Wildlife-Friendly Grow Your Own – The Smallest Smallholding Vision

Veg Patch

Over the years, my blog has evolved from a means to chart my success (and many failures) with growing vegetables, to a more holistic journey of creating a space that’s productive for me (and eventually, my family), and a haven for my local wildlife too. I’ve come to realise that my Smallest Smallholding vision will only ever be complete if I create a space where nature thrives, and part of that process is striking a balance between providing fruit and veg for myself, but also working with nature and what she has to offer. I suppose it’s a very basic way of give and take – I take my homegrown produce, and give something back in exchange. It makes me happy.

New online garden centre Plant Me Now asked for some of my gardening tips, in exchange for a few goodies for my garden (much-needed replacement tools, such as hedge shears and a fleece polytunnel are currently winging their way to me). In return, I have offered up some advice for those not only interested in starting to ‘grow your own’, but for those also happy to reap the benefits of a wildlife-friendly garden too – the two visions are by no means mutually exclusive! So before you don your gardening gloves and wield your fork and spade, take a look at my Top Tips article below…

windfall apples

Don’t Be Too Tidy!

Wildlife thrives in those ever-so-slightly untidy spaces. That’s not to say you should allow your backyard to become an overgrown wilderness, but leaving a things a little ‘rustic’ will definitely encourage wildlife in. For instance, few leaf piles kept out of the way behind a shed will be attractive to hedgehogs, who will use the leaves for nest building. A woodpile is like a luxury hotel accommodation for a multitude of insects and small mammals, and even slug-eating amphibians. Pest-eating birds will be happy to help themselves to any windfall fruit you leave down. Invite the wildlife in, and often the natural ‘pest controllers’ will move in too, meaning less work for you and more food for them!

Make The Best of What You Have

If growing fruit and veg, it will prove expensive and time consuming to try to change the pH and structure of your soil on a larger scale. Instead, work with what you have – think about local plants and what will thrive in the conditions on offer in your patch. Unless you have lots of time and a more-than-healthy bank balance, unfortunately it’s very rare that you can grow everything and anything you like. For instance, if your soil is sandier rather than clay-based, opt for alliums and root veg like carrots and parsnips, and enjoy growing a selection of fruit and veg with great success! It’s much easier to create perfect conditions for fruit and veg in pots, as you have greater control over the pH of the soil and can create a microcosm suited to the plant’s preferred conditions (for instance, growing acid-loving blueberries in alkaline clay soil would be disastrous – but growing in pots is a doddle). But beyond composting and soil conditioning, the best thing to do is select veg, plants and varieties that are well-suited to the soil conditions that you have on offer.

Leave a Little Space

As already mentioned, one of your frontline defences against certain foes of the veg patch is wildlife. But one of the biggest problems facing ‘travelling’ wildlife (such as hedgehogs), is that our gardens are often like fortresses, with no access in or out. This can effectively close down large areas for garden-friendly birds and animals, so leaving a small section of fencing with just a few inches dug out underneath for access could make all the difference to our spiky and furry friends.

toad

Water for Wildlife

Water is essential to a thriving wildlife-friendly garden! For wildlife, small shallow dishes of fresh rainwater can literally be a lifesaver, especially so in both hot weather and subzero temperatures. Mammals and birds will readily drink from the dishes, and birds will also bathe to help keep their feathers in tip-top condition – vital for protecting them against the cold as well as maintaining their aerodynamic qualities…a must-have when they’re trying to escape from predators! If you have the space, also consider a wildlife pond, with shallow edges so that mammals and birds can drink or bathe safely. Man-made ponds can be an attractant for wildlife, but their steep sides can also prove fatal when there is no access to escape. Always provide a means for animals to easily climb out, should they fall in.

