Biodiversity-friendly gardens:
for a healthier planet and a healthier you

A new free booklet shows how you can help Ireland’s biodiversity in any garden, big or small.

WORDS: Juanita Browne

As a child, it was my job to remove moths from my big sister’s bedroom. They were common visitors then and she was terrified of them, especially the furry white moths that would flicker around her light. I would cup them in my hands to release them through an open window (but not before pretending to throw them at my sister of course). You rarely see moths indoors any more.

Another common occurrence in the 1980s was cleaning bugs off the car windscreen, After a long car journey, our parents would have to stop to clear all the remains of dead insects. Have you noticed this doesn’t happen much any more?

Ecologists in the National Biodiversity Data Centre have been measuring declines in Irish insect populations for many years. Take our bees, for example: in Ireland, we have 99 species of bee: one honeybee; 21 Bumblebee species and 77 solitary bee species. Since the 1980s, over half of our bee species have undergone huge declines and one-third are now threatened with extinction. Through our cleaner windscreens, we may be witnessing a collapse in flying insect populations.

It is important to mention that insects have been around a very long time – for hundreds of millions of years, and have thrived in every continent except Antarctica, in the air, soil and freshwater. Insects lived on earth long before there were dinosaurs, and long after their disappearance. So why are such successful species now disappearing?

It is an important story because it is an indicator of how much we are changing the planet, but also because insects are important – they are important as pollinators of our food, as predators who control other insect pests, and as decomposers that clean up the planet, and because insects are often the base of food chains for countless birds, bats and other mammals.

The current rate of extinction is about 1,000 times higher than what it would be in the absence of human activity and exploitation. What legacy is that to leave to future generations?

What can we do?

You could decide to start to create change right outside your own door. Private gardens represent a huge potential habitat and refuge for Ireland’s pressured wildlife. The aim of my new booklet ‘Gardening for Biodiversity’ was to introduce some of the simple ways you can help biodiversity in any garden. There are lots of ways in which you might want to open your garden up to nature - even in very small ways - perhaps by reducing grass-cutting, or hanging up a bird box; or in larger ways, such as making a wildlife pond. Gardens of schools, businesses, religious properties and hospitals can also become biodiversity-friendly.

We have squeezed nature out through our constant tidying up, and ‘improving’ and spraying and mowing. But through gardening with biodiversity in mind, we could offer just a little space to nature once again.

Gardening for Biodiversity is good for you!

There are over 2 million domestic gardens (or 359,000 acres) in this country. Just imagine the difference it could make if even a small number of those gardens became biodiversity friendly! But we wouldn’t just be opening our gardens to nature for altruistic reasons. Inviting birds, butterflies, bees, wildflowers, and trees into your own garden won’t just help the planet, it will help you, too!

Gardening for Biodiversity also has advantages for human health and wellbeing. Research has shown that the more urbanised humans have become, the more we actually need exposure to nature. It’s good for your mental health. A sterile garden, with tightly mown grass, or artificial surfaces, offers humans no exposure to nature, no buzz from busy insects, no birdsong, no life.

People feel better when they are surrounded by nature and indeed this sense of wellbeing has been shown to increase in line with an increase in biodiversity - the wilder the area, with more different types of plants and animals, the better you will feel! A visit to a town park with tightly mown lawns cannot compare to how good you feel on a walk through a wildflower meadow or a semi-natural woodland. So just imagine the health benefits of bringing some of that feel-good nature right to your door.

Indeed in a time of climate change ‘anxiety’, wildlife gardening is a great way to help you to feel like you’re doing something positive to help your local wildlife and community, including the farmers who depend on pollinators - by making room for nature on your patch of land. What an honour it is to be able to manage your own patch of the planet and decide exactly what can grow there. You have the power to decide what creatures can share this space with you. Perhaps there is room for some more of our native biodiversity on your patch?

