A Small Space for Wildlife

Pots of Nicotiana.

7 February 2021  |  by Dinah Pryor

Seaford features a wide range of residential accommodation with very different outdoor spaces. If you don’t have a large garden, there’s always something you can do for wildlife, even in a small paved area. Here are 10 simple things you could do in just a metre square or, for that matter, on a larger scale.

Firstly see how these ideas might be suitable for your space.

Is your space:

A: Let the lawn grow

Meadow Brown Butterfly

Meadow Brown Butterfly

There are likely to be several plants already growing in the grass but they often get cut down before they have a chance to flower.  Allowing the grass to grow over the course of the summer and mowing in the autumn after the plants have flowered is one of the easiest ways to attract insects and other animals. You may already have Clover that produces nectar for bees, Yarrow which is beneficial for beetles and lacewing, Knapweed that attracts moths and hoverflies and Ribwort Plantain whose seed heads are good winter food for the birds.

You may want to mow around your long grass area or cut a path through it. This makes it look more intentional and tidier. Try planting spring bulbs in the grass to extend the availability of nectar. You might also like to add some plants that you’ve sown in pots such as Oxeye Daisies and Self Heal. Yellow Rattle is the ideal meadow-maker because it suppresses grass growth and provides space for other plants to flourish.

Finally, many wild flowers grow best on poor soil so it is advisable to rake off the mown grass after a few days. Raking also scratches the surface of the soil allowing further seeds to germinate.

B: Build a log pile or Bug Hotel

Log pile.

Log pile.

Insects, small mammals and amphibians love the nooks and crannies produced by a log pile. You’ll find a range of invertebrates in this habitat, including beetles, centipedes and woodlice. They in turn attract birds, and as the logs rot down, the dampness provides a perfect habitat for frogs and newts.

Pile the logs into your metre square and if you think they look unsightly, you could always grow some shade loving plants or a climbing plant over the top.

Some insects like to shelter in small tunnels provided by hollow stems. You can build a Bug Hotel by gathering together dried stems, fir cones, stones, straw, clay pots and other natural objects that offer a safe haven for bugs. You can use pallets on top of each other to provide a structure and then place the natural ‘furniture’ in the spaces. Creating a Bug Hotel is a wonderful project for children and a science lab for years to come.

C: Grow insect friendly flowers

Marbled white butterfly on Verbena

Marbled White butterfly on Verbena

This is a win-win solution because we all love colourful flowers and so do the insects. You can grow them in a small space just as successfully as a large flower border. However, choose a site with enough sun for the plants you select. It’s important that the flowers are open for pollinators such as Bees, Butterflies and Hoverflies. Daisy shaped flowers allow for easy access to their nectar, but so also do bellflowers such as Foxgloves and highly scented plants like Lavender.

It’s important to provide a range of plants that flower at different times, with a plant such as Lungwort providing nectar as early as February; Verbena bonariensis throughout the summer; and Sedum attracting butterflies late into the year.  Don’t cut down your flowering plants too early, that way you leave some seed heads for birds and stalks for insects to overwinter in.

If you want to sow a magnificent display of wildflower annuals, then a flower bed provides the weed free rich soil they thrive on. If it’s in a lawn, then remove the turf first. They won’t produce the same show the following year, but collect the seed on a dry day and store it in envelopes to plant the following year. Sow annuals such as Corn Marigold, Corn Cockle, Cornflower and Poppy. These will need plenty of sunshine.

Watch a video about the insects that are likely to visit your flowers:

D: Hang bird feeders

Blue Tit.

Blue Tit.

Imagine you are a bird visiting a feeder, you would feel much safer if you had a nearby tree or shrub to fly back to for shelter. The magnificent Sparrow hawks has been known to visit bird feeding stations and it’s not the nuts they’ve come for! So choose your spot carefully. You may want to think about squirrels and whether you really want to feed them too. Hanging feeders from a greasy pole is one way of outwitting these rodents and you can also buy specially designed feeders to deter them.

