CROYDON COMMENTARY: After surveys this summer reported a decline in butterfly and moth populations across the country, LEWIS WHITE, a retired landscape architect with decades of experience, offers his advice on how to make your garden more wildlife-friendly this autumn
Just cut the mowing. You can save yourself some unnecessary work and transform your garden into a haven for wildlife.
Inside Croydon readers with neat and manicured lawns that are mown every week or so could very easily encourage butterflies and moths and provide essential food for them by creating “wildflower mini-meadows”.
You just need to designate some areas of the lawn to grow longer through the spring and summer, only cutting them just once, in the autumn, and raking the grass off, just like a farmer cuts a hay meadow.
The mini meadow area or areas do not have to be huge, and can be shaped like oval islands, which sit very well in the garden landscape.
Unless they have been treated with weedkillers, most lawns will contain some wild flowers. When the grass is left to grow, the flowering plants will be able to grow and come into flower, giving nectar for bees and a myriad of other beneficial insect pollinators.
If the reader is lucky enough to have a garden on chalky soil, which many areas of Croydon have, it is highly likely that there will be several species of wildflowers already growing, but “miniaturised” by the regular mowing process.
To speed the naturalisation process along, it is possible to buy British native wildflowers as “plugs” and in small posts from specialist mail-order suppliers and some garden centres locally, and plant these within your chosen area to enrich the flora.
Yellow Rattle seeds can be purchased and scattered on to the area – these help other wildflowers to grow by opening up the grass so that seeds of other wildflowers can germinate.
The meadow areas can be full of colour from very early spring, with cowslips and primroses, through to late summer with the beautiful blue flowers of scabious. The seeds of wildflowers should be left — goldfinches and other birds will find and feed on them, while other seeds fall to ground and regrow next spring. Seed heads can also look very decorative, and have a character of their own. Some bulbs are also suitable for planting, such as the delicate wild narcissus and crocus.
Visually, the meadow areas look deliberate and attractive, giving a visual counterpoint to the short-mown surrounding grass. They will not look scruffy, just rather natural, and relaxing to contemplate.
Having made two such mini-meadows in my chalky Coulsdon back garden, I can honestly say that they look beautiful all year round, as well as being very good for the birds, bees and butterflies.
In October or early November, just cut the grass, maybe leave it a few days to dry off, then gather it up, ideally with a rake, and put the cuttings in a compost heap or bin. Just leave the area to enjoy a dormant period, over the winter, before it comes to life in early spring.
Of course, if the garden is unsuitable for a mini-meadow, you might want to try a range of flowering shrubs. Shrubs with flowers allow the bees and pollinators to get in to feed on nectar and gather the pollen needed for honey to be made.
The purple buddleia flower of mid- to late summer is still a wonderful plant for this, but by having spring-flowering spireas, lilacs, weigelas and summer flowering roses, and autumn flowering plants (and spring flowering trees like cherries and apples), your garden can help wildlife all year.
With unpredictable winter weather, sometimes encouraging species to emerge from hibernation too early in a “false spring”, insects need food. Flowers are their food, and every little helps.
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