Small is beautiful

To help Irish wildlife, we need to consider all of our biodiversity. It’s actually the small plants, the wildflowers, bugs, caterpillars, spiders and other ‘creepy-crawlies’ that are so important as they form the base of the food webs that support the more ‘attractive’ birds and mammals we may want to help the most. There are a lot more invertebrates than there are mammals or birds. But without all the small guys, our larger charismatic fauna can’t survive!

Whenever we try to help a species/group in our garden, we should consider how we might provide food, shelter and safety for that group and if our garden management (such as our use of pesticides) may be damaging to it in any way. While we can never replicate natural habitats that have taken many thousands of years to evolve, we can try to replicate semi-natural ‘mini-versions’ that meet these needs, for instance an area of your garden that mimics a woodland edge, a wildflower strip that mimics a meadow, or a section of native hedgerow or a small pond.

For the Birds

Leaving out food for garden birds is a great way to invite nature into your garden. Some people choose to offer food only in winter, while others enjoy feeding their garden visitors all year round.

Siskin, Blue Tit, Bullfinch feeding on blackberries. All birds © www.irishgardenbirds.ie

On top of filling bird feeders, you might like to take a look at what plants are growing in your garden and consider adding plants that provide natural food for birds. For native trees with berries that birds will love, try Alder buckthorn, Bird Cherry, Crab apple, Blackthorn, Elder, Guelder Rose, Honeysuckle, Rowan, Spindle, White Beam, Wild Privet or Yew. Ivy provides good bird cover for nesting. Berries are eaten in late winter, when food is scarce, particularly favoured by Robin, Blackcap, and Thrushes.

You can encourage birds to nest in your garden by offering suitable nesting sites, which include trees and hedges. Creeping plants on walls and tree trunks also offer excellent cover for nesting birds. The Treecreeper, Spotted Flycatcher, Wren and Song Thrush are all known to nest under the cover of ivy, clematis or honeysuckle. If erecting nest boxes, place securely on a tall tree as high as possible (2-5m from the ground), facing north-east, in a sheltered spot.

Ivy provides good cover for nesting birds, and also hibernating butterflies. Late flowering, in autumn, makes Ivy very important for Bumblebee queens who need to put on weight before hibernation. Ivy berries are very important to birds in late winter, when food is scarce.

© Edward Hill

A tightly mown lawn is like a desert for pollinators. The land on the right of the wall above is simply a result of reduced mowing.

Helping the butterflies and bees:

Every garden, no matter its size, can be a haven for hungry pollinators. In addition to pollinating our crops, pollinators benefit 78% of our flowering wildflowers and trees, which provide fruits and seed for birds and mammals. In helping pollinators in our gardens, we are helping Irish farmers and future generations who will also rely on pollinating insects for food production and for healthy ecosystems. The most important way you can help pollinators is through reducing your grasscutting so as to leave part of your lawn for wildflowers, which pollinators need for food. Perhaps you could cut parts of your lawn every three weeks, or even every six weeks.

Create a flower-rich 6-week meadow:

  • First cut after April 15th (this will allow Dandelions to flower. Dandelions are a vital food source for pollinators in spring)
  • Second cut at end of May (Cutting at the end of May and not again until mid-late July will increase the growth of important plants like Clover, Selfheal, Cuckoo flower and Bird’s-foot-trefoil.
  • Third cut in mid-late July (maximises growth of Clovers and other wildflowers)
  • Fourth cut end August
  • Fifth cut after mid-Octobe

*It is really important to remove clippings after each cut. Wildflowers grow best in infertile soil. Removing clippings will help to reduce soil fertility so that wildflowers can compete with grasses.

You can help pollinating insects and still have a beautiful garden. While daffodils, tulips, begonias and traditional bedding plants offer no food for pollinators, there is a wonderful array of pollinator-friendly flowers to choose instead, which will provide both colour and food for pollinators throughout the year. The key to creating a pollinator-friendly garden is to try to provide pollen-rich flowers from spring right through to autumn.

Another great way to help pollinators is to check out the actions recommended by the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. You will find lots of resources, videos and tips online at www.pollinators.ie

Why not add your garden to the growing number of pollinator-friendly sites being mapped on the Pollinator Plan’s mapping system, pollinators - which hit 1,000 sites in 2019.