Feeding birds through the winter is particularly important and if you provide a range of foods, you are more likely to get many different species visiting your feeding station. Sunflower seeds, peanuts, maize flakes and nyger seeds are among the foods you can buy.  You can also make fat balls and put out some types of kitchen scraps. The RSPB has detailed information about which foods attract which birds on their web site:  https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/feeding-birds/safe-food-for-birds/

Don’t forget to provide clean water and to regularly clean out bird baths and feeders to prevent the spread of disease. The birds that will enjoy your efforts include Robins, Tits, Dunnocks, Finches, Blackbirds and Sparrows.  And if you also choose a place where you can watch discreetly, you’ll enjoy watching them feed.

E: Plant up a large pot or window box

Lavender in pot.

Lavender growing in a pot

It’s surprising what will visit even a small clump of flowering plants. Your window box or pot may be an important link in a chain of sources of nectar for flying insects, including Bumblebees, Butterflies and Hover flies. If you’re growing in a small space, you’ll need to use good quality peat free compost and provide drainage at the bottom of the container.

You might like to grow herbs, which will feed you and the insects. There are some really pretty variegated and unusual varieties of plants such as Thyme, Marjoram and Mint. Nasturtium and Calendula are also edible and both have beautiful flowers that attract insects. Try and choose plants that will give a long season of flowering and don’t forget to water the container if there’s a drought. Putting a mulch of gravel or bark around the plants will conserve water, as will installing a water butt.

You might like to watch a video about the insects that are likely to visit your flowers:

F: Put up a bird or bat box

Starlings in a bird bath.

Starlings in a bird bath

A bird box takes up very little room in your garden and gives an exciting insight into bird behaviour. In woodlands there are usually plenty of nesting sites, but our gardens rarely have mature trees with holes for birds like Tits or enough shelter for Robins and Thrushes. You can make or buy boxes that are specially designed for these different species of birds and site them where you can watch discreetly and the birds feel secure.

Different bird boxes need to be placed at different heights; there are more details on the RSPB web site. Open fronted boxes for Robins and Wrens need to be low down among the shrubs, but boxes for other birds are usually placed between 2 and 4 metres up a tree or on a wall or fence. Position the box where it will be sheltered from prevailing winds, which is usually towards the north or east and ensure there’s a clear flight path into the box. Further details can be found on the British Trust for Ornithology website:  https://www.bto.org/how-you-can-help/providing-birds/putting-nest-boxes-birds

There are far fewer nesting opportunities for Swifts nowadays and sadly the Swift population has dropped dramatically in recent years. You can buy boxes or swift bricks that can be installed if you have eaves with a Northerly aspect. These will have greatest success in areas where Swifts are known to be breeding, or at least regularly heard each summer – attracting Swifts to new areas can be very difficult.

Unlike bird boxes, bat boxes are best erected on a south facing tree or wall. If you know you have bats in the area, this is a really important artificial roost and once you’ve put it up, you don’t need to do anything further. Bear in mind that all bats and their roosts are protected by law, so once you’ve put up a bat box only a licensed bat worker can check, move or remove it.

G: Dig a mini pond or bog area

A frog in long grass.

A frog in long grass.

Ponds are vital for wildlife and not just for aquatic animals. They provide drinking water and bathing opportunities for the animals that visit your garden. Ponds don’t have to be large. Dig a hole at least 30 cm deep in your metre square and line it, holding down the sides with stones. Make sure you have at least one gently sloping side, like a beach, so that wildlife can easily get in and out.

Your mini pond will need oxygenating plants like Curled Pondweed, Spiked Water Milfoil and Water Violet. Aim for 2-3 plants per square metre, and you’ll find a list of recommended plants (and plants to avoid) on the Sussex Wildlife Trust website.

