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Welcome wildlife into your garden

By garden designer Sarah Layton. As a child I remember the joy of watching garden birds feeding, or bathing with their delicate feathers all fluffed up, of watching a butterfly flit from one colourful flower to another drinking nectar in the sun.

Not only are these creatures lovely to watch, they help to remind us to slow down - there is no hurrying for a butterfly! By planning our gardens so that they provide a safe haven for wildlife we enjoy and respect nature and help to preserve it for future generations. So, how can we create an environment that literally invites wildlife to visit and live in our gardens?

Gardening organically is a great start. By avoiding the use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers and implementing organic techniques we can take advantage of the natural and healthy lifecycle that occurs and offer shelter and nourishment to birds, insects and other wildlife. Once we increase the number of birds and other creatures in our gardens they feed on the very slugs and flies we would otherwise have to treat artificially. By encouraging more wildlife we set up a situation that is beneficial to everyone.

All gardens have birds and more can be encouraged to visit by the provision of all year round food, water and shelter. Increase your bird friendly planting and include shrubs that produce berries in winter such as ivy, holly, rose hips, Cotoneaster and Berberis. The berries appear just as the birds' insect food supply diminishes in the winter and so is a tremendous help. Try and include native trees such as birch or willow if you have space as they also support a wide range of birds and other wildlife.

Other, less natural, ways of supporting birds will still enhance your enjoyment. Bird-tables are easily available but do think carefully about where to site yours so as to avoid the neighbourhood cats having a banquet. Site the table well away from fences or trees so predators are unable to pounce.

Also think about including a nest box or two - there are many excellent ones for specific varieties of birds available. When placed in trees or underneath the eaves of your home or shed, they provide safe places for birds to nest and make it more likely that the bird will raise its young in your garden where there is a good supply of food as well. It is a great joy on a spring morning to know that a bird is nesting or rearing its young nearby - it certainly makes me feel part of a greater universe.

Another pleasure of a garden planted and gardened with wildlife in mind is the colourful presence of butterflies flitting from petal to petal. Encourage them by providing a variety of flowering plants that have different heights, shapes, structures and seasons of interest as this provides all-season shelter and a variety of nectar types for different species. In fact, planting this way will automatically create a garden full of all-season interest and beauty for you too and it is easily achieved.

Butterflies rely on plants that are happiest in sunny conditions as the more sun they get the more nectar is produced. Flowers that butterflies particularly visit include those of the Buddlleia, Ceanothus, Hebe, Lavender, Sedum, Cistus, Wallflower, Lilac, and Potentilla, Cornflower and Poppy families. These last two can be sown as seeds directly into the ground in spring where they will self-seed generously for years.

Native grasses and wildflowers are also good for butterflies - have a look in your local garden centre, see what you can find and then enjoy experimenting!

If you are serious about increasing the wildlife presence in your garden a pond is essential. A healthy pond will quickly attract frogs, newts, and 'boatmen' which are great fun to watch. Frogs make brilliant croaking noises and sunbathe on sunny days while hover-flies, dragonflies and 'boatmen' speed along the surface and provide entertainment for hours.

Deciding to include a pond in the garden obviously needs careful thought. Children up to the age of six or seven must not be given unattended access to any depth of water as they can drown in the shallowest water. For them it is best to include a re-circulating water feature where the reservoir is safely underground. Birds love to drink from such features so the opportunity to support wildlife is still not lost.

If you are going for a pond and the style will suit your garden do try and include a natural one with a gently shelving edge. This will provide shallow water for spawning frogs and allow creatures that fall in to escape. Also provide plenty of marginal plants and stones to provide cover, shelter and hibernation sites for your frogs. Cover is also needed as homes for hedgehogs and leaves left to rot in the autumn and old logs are wonderful for this. As well as being lovely to see, hedgehogs are predators to pests such as snails and slugs, and so are a great help in the battle to save the Hostas!

There is a natural rhythm to gardening organically, and encouraging wildlife into our gardens. Planning a garden that offers a refuge to wild creatures requires us to think creatively and approach things in new ways. It offers tremendous pleasure as well as greater ecological diversity and even helps to keep pests under control - what more could we want?

Sarah Layton is a North London based garden designer who has been designing urban gardens for nearly ten years. A registered member of the Society of Garden Designers she designs gardens with wildlife needs in mind - as well as those of her clients!