Robert Kennett ~ Garden Designer

Garden design and landscaping from RHS Gold Medal winner
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Going wild for Autumn gardens

Robert Kennett, garden designer at The Potting Shed garden shop and nursery in Shaftesbury prepares the garden for autumn visitors.

As the cooler autumn nights approach gardeners thoughts turn to the diverse wildlife that relies on the pollen sources and hibernation sites our outdoor spaces offer. However, when people think of wildlife gardens the vision it creates is one of visually unappealing areas left wild and unmanaged with nettles for butterfly pupae, long grass, dank ponds for frog spawn and bundles of twigs for hedgehogs.

Whilst such areas can provide homes for our native fauna it doesn’t have to mean that wildlife enthusiasts should give up managed gardening, set aside aesthetics and let their gardens go to rack and ruin. For example, there are many insect hotels made of stacks of hollow bamboo sticks and I’m pleased to report having witnessed these being occupied by hibernating bees, so they do work. For a more ordered look to a wildlife garden these bamboo bundles (varying thickness works best) can be built into other structures such as bench or table legs. They can even be made to form patterns in timber garden partitions or stone walls. 

The same cynicism is often applied to the more unusual and novelty bird houses. Whilst they may not resemble what is found in nature you only have to consider how resourceful birds are when given the chance – nests have been found in old tyres, rusting stoves and cars, any old corner suitable to make a home. So a bird home resembling a milk churn, tea pot or human house is fine as long as the hole is the right size for the anticipated bird. 

For larger insects and small mammals a twig and log pile is the usual ‘wilder’ way of accommodating these hibernating guests.  A more contemporary but still natural approach is to use varying diameters of log all sawn to the same length. The sawn ends are then used to make a wall of patterned circles, where the gaps offer hibernating space,  usually retained in treated softwood or hardwood. Taller walls can be used to divide up the garden or create screening whilst lower walls can form the base of bench seating or be topped with sedum turf for a fascinating way to define a seating area.

Whilst winter homes are important we shouldn’t forget that there are still many pollinating insects hard at work collecting nectar. Some bumble species remain pollen hunting right through winter! Autumn flowering plants that provide rich sources of nectar needn’t be native nor need they look like a pile of weeds. There is a huge palette of plants available these days that can contribute both to our enjoyment of the garden and to wildlife. Plants that fall into this category include the classic Verbena bonariensis whose tall wiry stems carry nectar rich lilac-purple flowers, beloved by butterflies, right through into autumn. Other late flowering nectar plants include Asters (Little Carlow is gorgeous), Sedums, late flowering Buddleia and honeysuckles, Echinacea (Coneflower) and Rodgersia. The evergreen ivy Helix hedera has much to offer wildlife with nectar-rich flowers until late November and leaves enjoyed as food by Holly Blue caterpillars and as hibernating and nesting spaces for other insects and birds.

So when designing a new planting scheme or adding a few new plants to your garden spare a moment to reflect on the wonder of our native wildlife and both your garden and our planet could benefit.