Water for Veg

Water is, as you’d expect, also vital for your veggies! It might be a no-brainer, but watering your fruit and veg will be much easier and far less hassle if your water source is as close as possible to your veg plots. And take advantage of what nature has to offer throughout the year – rain! Waterbutts – full size and slimline – can be set up next to your house guttering, but also consider how much water a greenhouse or shed roof can capture… perhaps more than you think! The more waterbutts you can squeeze into your garden or balcony, the easier the chore of watering becomes, especially in mid-summer when temperatures rise, the ground dries faster, and your plants need watering more regularly.

Sloes

Hedging

Edible hedging is great for wildlife, and great for Growing Your Own! Hedging can be overlooked in the grow-your-own garden, but it’s actually fantastic food source for us, for pollinators (blossom) and for other wildlife. Choose wisely and you can look forward to a bumper crop of fruits or nuts that can be used in fresh salads and desserts, or conserved in preserves, pickles and jams for use for months after harvesting. Hawthorn, cobnut, sloe (blackthorn), cherry plum, hazel, wild pear and damson are just a few examples of edible hedging that will not only help to keep your garden or veg plots shielded from strong prevailing winds, but will provide wildlife with shelter and a valuable food source (because it’s always good to share!). Plant in bare root hedging in the dormant season between November and March, or root-ball hedging can go in anytime, as long as you can get a spade in the ground.

sunflower

Nectar Banks

Create a nectar bank and help pollinate your fruit and veg. Creating even a modestly sized strip of flowers, herbs and flowering veg in your garden, balcony or even windowbox is like giving nature a huge helping hand… one that will also pay dividends when it comes to pollinating your own ‘crops’. Apples, tomatoes, peaches and other fruit and veg that rely on cross-pollination or ‘dusting’ are more likely to crop successfully when natural pollinators lend a helping hand.

Go a Bit Wild

Native wildflowers and even some species of herbs and veg are fantastic for pollinators and will always thrive if you look for hyperlocal species that grow in your local woodlands, fields and road verges. Check out the Natural History’s Postcode Plants database, or just take a look around your local area to see what’s happily growing of its own accord. Nature pretty much always knows best!

thistle flower wildlife

Weeds Aren’t Always Weeds

‘Weeds’ is an entirely subjective term. For some people, foxgloves and thistles are ‘weeds’, but for me, I see colour, structure, and lots of food for bees, so I welcome self-seeded foxgloves and thistles into my flower borders with open arms! Likewise, dandelions and sour thistle are free foods for my Smallest Smallholding bunnies, so I allow a few of these ‘weeds’ to grow in small patches around the garden and veg plots for harvesting later. Brambles are another example – you can’t beat a fresh, uicy blackberry! But as someone who has a perennial battle with bindweed, I understand that some weeds are a complete pain in the backside. But many flowering ‘weeds’ are beautiful in their own way, and often attractive to birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Don’t be too quick to oblierate a weed – take a moment to try and appreciate it’s beauty and consider what it can offer you.

blossom_bee

Fruit For All!

Many grow-your-own enthusiasts will wax lyrical about fruit trees and their culinary and aesthetic qualities. But fruit trees are brilliant for wildlife too – pollinators, especially bees, will thrive on the nectar during the blossoming period, and birds and mammals will enjoy any windfall fruit that you allow to leave down (if you’re following tip 1 – don’t be too tidy!). If you’re a bit short on space, the good news is that there are an abundance of dwarf fruit tree varieties that can be grown as espaliers or even in pots. You can even plump for grafted fruit trees, and grow up to three varieties of the same species of plant on one rootstock!

Comments

  1. A great article. I’ve found this year that raspberries, tayberries and blueberries are covered in bees. And there are more frogs just one year after I made a wildlife pond. And there are enough slugs for all!

  2. Great advice! I am doing most things except leaving a space in my fence to allow wildlife in, sadly we have masses of rabbits round our way if I didn’t keep them out I would not grow anything!

  3. The ‘don’t be too tidy’ thing is my life-saving advice. I am a very, very dirty gardener. Crap everywhere, weeds everywhere. Don’t give the tiniest siht. Because I’m saving wildlife and the world. Yay!

  4. Very nice read! I am very organized when it comes to garden, I like things to be need organized even properly labelled.

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