson, except where noted.

Above: The Wildlife Gardener by Kate Bradbury, published by Kyle Books, £14.99. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

“Beetles are just as interesting (and even as beautiful) as bees and butterflies,” writes Kate Bradbury. Despite forming the largest insect group, they lack glamor and are often overlooked. But see how useful they are, eating insects and even tackling slugs and snails. And yes, ladybugs are beetles too.

To encourage ladybugs into your garden Bradbury advises: avoid killing aphids. Adult ladybugs devour them, and ladybug larvae, which resemble tiny black crocodiles, vacuum them up.

“A bird table placed near a hedge will attract many more birds than one placed in the middle of the lawn with no nearby cover,” suggests Kate Bradbury. This view is taken from within a hedge, showing how a bird might view a potential food source from relative safety.

To create bird habitats, cover walls and fences with climbing plants (if you do not have a hedge). Plant honeysuckle for berries, ivy for shelter and food in winter, wisteria for blackbirds and robins to nest in.

Large bumblebees zigzagging near the ground in spring are often queens looking for a new home. They live underground, often taking up residence in a place recently vacated by a mouse or vole. Early bumblebees feed on spring flowers such as crocus, hellebore and snake’s head fritillary.

If you see a lethargic bumblebee, this may be a queen in need of energy after hibernation. The bee is unlikely to sting: pick it up and take it to a pollen-rich flower, or half-fill a bottle top with sugar and water and place next to the bee.

Hoverfly on chrysanthemum (above). Bearing a passing resemblance to wasps, hoverflies feed on pollen and their larvae eat greenflies. They add buzz to a happy garden.

To attract pollinators, grow the widest variety of flowers possible and plant each type in groups of at least three. “A large clump of flowers is much more likely to be noticed than one on its own,” suggests Bradbury.

Hummingbird hawkmoth on verbena (above). Caterpillars in your garden are more likely to be the larvae of moths, which are less fussy about breeding sites than butterflies.

Our gardens do not cater for butterflies in the way that a hay meadow or patch of woodland might. Kate’s weed list includes dandelion, spear thistle and bird’s foot trefoil for feeding the caterpillars of butterflies. But nettles are best for laying eggs in. Could you put up with a large clump of any of the above?

Wild about shaggy gardens? See Could We Please Be Less Fanatically Tidy?