Garden Design with wildlife in mind
It may be that a nature reserve is the best place for wildlife - but you don’t have to make your garden look like a nature reserve in order for it to be home - or temporary home - to many creatures. All gardens, no matter how formal or heavily managed, are beneficial for wildlife, but it is probable that many gardeners who value their wildlife will also favour the more natural or informal look. This definitely does NOT mean that you have to be “untidy” in any way! You can indulge your wish for a beautiful, well planned and designed garden without compromising for wildlife.
Design is more about composition than taste. Compose a well balanced and interesting picture – through considered design – and your garden will look good as well as be good for wildlife, formal or informal.
This page is intended to remind the reader of good design principles which can be considered when organising your garden to welcome visiting creatures. The idea is that the garden will provide the most pleasure for any onlooker whether a naturalist or not. Details of the structures and plants recommended for a bustling wildlife garden are left to other sections, such as Garden habitats
and Plants and planting
We are aiming here at people with an existing small to average sized garden. If you are lucky enough to have a large garden, there are other options open to you, such as designing with “garden rooms” in each of which can be a different and contrasting mini-design, or constructing winding paths that lead to “reveals” of your house or garden features from unexpected positions. These approaches can make a garden feel even bigger than it is, and can allow you to create special habitat areas which are not constantly overlooked and can perhaps be even more wildlife-orientated.
If you are a garden designer looking for a short summary of what you need to incorporate into your designs to make gardens rich in wildlife, see our leaflet "Key wildlife needs for garden designers"
by Jan Miller-Klein.
If you are taking on a brand new garden space, apart from the less pleasant aspects such as buried concrete and poor soil, you will have the rare privilege of designing a new space from scratch. You would be well advised to do some homework with good design design guides such as these:
• "The Essential Garden Design Workbook" by Rosemary Alexander. 2017 (Third edition). Published by Timber
Press. Very practical, very well illustrated, highly recommended
• "Garden Design" by John Brookes. 2001. Published by Dorling Kindersley.
Good introduction, discusses design grids. Lots of inspiring photographs and plans
• "Essential Garden planning and construction" edited by Christopher Brickell. 2006 Published by the Royal
Horticultural Society. Good on design basics, excellent on materials and techniques.
It is definitely worth creating a simple map, and from that a plan taking into account how plants will grow, spread and shade over the years. You should also take into account eyesores, attractive external views and features, and think about the other important uses for your precious garden space - in addition to providing for wildlife of course.
Finally, if you have just moved into a new house and garden, it's highly advisable to restrain your enthusiasm to change everything until you have seen spring and summer in the new garden, so you can understand what plants and wildlife assets it already has, and how it looks in different seasons and times of day. Take the time to visit local open gardens under the National Garden (Yellow Book) Scheme
so you can discover what grows well in the local soil and weather conditions.
Where to sit?
What is your viewpoint? It's best to choose both a west and an east facing spot to place a chair if possible. You will be able to catch the morning and the evening sun that way or find shade if you can sit with your back to a tree or wall. When you have the sun behind you it will illuminate what ever you are looking at in front of you and not shine into your eyes.
Plan your composition from where you will sit. Other views to consider are from the door or gate on entering the garden and through any window you may look out of comfortably. For each view you need something to look at and a "frame" of some sort
What is there to look at?
Focal points are always desirable. A focal point is somewhere for the eye to ‘rest’. In a wildlife-friendly garden it could be a log pile, bird bath, bird feeder or bird perch (I like to fix pruned branches vertically into the ground for birds to sit on) a specimen shrub (choose one with early nectar and/or autumn berries), rock pile or even a nest box. Nest boxes should be placed out of the sun somewhere facing between north and south east, above head height and in a fairly quiet spot so may only be useful as a distant focal point if you want to see any activity!
Alternatively we can position ourselves to look onto an "arena" – an open space where wildlife may perform (or commit murder and other savage atrocities!). The arena could be a pond, an open grassy area, dusty mound or a clearing in some rough planting. When you hope to encourage wildlife visitors to use your arena, you must ensure that you are not an obvious observer. Your seat should be partially hidden perhaps, with an approach from behind the seat rather than from across or around the perimeter of the arena if possible. With reference to the ‘Where to sit’ discussion above, be aware of what time of day you will sit to observe and how your shadow may be cast.