Grow a Native Shrub

The native versus non-native argument is one that has existed as long as wildlife gardening has been popular.  In general the key to a well populated wildlife gardening that buzzes with life is to ensure great diversity in both native and non-native plants, whether they are herbaceous perennials, annuals, trees or shrubs.  However work by the British Trust for Ornithology suggests that given the choice, birds prefer to nest in native shrubs rather than non native, although the reasons for this were not immediately apparent.  But the reasons for the birds’ choices are not important at this stage of our understanding.  It is sufficient to know that native is good and we can all do something about planting more native shrubs, even in the smallest garden.

Although the ideal boundary for a wildlife garden is a mixed native hedge, brimming with fruits and berries and bristling with thorns, this isn’t always an easy option in a small urban garden.  The narrow garden of the Victorian terrace where I grew up would have disappeared completely between two good hedges, but a single hawthorn in one corner, pruned heavily late in the winter after the berries had been eaten, made a wonderful wildlife habitat with a nesting song thrush every spring.  As often as not when we acquire a new garden we need to be content with either a fence or an existing privet hedge.  The latter is always preferable and few of us would want to uproot a living barrier that already provides us with shelter and seclusion and has a certain amount of wildlife value.  Privet is, after all a native species and although the varieties commonly grown for hedging are not quite the true native, they still provide food for the privet hawk moth caterpillar and if left to flower will attract a wide range of nectar-seeking insects.  A hedge such as this can also be made more wildlife friendly with the addition of climbers. 

Growing a native shrub  But as my parent’s tiny garden showed, native shrubs need not be confined entirely to our boundaries.  A single specimen of a well chosen native may be planted in a corner and kept within bounds with judicious pruning, or allowed to grow into a specimen plant.  Most native shrubs adapt well to these conditions and the best of these wildlife magnets cope with all soil types.  Planting in a corner ensures better protection for nesting birds and if your chosen shrub is prickly it is even more likely to be used to raise a family.  And don’t underestimate the power of these plants to attract other wildlife.  It’s not just birds that use their shelter and eat their berries.  Small mammals are attracted to the fruits of hawthorn, dog rose, hazel, dogwood, blackthorn, field maple and buckthorn amongst others.  Best of all these plants have huge numbers of small invertebrates associated with them, eating their leaves, buds and bark or feeding on the pollen and nectar produced by their flowers.  These smaller creatures bring in the insectivorous birds such as warblers and provide food for the nestlings of a great variety of species. Many of our native moths feed on their leaves and these overlooked creatures play an important part in the garden food chain; their caterpillars provide food for young birds, shrews and hedgehogs, and the adult moths are eaten by bats.  In all they really are wonder plants! 

How and when to plant  Any time between October and March is a suitable time to plant a native shrub.  Take as much care as you would with any new shrub, even if your plant is a home grown seedling or a bare rooted plant from a nursery.  As with all trees and shrubs, preparation and care now pays dividends in the longer term.  Dig a hole larger than the root ball and break up the soil at the bottom with a fork.  Add a good amount of well rotted compost, position your shrub, making sure to release the root ball a little if it has been pot grown, by teasing out some of the roots.  Carefully back fill around the roots adding a little more compost if you wish and add a final mulch compost after firming the plant in.    At this time of year you may find your local nursery has bare rooted native shrubs.  These will be smaller than pot grown specimens but soon catch up if planted with care and watered in dry weather.

The top five native shrubs for wildlife 

Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna  Hawthorn is a well known tree or shrub and the fruits or haws are edible.  They can be added to hedgerow jams and jellies but are best left to feed the birds!  Hawthorn is one of our prickly native shrubs making it an ideal choice if you want to encourage nesting birds.  Although technically a small tree it responds well to pruning to keep a shrub-like shape and is a perfect choice for a hedge, making a good thick barrier.

Attracts many bird and mammal species, is great for nests and has over 200 species of invertebrate associated with it including the lovely brimstone moth and the strange Chinese character moth which looks like a bird dropping!

Goat Willow Salix capraea  Goat, or pussy willow, to give it its more attractive common name, is perfect for a wildlife garden as it can be coppiced on an annual basis much like a buddleia.  This means it will never out-grow its position.  Although not spiny like the hawthorn and not a berry bearer, it does have the advantage of attracting large numbers of insect to its flowers and leaves.  The pretty fluffy catkins have masses of pollen early in the spring and are visited avidly by both honey bees and bumblebees – this pollen is an important source of food for these insects when they first emerge from hibernation.

Attracts early bees and butterflies and has over 250 invertebrate species associated with it including the pebble prominent and leopard moths. 

Holly Ilex aquifolium  Holly is another excellent choice for a wildlife corner but can be rather more slow growing than willow or hawthorn.  It does though have the advantage of being evergreen and therefore produces a good screen.  As it is also prickly, it is a species often chosen by birds as a safe nest site.

Attracts the thrush family especially redwings and fieldfares to the berries, honey bees and bumblebees, and is a good bird nesting shrub.

Dogwood Cornus sanguinea  Dogwood might need a little more space than some of the other species mentioned as it does have a habit of spreading underground.  However if you want a green screen that fills a space with attractive leaves in summer and autumn, red stems in winter plus flowers and berries, then this could be a great choice.  Dogwood comes in many species and varieties but our native is excellent. 

Attracts birds and small mammals and the female holly blue butterfly will lay her eggs on the flower buds.

Dog Rose Rosa canina  Our native wild roses may not have the depth of scent of some cultivated varieties but they have a charm of their own.  Varying in colour from almost white to a proper girly pink, the dog rose can enhance any garden however small.  Its scrambles rather than climbs into other shrubs or can be planted against a fence or wall, although it will need to be secured in some way.  Don’t underestimate the prickliness of this plant – the thorns can be pretty spiky so make sure if you do decide to plant this – and it really is worthwhile – then make sure it is not in a place that receives lots of passing traffic. 

Attracts birds, small mammals, bees, hoverflies and moths including the vapourer and common emerald.

Expand the wildlife value If you are short of space in your garden, don’t assume that you have no room for a native shrub.  You could plant a hawthorn or goat willow, dogwood or hazel and nestle a wild rose at its base to clamber through the branches. Cut a few big stems back hard to the ground in late winter every year to prevent the rose getting too thick and spiky.   Place a nest box in amongst the branches for a robin or wren and create a small log pile at the base to make a complete ‘woodland edge’ habitat.

Grow Your Own from Seed If you have the patience, you could grow some wild shrubs of your own from seed.  Get the kids involved too by encouraging them to collect a few hips and haws, hazelnuts, dogwood berries or field maple keys this month.  Remove any fleshy parts and sow them in gritty compost in pots which should be left outside through the winter. Some, such as hazel and hawthorn may germinate next spring but others may take another year.  Pot up and grow on until they are large enough to plant out.  It may take a while but you will have a great sense of satisfaction!  


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017