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Helping nature

in small spaces

Small gardens can boost biodiversity just as much as large ones. Here are ten ways to help bees and other wildlife when you're short on space

A recent study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that small gardens are just as vital as large spaces when it comes to helping our struggling pollinators.


When small gardens, patios, courtyards and balconies are packed with nectar-rich plants, they provide essential food for bees, butterflies and other insects – especially when plants have been carefully chosen to bloom for much of the year.


And small gardens, when joined together with others, can create a network of wildlife-friendly spaces that benefits many different species. As different gardens tend to contain different plants, together they provide a rich and diverse source of nectar.

Colourful flowers in a garden

Bee populations across the world are declining, with climate change, habitat loss and use of pesticides just a few of the challenges faced by these vital pollinating insects.


And bees are not alone. According to conservation charity RSPB, more than 40% of UK wildlife has declined in the past 50 years. But any outdoor space – however big or small – can help boost biodiversity.


Creating a wildlife-friendly garden is good for wellbeing too. Nature-rich spaces are full of bright blooms, birdsong, bees and butterflies – all of which can make us feel good!

Bumblebee on sunflower

Here are a few ideas for turning a small outdoor space into a haven for wildlife – and, in particular, pollinating insects.


Grow shrubs

Shrubs are dense with flowers, making it easy for pollinators to get all the food they need in one place without expending energy flying from plant to plant. Many shrubs are easy to grow and can be pruned to keep them compact and manageable.


Shrubs can also help to provide nectar throughout the year. Mahonia flowers in winter, its bright yellow blooms offering nectar for early-foraging bees.

Bumblebee on lavender

Hebes and lavenders, meanwhile, produce flowers in summer. These shrubs grow well in containers, are low maintenance, and attract bees, bumblebees, butterflies and other pollinators.


Create a herb garden

Many herbs grow well in containers, and are ideal for small spaces. It's lovely to have a few pots of herbs growing by the back door – the fresh leaves add flavour to all sorts of dishes.


The blooms of sage, thyme and rosemary are attractive to bees and butterflies. Borage is one of the best herbs to grow for bumblebees – and it's also a magnet for butterflies and hoverflies. It's cheap and easy to grow from seed – and the flowers are edible, making a pretty addition to drinks and salads.

Rosemary

Herbs should be grown in full sun, and will benefit from frequent harvesting.


Pots full of flowers

Lots of perennial and annual flowers can be grown in pots, hanging baskets and window boxes. Choose nectar-rich varieties with single blooms, as it's hard for insects to access the nectar in fancy, frilly flowers.


Compact plants for small spaces include crocus (fantastic for early spring nectar), hardy geraniums, scabious and catmint. Verbena bonariensis is popular with bees and butterflies and flowers into autumn. Alliums produce tall spherical flowers that are loved by bees, and wallflowers such as erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' continue to flower for months, attracting an array of pollinating insects including solitary bees.

Purple crocus
Hardy geranium

Lavender

Rosemary

Crocus

Geranium

Growing pots full of nectar-rich flowers needn't be expensive. Annual flower seeds are cheap to buy, and you can buy mixed, pollinator-friendly blends for just a couple of pounds. Easy to grow annuals include calendula, cosmos, sunflowers, poppies and cleome.


Grow climbing plants

Where space is at a premium, choose plants that climb upwards to maximise every available inch. Climbers can cover unsightly fences, or can be grown up a trellis. A bare fence has little wildlife benefit – but cover it with a climber, and you create a nesting site for birds, a place for hibernating insects to shelter, and food in the form of blooms and berries.


Honeysuckle smells gorgeous, and – as the scent is released most strongly at night – it's a good source of nectar for moths.


Ivy is an all-round winner for wildlife. It produces thick, evergreen cover for birds and insects, its blossoms are loved by bees, the leaves are a source of food for butterfly caterpillars, and birds enjoy the berries.

Aubretia

Aubretia

Other good climbers for wildlife include pyracantha, clematis and wisteria. You could also consider plants that grow vertically by trailing downwards, such as aubretia.


Let lawns grow

If you have a lawn, leaving a small area unmown is a fantastic way to boost biodiversity.


