Autumn Gardening For Wildlife

Autumn is a wonderful time in the garden with the low sun lighting up leaves that are turning to stunning reds, oranges and buttery yellows.

It is also a time when we start to think about tidying our gardens. People used to say ‘putting the garden to bed’. But we now know that in tidying the garden too much, not only do we lose some lovely structure and interest, we are also depriving wildlife of valuable hibernation sites and food, and can even unwittingly wipe out the caterpillars that are next year’s moths and butterflies as we disturb them from their sleep among the twigs and stems.

So here are my tips for autumn garden maintenance:

*Only clear away any leaves that are on lawns or hard surfaces. Leave those that are on borders as long as they are not smothering any plants. They will act as a mulch preventing weed growth, and some will be taken down into the soil by worms which feed on them, returning carbon to the ground and enriching the soil. The worm activity also opens up the soil as they make tunnels. This is particularly useful for clay soils. Put the leaves in a leaf bin or compost bin to rot down and make leaf mould which you can use to mulch, especially around acid-loving plants or for making compost.

*If you do prune any shrubs, leave the cut stems in a pile in a corner of the garden so that any insects still attached have a chance of survival. Log piles are also good habitats for beetles and other invertebrates.

*If perennial plants turn brown and soft, and collapse, then do clear them away, but leave anything that is still standing. Some perennials offer seeds as food for birds, whilst others, especially those with hollow stems are good habitats for overwintering invertebrates such as ladybirds and spiders.

*You can finish trimming deciduous hedges but watch out for any hedgehogs that might be hibernating underneath.

*Autumn is also a great time to plant trees and hedges. Not only do trees help to sequester carbon in their own structure, vital in the fight against climate change, they start a whole ecosystem of life around them such as the fungi and bacteria in the soil, the insects feeding on the bark and leaves, and the birds in the canopy. For us, they also provide some defence against air pollution and in the increasingly hot summers, are vital for cooling the air and creating shade. Ideally choose native species as these are best for UK wildlife but make sure they are a suitable size for your garden. Ask at your local nursery. If you can, choose UK grown trees as this helps reduce the risk of pests and diseases coming in from other countries. If you have limited space, try a large shrub instead. These can grow to a good size but are generally easy to trim when you need to. Fruit trees are a good choice as they also provide food for us (less food miles than supermarket bought produce) and can be bought to be trained as smaller forms e.g. as cordons or espaliers to be trained against a wall or fence.

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