Let the grass grow long around the edges or add marginal plants like Marsh Marigold to provide plenty of shelter for wildlife. Some aquatic animals need to leave the pond and you can ensure they can do that by placing a log in the water against the edge as a platform.

Further details from the Sussex Wildlife web site: https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/discover/in-your-garden/article/41

If you can’t have a pond, then create a mini bog garden. You will need to ensure that the area doesn’t dry out, so choose the wettest part of your outdoor space.  Dig a hole at least 45 cm deep and line it with an old leaky liner or polythene that has a few holes pierced in it. Put gravel at the bottom before returning the soil. Plant moisture-loving plants such as Purple Loosestrife or Meadowsweet for height, and low-growing plants like Creeping Jenny and Water Avens. Your Bog Garden will attract insects to the flowering plants and amphibians to the damp soils.

H: Create a Hedgehog habitat

Hedgehog habitat.

Hedgehog habitat.

In the past decade we have lost over half of our rural Hedgehogs and a third from towns and cities. They are a gardener’s friend, eating the slugs and snails that attack vegetables and young plants. So, it is very important that we don’t use slug pellets that will harm these creatures.

Hedgehogs need an undisturbed dry shelter for the winter and your metre square might be just the place! You can make a simple home by making a surround of logs lined with dry leaves and topped with branches. Alternatively you could put an old wooden box inside, ensuring there’s a 13cm square opening that’s not facing the cold winds.

For a more deluxe residence, follow the instructions given on the British Hedgehog Preservation Society web site.


Don’t forget to leave a hole in the fence so that Hedgehogs can reach your habitat and move into the next door gardens.

I: Make a compost heap

Slow worm in a compost bin.

Slow worm in a compost heap

This is another of those win-win projects. It may not be the most beautiful choice for your metre square, but it will be a favourite living space for many bugs and if it’s an open heap, a feeding ground for hedgehogs, birds and other animals. Your compost heap will also turn green waste that you want to get rid of into nutritious compost or mulch for the plants.

If the heap is in a shady area it will take a bit longer to work, but you can aid the process by turning it with a fork every week. Making really good home-made compost is an art and you may like to watch a video to learn more about it. The answer, as you’ll see, is to get a balance between the ‘green’ and the ‘brown’.

You can use most kitchen scraps, except meat, dairy and cooked products. Other ‘greens’ include grass cuttings and garden weeds (except the pernicious ones such as Bindweed). To balance these add ‘browns’; old cardboard, dried leaves and small twigs.

You can either make your compost in a bin or construct an open compost heap from wood (another use for those wooden pallets). Whichever you do, it is best to have the bottom open to the soil so that worms can help to do the work of breaking down the soil.

Find out more by watching this video:

J: Grow climbing plants

Bees feasting on Ivy

Bees feasting on Ivy

If you haven’t got much space, but have a wall or fence, grow a climber or two. A mature climbing plant will provide shelter for birds as well as insects. You may even be lucky enough to have a Blackbird, Robin or Wren build a nest in the tangle of branches. If you then choose a plant that provides berries, they get bed and breakfast!

The flowers of the Ivy are open in the winter and many kinds of bee rely on this source of nectar. Climbing Hydrangeas will grow in the shade and their white flowers attract insects in the late spring.  Honeysuckles flower at different times of the year and provide, as their name suggests, a source of sugar rich nectar. Pyracanthas not only have abundance of bright coloured berries in the winter for birds, but spring flowers and a strong structure for nesting sites.

Mapping the Squares

Finally, don’t forget to give yourself time to sit quietly and watch your metre square. Enjoy the animals and plants that prosper there. Take photos or draw and record what you notice. Please do submit your records to iRecord : https://www.brc.ac.uk/irecord/

And remember that you are part of a huge network of green areas for wildlife in Seaford and beyond. Connect with the SEA website and together we can tackle the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

(Thank you to Judy Pepper for the beautiful photos above!)

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