All sorts of wildflowers quickly emerge when you leave lawns to grow. Clover, buttercups, dandelions, common daisies, ox-eye daisies, teasels and forget-me-nots are some of the most common wildflowers found in long grass – and these are all an excellent source of nectar for all kinds of insects.

Crocus in long grass

Crocus

Bumblebee on teasel

Teasel

Birds also feed on the seeds of long grasses, as well as on the seeds of dandelions and teasels.


You don't need a lot of space to achieve this – even a square-metre patch of grass can become a mini meadow that will attract all kinds of wildlife.


Build bug houses

You can buy bee houses, or make your own. They are good for solitary bees such as mason bees and leaf-cutter bees.


Cut the top off a plastic bottle and fill with short lengths of bamboo canes – you can put some plasticene into the base of the bottle, and push the canes into it to stop them slipping out. Position the bee house close to nectar-rich plants, and tilt it down slightly to prevent the container filling with rain water.

Bee hotel with bee bowl
Bottle bee house
Twig wigwam

Creating a wigwam of sticks and filling with natural materials such dry leaves or fir cones is another way to create shelter for small creatures. Position your wigwam in a quiet corner where it won't be disturbed.


Create wildlife corridors

When lots of small spaces are joined together they can become a nature-rich network. Talk to your neighbours about creating small holes in fences and walls so that wildlife can travel freely from one space to the next.


Hedgehogs in particular need to room to roam – they travel around one mile every night in search of food and a mate. So one of the best ways to help struggling hedgehog populations is to create 'hedgehog highways' – small, hedgehog-sized holes at the base of fences and walls.

Hedgehog highway

According to Hedgehog Street, one of the main reasons for the decline of hedgehog populations in the UK is the secure barriers that surround many gardens – these are reducing the amount of land available to foraging hedgehogs.


Find out more about creating hedgehog highways between you and your neighbours.


Provide water

Even a tiny pond will support a huge variety of wildlife. You can dig your own pond and use a flexible pond liner, buy a pre-formed pond, or repurpose a small container such as a Belfast sink or washing-up bowl.


Add a layer of gravel and stones or rocks to your pond, and create a slope on one side to allow creatures to access and exit the water easily. Free-standing water features will need a ramp, such as a well-positioned small plank, to allow access.


You can add one or two native pond plants, such as marsh marigold or dwarf waterlily – but avoid invasive species like parrot's feather, as these will quickly over-run a small pond.

Damselfly

Wildlife such as frogs, toads, dragonflies and damselflies will soon find your pond – and birds, insects and small mammals will visit for a drink. Never introduce species from another pond as this can spread disease.


Make a bee bowl

Bees need water as well as food. Many natural sources are too deep or fast-flowing for bees, and they can they drown in water bowls and birdbaths. A bee bowl is a good alternative to a small pond if space is very limited.


To make a bee bowl, fill a shallow container, such as a terracotta saucer, with small pebbles. Then add water, making sure that plenty of pebbles stand out to allow the bees to land.

In hot weather, bee bowls need topping up with fresh water daily. Position the bowl in a sunny place alongside some nectar-rich flowers, so the insects don't need to travel too far to find a drink.


Don't be too tidy

Keeping things a little wilder in your garden is one of the best ways you can help all sorts of wildlife. Maintaining a wild, messy corner is harder if your space is very small – but it's still possible!


Fallen leaves piled up in a corner can become a home for hedgehogs and toads, and insects will nest in nooks and crannies. A small pile of logs or sticks, or a stack of terracotta pots, can create a mini habitat for all sorts of creatures.

Hedgehog in a terracotta plant pot

Insects hibernate in hollow stems of plants like teasels, so don't be too hasty to cut back dead plant matter at the end of winter. Similarly, avoid cutting back ivy – especially in autumn, as the dense foliage provides shelter for insects, birds and mammals during the colder months.

Little Green Space March 2022

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Little Green Space is a non-profit project sharing solutions to the nature and climate crises, and offering inspiration for a greener lifestyle. If you like our content, please help keep us going with a small donation!