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How to create a contemporary wildlife garden

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

With gardens estimated to cover over 10 million acres (yes really!), the need for wildlife gardens has never been greater.

So what can we do to support wildlife in Cambridge’s gardens within a contemporary urban aesthetic? Our approach is to break it down into three key areas; design, plants and habitat enrichment. Firstly, we’ll look at how garden design influences habitat diversity.

The importance of garden design in providing for wildlife comes down to, above all, structure. The layout and the design components of the garden influence the physical structure, the types and diversity of habitats, and the degree of connectivity within your garden and in relation to the broader environs. Let’s look at these in more detail.

Even small spaces can provide a diversity of habitats such as in this suburban wildlife garden we created.

The structure of natural habitats has significant influence on the physical diversity of garden and therefore the diversity of the micro habitats within it. These microhabitats come about through the influence of sun and shade, wind, rain, etc, which are governed by the habitat structure. A simplistic example of this might be two meadows, one of which is entirely open, while the other has a small group of trees in it. The stand of trees creates shade, shelter from wind, vertical structure etc which creates an area of the habitat which is different from the open meadow, and therefore supports plants and wildlife that may not tolerate the more open conditions of the grassy areas.

What is true for natural habitats is true for your garden (albeit on a smaller scale), the physical layout - both vertical and horizontal - governs the physical diversity of the habitat. Trees provide nesting and roosting sites, as well as off-ground foraging opportunities for birds and bats; hot and dry areas offer basking areas for insects to warm up in the mornings and hot spots for butterflies; whilst shady log piles create hibernation sites for hedgehogs and food for detritivores.

Areas of gravel in sunny parts fo the garden can create hotspots for wildlife, especially when complemented by nectar rich plants. Here we have thyme, white lavander and hylotelephium providing a succession of nectar sources.

So how do we design contemporary gardens that also provide for nature? We do this by maximising value of existing features such as mature trees, and by increasing the diversity of the habitat by creating log piles, semi wild areas, ponds etc. Planting also has an important role to play; by using a variety of planting styles – for example by having a mix of planting densities – we can increase the diversity and therefore the array of micro habitats. All of these are compatible with designing modern gardens that look sophisticated and harmonious, and an experieinced garden designer can help you integrate them into the design in a way that doesn't look contrived.

Another great design-based approach to encouraging wildlife into your garden is to create a section of the garden (usually towards the back) that is left a bit wilder. This might include a mini wildflower meadow, looser or less formal planting, lower active usage (especially by kids and pets) or more native species, but it requires careful design to ensure these are still meaningfully integrated into the overall design.

In the next blog we’ll look at how the right plants form one of the bedrocks of a good wildlife garden, and how a garden designer can create a planting scheme that is contemporary and exciting - it doesn’t all have to be scruffy looking wildflowers!


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