A wildflower strip along the edge of your lawn means there is still lots of room for sports and play.
Dandelion is the most important plant for insects in early spring. From mid-March until mid-May it provides vital food for bees and other early-flying insects such as butterflies. Later, when the flowers disappear, birds feast on the seed-heads. Dandelion seed is a favourite with birds such as the Goldfinch and Greenfinch. The plant’s leaves are also food for some moth larvae, including the lovely Garden Tiger moth. (And not to forget, dandelions allow you make wishes!) Between birds and bees, what more could one flower offer to the world? More dandelions = more biodiversity .
Did you know Clover used to be called ‘bee's bread’?

Video: ANIMATION - Introduction to the Pollinator Plan

This is because it provides such important food - in its pollen and nectar stores - for bees.

Leave an ‘untidy' corner for wildlife

Leaving an untidy/wild corner of your garden for nettles, bramble and ivy, is a great idea for lots of biodiversity. You might consider keeping leaf litter - or raking it into a pile in your ‘wild corner’ for wildlife.

Over the winter months, moth and butterfly larvae - as pupa or caterpillar - are often found in leaf litter. By dumping it, you are raking up a whole generation of these insects, and also affecting the diet the birds that rely on those insects for food.

Stinging nettle is the food plant for lots of butterfly caterpillars, including Small Tortoiseshell (below), Red Admiral, Comma and Peacock butterflies. If we want to have these beautiful butterflies as adults, they need nettles as their baby food!

Small tortoiseshell butterfly © Liam Lysaght
Often underappreciated, or indeed hated, as a thorny, troublesome plant that trips you up on a country walk, Bramble provides vital food for pollinating insects in late summer, and berries for birds and mammals later in the year. Perhaps a corner of your garden could include a bramble patch? You can even clip it back each winter to keep your bramble zone contained. And you can enjoy the blackberries along with the hungry birds in autumn!

Plant Native Trees

Planting native trees is an excellent way to help biodiversity and help our climate at the same time! There is a tree to suit every size of garden. Do your research and choose your trees carefully according to the size and location of your garden. ‘Crown spread’ and eventual height are important to know - if you have a very small space, look for small crown spread and moderate height. For wildlife gardens, it’s always best to try to plant native species as it is our native trees that our insects have adapted to live with and use as a home. If you have a large rural garden, you may even have room for a mini-native woodland. Whether you can plant one native tree, five or 20, it all counts!

Hawthorn/Whitethorn is also called the ‘Maybush’ because of its beautiful display of blossoms each May. It is a common hedgerow species, but can also be grown as a standalone tree - a very wildlife-friendly option for any garden, producing red haws in autumn. Blackthorn provides a home for over 100 insect species.

Related to cherries and plums, the fruit of the blackthorn resemble small plums and are enjoyed by lots of animals, including wood mice, finches and foxes.

Rowan is also known as the Mountain Ash as it has similar leaves to the ash tree. It is a very attractive tree, with white flower clusters in spring and red berries in autumn, and its leaves turn a lovely red-orange colour before they fall.

Holly is a great tree to feed the birds. Female trees bare the bright red berries in winter (not all trees will have berries as there are separate male and female trees). For a good crop of berries you should plant both a male and female tree close together.

There are 12 or more Willow species that are believed to be native to Ireland. Willow supports a greater range of wildlife than any other Irish tree. It can support 250 insect species and over 100 lichens. Goat or Grey willows are wonderful plants for pollinators as they provide lots of pollen and nectar in their tiny flowers in early spring when there is little else in flower. Willows can be grown easily from cuttings.

Native flowering hedgerows

One of the best ways we can help wildlife in Ireland is to protect or plant more native hedgerows. Our native hedgerows provide food, shelter and a natural corridor for wildlife moving across the countryside. Intensively managed hedgerows are not traditional features of the Irish countryside and are a recent phenomenon due to the availability of heavy machinery. This over-management removes food and safe nesting sites for biodiversity. Try to cut only every three years so that the hedgerow can bloom, providing vital pollen for pollinators, and fruit for birds and mammals in autumn.

