Gardening for Wildlife

A Courtyard Nature Garden

A quick bit about who we are

I’m Josh and I live with my partner Rebeca in Cornwall. I was lucky enough to grow up in the Devon countryside and since then I have moved about Devon and Cornwall (often living on tiny boats) until meeting Rebeca, who had a house in a busy Cornish town.

Our Courtyard Nature Garden

Even the most urban house in Cornwall is pretty rural by most peoples standards, we are only 100’s of meters away from the river Tamar and the beautiful Tamar valley (you can see a video I made of the area here). Even so, having grown up in the countryside surrounded by animals (lots of rescues) and wildlife I found our little courtyard garden didn’t quite provide the access to nature I wanted. This post is about how we brought wildlife to a relatively small and very enclosed garden – both what to do and what not to do!

A courtyard Nature Garden
A very tidy picture of our house in the spring. The garden looks bigger than it is due to some camera trickery!

It must be said – I’m no expert at this and if I had known what I know now when I started with this garden there is a lot I would have done differently.

There are some great resources out there, I highly recommend the book Wild Your Garden: Create a sanctuary for nature I have just finished reading it and it was full of really useful, practical information. It’s also an enjoyable read and will have you planning your nature garden in no time! I also recommend watching the videos on the Youtube channel The Wildlife Garden Project, they have some great videos showing small projects that can easily make your garden more hospitable to a wide range of species.

What animals can you expect

A Male Sparrow perching on a branch of a blossoming tree

We have managed to attract a wide range of animals, in particular birds. We have a large number of sparrows that spend a lot of time in the tree and they attract the Sparrowhawk. We have a pair of Wood Pigeons, a pair of Ringed Doves, Blue Tits, Magpies and Herring Gulls amongst others. As for non-avian species we have a wood mouse, smooth newts, a common toad and we had a hedgehog (if you have a pond put in a ramp for hedgehogs to escape!). I think that’s not too bad for an urban courtyard garden with 10ft high walls.

The Basics

Put in a pond, nothing will attract more wildlife. A full diverse habitat in its own right it also provides much needed drinking water for other animals and a place for lots of invertebrates to breed. It’s worth saying again – if you have, or build any kind of pond put in a ramp for hedgehogs, a piece of wood wrapped in chicken wire works well. We found out the importance of this when one morning we found a dead hedgehog in our pond (this was before we were trying to attract lots of wildlife and before we cut a hedgehog hole in our gate).

Build a pond

If you have the space Sussex Wildlife Trust has a great video on how to build a pond for wildlife here or if you don’t have the space or can’t dig in your garden for any reason check out this fantastic video by Sally Le Page on how to make a pond for wildlife in a small container.

Get some bird feeders

The next thing would be bird feeders, but only if you already have either a tree or shrubs the birds can use for cover. If you don’t, start by looking for a tree or shrub birds could use to hide from predators. Ideally a species that are native locally if you can find them and anything that produces a lot of blossom and berries will also serve to help pollinators and provide food for birds. As for what feeders to choose, check out this guide from the RSPB. If you are on a budget some of the discount retailers provide bird feeders that are perfectly fine, we have used ones from B and M with no complaints.

Choose your bird food

Bird seed can be quite expensive, however, I often find that small independent pet shops offer the best value and you will be supporting local businesses. We tried the cheap seed that comes in huge bags from B and M and the birds simply pick out the few bits they like and the rest ends up on the floor. Interestingly under one of our feeders some of the dropped seed sprouted and some began to decay – this attracted lots of invertebrates and created it’s own little habitat. If you know what species use or are likely to visit your garden this guide form the RSPB covers all of the best choices for what to feed and when. Otherwise visit your local pet shop and get a general seed mix that will attract a range of birds.

Two female sparrows on a bird feeder in our garden
Sparrows on one of our feeders

Plant some wildflowers

Plant some wildflowers to attract and support pollinators, as a general rule perennials do better on poor soil and annuals do better on richer soils BBC Gardeners world has a short guide on what to choose here.

Create some new habitats

Include a rockery, it will provide a home for amphibians and reptiles as well as a whole host of invertebrates. Ideally this should be quite close to the pond and can be made of any rocks stones or even old bricks, the idea is to create gaps for animals to shelter in so it doesn’t need to be anything fancy.

Build or buy a compost bin, it makes no sense to send compostable waste to landfill and then buy compost in plastic bags (much of which comes from peat bogs which is terrible for the environment). It will also become a vibrant habitat for invertebrates which in turn will attract animals which prey upon them. If you can site your compost bin somewhere it will get the sun and follow the guides for turning etc to really get the most out of it. However our compost bin is in a shady corner and we have not looked after it the way we should, yet it is still a thriving habitat for invertebrates and our Wood Mouse also lives inside. For a quick guide on composting look at this from The Eden Project.

Make a hedgehog hole

If your garden has a fence or a gate you can cut a hedgehog hole to help them travel between gardens. This should be approx 13cm across (ours is a little narrow – cut before we began reading on the subject).

A hedgehog hole cut into the bottom of a wooden gate
Hedgehog hole

Plant some climbing plants

The last thing for this post for courtyard gardens would be to plant climbing plants. Not only do they help cover ugly grey walls but they provide a habitat to insects, food for pollinators, cover for birds and if you plant the right ones they can attract moths which will help draw in bats! Honeysuckle is particularly good for this, but any climbing plant will be significantly better for nature than a bare wall.

There is lots more that can be done, even in small enclosed gardens, but hopefully this has given you some ideas for ways of attracting wildlife into the most urban of gardens. We will be providing more detailed instructions for the above ideas and further projects in future posts. What are your top tips for attracting wildlife to courtyards gardens? Let us know in the comments below.