If you’re cooped up at home and have a garden, I don’t blame you for thinking about tidying and getting out the strimmer and hedge trimmer. You’ll want to give the whole outdoor space a spruce-up, ready for warmer days ahead.
But please don’t overdo it – keep a space for wildlife. Your garden is full of their territories too.
This spring 2020, if you live near a road, you may be more aware of birdsong than before, because only essential journeys are being made and engine noise is lower. If you watch the birds, you may notice them gathering nesting materials or food for chicks.
The bird-nesting season is officially February/March to August and in Cornwall, it can start even earlier. We are strongly advised not to undertake tree or hedge cutting outside the nesting season, so consider only hand-trimming diseased or crossing branches you missed, or odd straggly bits that overhang paths and twang you in the face. Otherwise, give garden birds peace to set up homes for their new families.
You might like to leave out grass clippings, hair trimmings or pet fur to be used as nesting material. House martins and swallows need damp mud for modelling their rounded nests (and all birds appreciate the water and insect life provided by a pond or wet area).
Instead of using petrol cutters, mowers and trimmers to prepare a neat ‘outdoor room’ for human party guests (who now can’t come), you could create new bird feeders for garden residents and guests (see https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/actions/how-feed-birds-your-garden).
Nestlings and fledglings need frequent feeding on a high protein diet, such as grubs and caterpillars. To provide natural bird food – the best of all – your garden needs to be rich in insects, worms and other tiny animals, plus seeds, grasses, nectar, pollen, nuts, fruits and berries, just like a nature reserve. Instead of having pristine, short green grass or artificial lawns, concrete, slabs or decking, please let your plants grow! Do you have solid fencing? If so, create hedgehog access underneath or by cutting out an entrance for them. Grow hedges or climbers for extra flowers if you can.
You’ll need tall plants, short plants, middling plants, and a mix of dish, cup and bell-shaped flowers for different bees and other insects. Trees, bushes, clumps or group plantings that offer large clusters of scented flower varieties should attract hordes of appreciative insects, which in turn provide food for birds, bats, frogs, toads, bats, hedgehogs, voles and maybe even lizards if you’re lucky.
If you didn’t store your own, seeds should be available by post during the covid outbreak. Go for organic rather than chemically treated ones if you can. Try planting out-of-date seeds, too, in case they’ll still germinate, or see what comes up by itself. Our Cornish soil is usually full of wildflowers just waiting to grow, and a weed is only a weed when you don’t want it – I really love my celandines and dandelion flowers. Last year invasive (but edible-leaved) ground elders in our garden produced such dainty white flower umbels on attractive stems, encouraging insects and looking gorgeous amongst cultivated flowers. If you leave an area of lawn uncut, it may become a wildflower meadow without help! Please don’t even think about using poison weedkillers – these are being phased out for good reason.
Remember that old, dead plant material is needed by wildlife even in spring, whether as nesting materials, shelter, or food for beneficial bacteria, fungi and invertebrates. Maybe there’s a dark corner for those old leaves, under a hedge for instance. Excess autumn leaves and chipped twigs are happily composting away in a chicken-wire leaf bin in my garden (a home-made triangular one, as a triangle was the only space left) to make a super mulch later on. Worms under lawns will pull fallen leaves underground to enrich and aerate your soil, so remember their needs, too.
While you’re in the garden, keep a look out for queen bumblebees (Bombus spp.) searching for a nest site or establishing a new one. Leave undisturbed patches of rough grass near flowers and you may be treated to a hardworking family of these gentle furry insects living in your garden this summer. The placid mason bees (Osmia spp.) are fantastic fruit pollinators too, so setting up a mason bee nesting house is another great garden activity to keep you away from the temptation of the strimmer and hedge trimmer: https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/actions/how-make-bee-hotel
These are just a few of the many actions for wildlife that can keep you busy during the lockdown. See https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/actions for many more ideas. Set up a camera to record the birds and animals you see, and let us know about them at https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife/wildlife-recording. You’ll love your living garden and you won’t have time or space for that old-fashioned excess tidiness!