Jim Stevenson, recently-retired Ranger for Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, shares his tips for gardening for wildlife, inspired by the work at Paxton Pits.

If you want good ideas to attract more wildlife to your garden, look no further than Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. Start in the wildlife garden or the Environmental Education Centre where (at Debbie Mckenzie’s request) we have created raised ponds, bug banks, raised beds, hedgehog lodgings, log-and-turf walls and bug hotels.

Here are a few ideas I have borrowed for my own garden:

  • Get rid of that old fence and plant a native hedge using blackthorn, hawthorn, spindle, cherry and field maple and reward yourself with blossom, berries, nuts and glorious autumn colours. 
  • Use winter trimmings to create a tidy habitat pile for bugs to hide in and birds to hunt in.
  • Make a log and turf bank for toads to winter in.
  • Keep some rotting logs or stumps for beetles and for fungi, as we do in Rory’s Wood. 
  • Make a mini pond: We bought some large pots (without holes in the bottom) and filled them with potato-sized beach pebbles before topping up with rain water. The pots are arranged in a cluster and we have planted small, emergent water plants in them. Frogs hide among the stones. 
  • Make a small raised pond. I would love to use an old galvanised cattle trough, but Matt the Senior Ranger says he still needs them for the cows and sheep. A coffin sized planter, packed at one end with bricks to support a few plants and then lined it with butyl rubber did the trick. It reflects the sky and attracts dragonflies and water boatmen. We have surrounded it on three sides with large pots so that frogs and newts can make their way over the rim. 
  • Plant for insects: Top Paxton plants for insects include knapweed, scabious and viper’s bugloss as well as the ubiquitous Buddleia or butterfly bush. You don’t have to use wild varieties and, by having a mix you can extend the flowering season as well as the range of colours. I have also tried sowing a patch with wildflower seeds (like the nectar mix we use in our arable fields) which worked well for me, and for the bees.
  • Make or buy a bug hotel: Those frames filled with hollow canes, reeds, fennel-stems and elder twigs are all the rage, and they work too. Mine has leaf cutter bees in it as well as other useful insects like lacewings and ladybirds. All you need is a hook one a sunny wall to hang it on. 

Looking wider afield, you can imitate any wild habitat from mountain top to sea-shore but it’s best to work with the local soil and climate. The University Botanical Gardens in Cambridge is a good place to get ideas or just go for a walk on any nature reserve, take a photo of a feature you would love to copy and set about making it.

And if you need inspiration and plants to buy, we’ve got a Plant Sale coming in May at the Visitor Centre, run by the Little Paxton Gardening Club where you can buy a brilliant selection of locally-grown plants.

(Don’t steal plants from the wild as it is illegal and works against what we should be trying to achieve.)

A shorter version of this blog was published in the February 2020 issue of Between Friends, the quartlery newsletter of the Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. Join today!

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