Create a Shady Wildlife Habitat


Creating dedicated small wildlife areas in a garden, or at least giving a passing nod to the idea of so called ‘mini-habitats’ for wildlife, has always been one of the keys to encouraging a range of creatures to our gardens.  Couple this with ensuring that the whole area is wildlife friendly and managed organically wherever possible and you could be well on the way to making the perfect wildlife garden.  However the concept of creating a woodland habitat is a rather an intimidating prospect for most of us, yet a contained shady area is known to be brilliant for attracting a wide variety of creatures including birds and mammals that may not be seen elsewhere in the average urban or suburban garden.  So how can such a seemingly large area be incorporated into a small garden and is it worth trying?  Can we create an area such as this without it taking over the whole garden?  In even the smallest garden, it is certainly worth a try. The advantages of shade in a wildlife garden are many, but at least as important is the shelter that an area such as this can create in your garden.  Most shrubs are impenetrable at certain times of year and few of us scramble about up in the crown of a tree (except perhaps to put up a bird box in winter time) so these areas remain undisturbed for long periods.   And the term ‘woodland edge’ need not be daunting! If you really don’t have room for a small tree, a mini-woodland can be created with a shrub or two, native or non-native, coppiced annually if necessary (although every other year would be better) to keep it confined to a small space. 
Add appropriate plants in the understorey, bark, logs and twigs beneath, and you can make an area that goes some way to reproducing the shade and shelter created along the edge of a small woodland.  You won’t have anything approaching the area of shady habitat of a copse in the countryside, but your efforts will be well rewarded by the range of birds, mammals, insects and amphibians that will visit your habitat.  The key to the success of a project such as this lies in your choice of plants, location and of course maintenance.  If your garden is tiny there is no doubt that you will need to keep everything under control by pruning your tree, coppicing or pruning hard any shrubs, and ensuring that your understorey plants are managed in a way that creates the minimum of disturbance to the creatures you have attracted.  A tall order but it can be done!  And the advantages are many.  A whole different range of wildlife is likely to visit you including birds such as warblers that you would not necessarily see in a garden without dense vegetation or the height of a small tree. 
First choose your site  Your first task in the creation of any new wildlife habitat is to choose your site.  Bear in mind that both shrubs and tree could grow rapidly and take up quite a bit of space if you are not intending to prune them back hard each year.  In a small garden a corner would be a good option.  An existing fence or hedge will create a boundary for two sides which will partially contain your mini-woodland, but don’t forget that it will be necessary to cut the hedge from time to time.  If you are happy to let your hedge become a part of the habitat, perhaps only cutting the top, you will need access from the other side - in the winter months it might be possible to creep behind to clip the hedge, but possibly not if you have planted a holly, blackthorn, hawthorn or any other prickly customer! 
Next consider the aspect.  It may sound obvious but don’t overlook the fact that if the majority of your garden is sunny, a tree is going to create shade.  This is what you are trying to achieve, but not at the expense of areas where you sit and enjoy the sun, or have created sunlit nectar borders and it is easy to underestimate the shade a tree will project.  Choose a corner in the north or east of your garden and don’t forget that if you decide to include a tree it will shade neighbouring gardens.  Reassure your neighbours that you are planning to keep the tree to a reasonable height.  Next – select your tree  A garden woodland edge habitat doesn’t have to include a tree but there are plenty of small species and varieties that will add to your garden environment.  If you have plenty of space you could try a native tree such as a crab apple which will reach roughly 6 meters at 20 years old, a downy birch (9 metres), bird cherry (10 metres), wild cherry (14 metres) or rowan (12 metres).  These lovely trees will all attract a good variety of birds and insects but would still be too tall for the smaller garden.  There are plenty of non natives though that could help to create your woodland edge feel.  Ask for advice at your local nursery but my choice of non native would be an apple on a dwarfing rootstock (Beauty of Bath has wonderful flowers) or a flowering Prunus, both providing nectar and pollen for insects in the spring and excess fruit would feed the birds. 
If you are less concerned about something that looks traditionally tree-like, a goat willow has more than 250 different insect species associated with it and can be cut down drastically every year if necessary.  Better though to make sure that at least something of your tree substitute remains over the winter, providing a song post for thrushes and robins.  An alternative to the willow could even be a buddleia which will quickly grow to a good height that can be maintained in a tree-like form.  This would be excellent for butterflies, moths and bees and provide height in the garden without too much shade.  Every natural woodland has an understorey of some sort – a selection of smaller trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, bulbs, mosses, liverworts and fungi, which serve to make up this habitat.  We can reproduce this profusion of vegetation by planting beneath our tree or large shrub with wildlife friendly varieties.  Again choose either native or non native plants here, its up to you.  The important thing is to have as wide a selection as you have room for.  It would be better to have one Lamium (or deadnettle), bugle plus a couple of foxgloves, rather than simply a ground cover of Lamium – each plant will attract different insects, thus increasing the wildlife diversity of the area.  Small shrubs that tolerate some shade could include daphne, some viburnums, wild roses or dogwoods with coloured stems.  Bulbs will provide colour in the spring - native bluebells, daffodils and squills and non-native crocuses are good early pollen providers.
As the area develops take inspiration from woodlands you have visited and add plants of varying heights to mimic the vegetation beneath those trees.  To complete the woodland floor mulch with bark, and add twigs and logs to create habitats for invertebrates.  Mosses, lichen and fungi will appear of their own accord as long as the area retains some moisture in the autumn and winter.  Any logs, piled up in the dampest corner will soon rot down to give a home to a huge number of creatures including frogs and toads, invertebrates such as earthworms, centipedes, woodlice and all manner of beetles, both adults and larvae.  You may even attract a hedgehog looking for a hibernation spot.

Looking after your mini-woodland  Maintenance of your woodland is relatively straightforward.  Trees and shrubs will need to be kept under control by sensitive pruning or even drastic coppicing in late winter (willows and buddleia can handle this tough treatment, others will need a more gentle approach).  Bark plus leaves from around your garden can be added every autumn, and log piles topped up from autumn until early spring.  This should be the only time it is necessary to disturb your woodland – regard it at other times as a no-go area to avoid the secretive creatures that will take up residence.

Be creative!   A woodland edge is one of the most wildlife friendly habitats we can create in our gardens.  You could greatly increase the diversity of creatures that dwell in your plot this winter by choosing a spot, adding a small tree, and employing a little creative thinking.  


  • Choose a suitable spot on the north or east side of your garden.

  • Clear all perennial weeds by digging out or cover the ground with mulching material.

  • Plant your chosen tree, taking care with the preparation of the hole and stake if the spot is windy.

  • Add one or two shrubs of your choice if you have enough space.

  • Plant understorey herbaceous plants and bulbs.

  • Mulch with bark and/or leaves.

  • Add twigs and logs as piles or strewn randomly to mimic a woodland floor.

© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017