If your garden is already surrounded by a non-native hedge, but you want to plant a native hedgerow, you could keep your old hedge and plant a new line of native shrubs alongside the old boundary. This provides double the cover for nesting birds, as well as introducing a food source and a more natural habitat for our insects and birds, without removing your privacy and shelter until the new hedgerow develops.

Video: Hedgerows: Lifelines for biodiversity through the countryside:

The ‘Long Acre’ - Let your road verge grow naturally

Road verges have long acted as a refuge for our native plants - an area unsprayed and uncultivated in an otherwise managed landscape. While road verges in suburbs were traditionally tightly mown, this wasn’t the case outside of our towns and villages until quite recently. But there seems to be a growing trend in rural areas to mow the verge outside your garden, to create a neat roadside. Unfortunately yet again this means removing areas for nature, and should be discouraged. If you want to keep your verge mowed for walkers, why not mow just a one-metrewide strip and leave the rest of the verge for the wildflowers.

Create a Wildlife Pond

One of the best wildlife features you can add to any garden is a pond. This offers a source of drinking water as well as a home for lots of biodiversity. And the good news is that your pond doesn’t have to be very large. In fact, even a sunken barrel, bath tub or basin can create a water habitat for wildlife, so no garden is too small for a pond.

As we have successfully drained a lot of land in Ireland, we have removed a lot of natural breeding ponds for frogs, newts, dragonflies, and countless water insects, so creating a pond can have a substantial positive effect on local amphibian populations. If you want your pond to be wildlifefriendly, don’t add fish, which would eat a lot of the native insects and tadpoles that colonise the habitat.

It is amazing to see your new pond quickly becoming inhabited by a range of wildlife. It may seem mysterious how each species finds your pond! For example, when pond snails and water boatmen suddenly showed up in my own wildlife pond very soon after excavation, I could only guess that they arrived as eggs on water plants or attached to the feet of waterbirds.

Our pond was quickly visited by Mallard, Snipe, Grey Heron and Dipper. Because we have dogs, these birds don’t stay around too long, but it’s nice to know they appreciate the new habitat on offer and no doubt have feasted on the myriad insects and tadpoles that are now thriving there. Despite not living near a river or stream, it only took one year for frogs to find our pond and leave their masses of frogspawn. Dragonflies and Damselflies arrived the following year, darting over the water surface and hovering over the water as they laid their eggs.

Yellow Flag at Juanita’s pond. Banded Demoiselle damselfly © Brian Nelson

Record your Garden biodiversity:

In order to conserve Ireland’s biodiversity, we need to document what biodiversity we have, understand how it is distributed across the island and track how it is changing over time. Answering these questions and building the scientific base to help the conservation of Ireland’s biodiversity is central to the work of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, but we can all contribute to this vital national data.

Why not get involved in some of the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s recording schemes? There are even monitoring schemes you can do in your own garden, including a ‘Flower-insecttimed count’, where you watch a patch of flowers for 10 minutes and note the insects you see. This is an easy monitoring scheme which can be done in any garden. See https://pollinators.ie/record-pollinators/fit-count/

To find out what wildlife occurs in your local area, or if you want to get involved in recording your garden biodiversity, please visit www.biodiversityireland.ie

Video: ANIMATION on the work of the NBDC:

Sincere thanks to the amazing illustrator Barry Reynolds, and Catherine Casey, Heritage Officer, Laois County Council, for supporting this project and representing the views and enthusiasm of the Local Authority Heritage Officer network.

This guide was supported by Gas Networks Ireland, Fruithill Farm and The Heritage Council through the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s National Biodiversity Action Plan Fund.

To get your free copy of the Irish Examiner’s exciting ‘Gardening for Biodiversity’ publication, pick up a copy of the Irish Examiner on Saturday, May 23rd