Creative Ways to Use Storm Damage in The Wildlife Garden
They say every cloud has a silver lining.
If you’re currently bailing out floodwaters or searching for temporary accommodation whilst your roof is fixed, then, understandably, you might not be thinking along those lines (and I genuinely send heartfelt hopes that order can be restored for you soon!).
However, once we stop reeling from the force of stormy weather (as someone I bumped into this week said: “puts us all in our place doesn’t it?”), and homes and belongings are safe and secure again, there are many ways in which we can turn the aftermath to nature’s advantage, in our gardens.
Look to your boundaries
No garden exists in isolation; a fact we often forget. Although for us, privacy, shutting out the world, seclusion, are all desirable qualities we want for our personal patches of land, wildlife needs connectivity. Many of our most loved species favour the edge lands – the verge of woodland; the hedgerows and field margins; the messy area where the flower border spills onto the lawn; the overhanging tree from your neighbour’s; the determined weedy growth on the closed off railway embankment.
There are of course numerous reasons we need our gardens secure, and if your fences have been damaged by storm winds, repair and replacement will be needed. But before you phone up and order meters of board panels and concrete footings, perhaps give these options a consideration…
Hedgerows: beloved by all, from bank voles to dunnocks, blackbirds to hedgehogs. A hedge could be the perfect answer to your windblown fence. Aside from offering shelter, food and nesting opportunities to a whole range of wildlife, it can also act as a wind buffer. The force of the wind can be greatly reduced and slowed as it is filtered through the leafy growth and branches of a hedge, saving on costly repeated fence repairs. Evergreens, and a mix of native species, provide the greatest wildlife value, especially if flowering/fruiting varieties are included. Bare rooted hedging plants are usually available from nurseries or online until March, or potted plants can be purchased all year round.
One creature that would thank you for planting a hedge would of course be the hedgehog. These animals need to roam over a huge area of gardens every night, often covering a mile or more of territory, in order to find food and mates. You can make your garden accessible by creating hedgehog highways. A hedge is ideal, but if you prefer the panel fencing option, or aren’t in a position to replace existing fencing, a small hole is all that is needed. A 12cm gap, cut in the bottom of a fence or gate will be the perfect hedgehog highway. If you are having a new fence installed, ask your supplier about pre-made hedgehog friendly gravel boards; these are available with a suitable gap already cut in, saving you any effort at all!
In very small gardens, a thick shrubby hedge might simply be impractical. So what can you do to recreate the conditions of a hedge but on a slim-line scale? Trellis panels, grown with climbers, are the perfect ‘hedge on a diet’. The gaps in a trellis allow hedgehogs, toads, and other creatures to creep through, and growing a variety of climbers will provide cover, shelter and possibly even nesting opportunities for birds. Ivy, honeysuckle, climbing roses, jasmine and clematis can all cover trellis effectively. Evergreen options offer year round screening and privacy for people, and shelter for wildlife.
Logs, tree stumps and brush piles.
Some storms cause casualties; when trees come down we can be left with a dilemma. It can be hard to know what to do with the debris other than gather it all into a large bonfire and watch the smoke curling up to irritate the clouds. In natural woodland, when trees fall or shed branches due to rot or high winds, the fallen timber lays where it fell, gradually reducing and returning to the earth, worked on by innumerable microbes, fungi and mini-beasts. During its long decay, it shelters yet more life beneath and around it; a complete habitat in its own right, as valuable as when it wafted high against the sky.
In our tidy gardens we habitually break this chain, clearing away and disposing of any dead or broken material, depriving the soil of vitality, turning our green squares into barren homeless patches of earth. Fallen trees and branches in their new form offer new opportunities to the wildlife garden.
- Stack small branches and logs, brush and twigs and leaf-litter, in a quiet out of the way undisturbed corner of the garden, or at the back of flower borders. Pile logs behind flowerpots, or stack under your garden bench. These habitat piles are best left undisturbed, but the occasional peak won’t hurt. You might find fungi or woodlice, centipedes, frogs or toads, or even newts hiding in the damp dark crevices. (Amphibians hibernate in damp places such as this through the winter.) On sunnier stacks in summer, slow worms or common lizards might be spotted sunbathing, or a butterfly might perch to soak up some warm rays. Remember to replace any wood you lift, back in position carefully, and avoid disturbing hedgehog nests as the mother could abandon her young.
