The most wildlife-friendly planting style is, without doubt, that of the traditional cottage garden. The broad range of plants used attracts a broad range of visitors. The typically crowded nature of the beds attracts more wildlife than solitary patches with just a few plants.

For lots of creatures, nectar, pollen and seeds are the primary food source, so while you can’t go too wrong with the cottage garden model, thoughtful planting in any style will attract not only butterflies, bees, birds and moths to your garden, but also valuable aphid-eating lacewings and hoverflies.

In your garden

Planning

  • Sunny, sheltered borders attract more bees and butterflies than shady or windy sites.
  • Grow a mixture of native and non-native plants, choosing species that flower at different times of the year to extend the supply of food for as long as possible; from bulbs in early spring to things like sedums with long-lasting seedheads that persist well into winter.
  • Planting a group or drift of each plant makes the colour or scent easier to detect. Individual specimens may be difficult for insects to find.

Establishing

  • Ask for advice at your garden centre about which plants will work best. There are also specialist nurseries which supply wildflower seeds and plugs as well as old fashioned varieties of cottage garden plants.
  • Wildflowers can be incorporated into flower borders and won’t look out of place among the more conventional garden flowers. Their cultural requirements may differ though, so it might be worth considering a separate wildflower border with cornflowers, scabious, cranesbill, foxgloves, chicory and bellflowers.
  • Members of the daisy family are a good choice and buddleia isn’t called the butterfly bush for nothing. Teasels work on many levels, being really attractive to pollinating insects while in flower but also providing abundant seedheads for the birds. Although striking in their own right, they can become a bit unruly so a safer option might be the better-behaved globe thistle (Echinops ritro).
  • Night scented flowers like tobacco plants (Nicotiana sylvestris, not the cultivated bedding form) and evening primrose are essential for attracting moths.

Maintaining

  • Delay cutting back dead flower heads until spring. The seed heads that remain provide valuable food for birds and other animals through the winter, while the stems and foliage provide effective shelter for hibernating insects.
  • Avoid chemical fertilisers. Organic options include seaweed derivatives, dried blood, fish and bone meal and pelleted chicken manure. Improve your soil structure by the adding bulky organic material like garden compost, well-rotted animal manures and leaf mould. These can be applied to the soil surface as a mulch or dug in.
  • Mulching not only improves your soil, but helps conserve moisture in the soil. The best time to apply is in late winter or early spring, to make the most of the winter rainfall.
  • The true wildlife philosophy is to ignore or even encourage pests as they are a source of food for other creatures, and that the garden will find a natural balance. In situations where the balance is not yet evident and the pests seem to be taking over, try using cultural or biological control methods to combat them.

Top tips

  • Hiding a pile of logs or stones at the back of the border is a great way of introducing another sheltered habitat into the garden.
  • When visiting other gardens, make a note of the plants that are visited by large numbers of insects and include these plants in your own garden.

Suggested plants