- Stag beetle castles are a great alternative to the traditional log pile. Rather than laying logs flat on the ground, dig a hole in soft ground in a sheltered spot, and half bury some of the logs upright, so part is underground and part above. Stag beetle larvae can spend up to 7 years munching on dead wood, before emerging as Britain’s largest beetle for a few days in the summer!
- One of our most rare habitats is standing deadwood, possibly rarer even than rainforest. Tree stumps and upright/rooted dead wood offer different wildlife opportunities to log piles. If a damaged tree in your garden requires felling, pause for a moment before the chainsaws swing into action. Where it is safe to do so, it is certainly worth considering cutting the trunk higher – around head height perhaps, removing any danger of branches falling, but retaining the trunk in position. As weather and fungi get to work on the stump, crevices and holes will form. Woodpeckers may come to feed on grubs under the bark (you could use the stump as a bird feeder station by hanging different kinds of feeders from branches or hooks). Birds or bats might nest or roost in cavities, and beetles and their larvae will probably spend years munching their way through the wood inside.
Whilst you’re up the ladder, checking guttering, repairing roof tiles, or fixing your TV aerial, it’s the perfect excuse to put up a nest box… or several!
Swifts, sparrows, house martins, tits, starlings, even bats, have shared our homes for centuries but are increasingly struggling to find vacancies to let. As we secure our homes, making our roof spaces water tight and better insulated, replacing wooden boarding with plastic soffits, plugging up gaps and closing up cavities, we are unwittingly shutting out our neighbours. You can buy readymade nest boxes in different designs and styles to suit different species, or even find patterns and instructions online on how to make your own! Place boxes as high as possible, under the eaves for protection from wind and rain, and ideally facing away from the full midday sun to avoid overheating in summer.
Plant for the future
Garden trees are excellent wildlife attractors, giving birds somewhere to shelter and perch, a place for us to hang feeders, (or sit just beneath the shade). Somewhere for ants and woodlice to forage amongst moss on trunks, or for bees to visit blossom. When a tree is felled by storm winds, it can leave a big hole in the garden, a space to be filled. But what tree should we plant in it place? The size and proportions of your garden will dictate your choice to some extent, but there are trees suitable for even small gardens.
Evergreens offer dense shelter all year round, ideal for birds to roost in during cold winter nights, or to find a hidden spot to nest in the spring and summer. Trees which have blossom and fruit offer different benefits; pollinating insects will be drawn to the blossom in spring, and birds will feast of the fruit and berries in autumn and winter. Native trees are ideal, and many have ornamental varieties bred for small garden spaces.
Holly offers excellent impenetrable evergreen shelter for birds, along with small flowers and bright red berries, the latter loved by blackbirds. The holly blue butterfly also uses evergreens such as holly and ivy as a food plant for its caterpillars. Other fruiting trees include rowan, crab apple, hawthorn, viburnum, and elder; even apple, pear or cherry trees are great for wildlife as well as our kitchens!
When trees are mature, they create shady conditions beneath their canopy, as their spreading branches gather as much light as possible. When they fall, sunlight can reach the ground again, often the first time in many years, triggering dormant seeds and new plants into fresh growth. Over time, a succession of species takes advantage of this opportunity, until a new tree sapling begins to dominate, and grows up to replace the parent tree. This is known as natural regeneration or succession. You can replicate or encourage this by planting or sowing seeds in the new space created by the removal of storm damaged trees in your garden; an exciting opportunity to try growing new things. Quick growing annuals with colourful flowers and short lifespans will be the first to take advantage of the sunlight, with perennial plants taking a little longer to establish.
Ditches, ponds and bog gardens: look to see where the water naturally gathers and runs. Ponds and bog gardens collect and slow flood waters, whilst ditches channel it away from vulnerable places. All are fantastic wildlife habitats. Ditches retain moisture and are often shady due to their narrow shape, which creates the perfect conditions to grow plants that need wet roots, and for amphibians to hide and feed during the summer. Bog gardens also offer a unique and unusual garden habitat, attracting many different kinds of wildlife, particularly insects that feed birds, mammals and amphibians. They also act like a giant sponge, capturing and slowing rainwater before releasing it gradually over a long period of time. Water is a wildlife magnet, and a pond is a fantastic way to bring nature into your garden, (or make good use of that soggy patch of your garden where you always need wellington boots!) Remember that ponds should always have a shallow margin to allow wildlife to climb safely in and out of the water, (and you might want to consider fencing the area off if you have young children who use the garden unsupervised).