Wildlife Gardening in Small Spaces

Many people who are interested in their local plants and wildlife, or are just concerned with what is happening in the environment around them, don’t have access to a large garden.  This doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on enjoying wildlife in your immediate surroundings.  It is possible to encourage all sorts of wildlife into the smallest outside spaces, including window boxes, balconies and tiny patio gardens. If you live in a flat, you may not have even a window box, but it is still possible to appreciate the birds that live in your area.  Firstly try fixing a bird feeder to the outside of your window where it is visible from a comfortable place inside.  Make sure it is in a spot that is safely accessible for refilling and cleaning. 

Feeders are available to hold peanuts or mixed seeds and attract a range of smaller birds such as tits, sparrows and finches.  Window feeders will even attract birds to the upper storeys of flats in urban areas, and once the feeder has been located, birds will continue to use it regularly.  As with all bird feeding, keep it up all through the year.  It is important to remember that birds need fresh water at all times.  Small terracotta water dishes that attach to a wall or fence are available from a variety of suppliers.  One of these, regularly replenished with fresh water, could bring birds to drink and bathe.

If you live in a flat a nest box attached to the wall outside your window can also bring blue tits or great tits to your home, and watching them build their nests and rear their young can provide a huge amount of pleasure.  Tits will use a box several storeys from the ground.  This can be particularly effective if you also have a balcony where a few plants including container grown climbers will create a good general environment for small birds.  Make sure you have professional help to safely attach the box to the wall which should be located to face between north-east and south-east.

A balcony opens up all sorts of possibilities.  By choosing wildlife friendly plants, including wildflowers (see list) you could attract honeybees, bumblebees, hoverflies, butterflies and a good range of birds.  Group your containers together to create shelter for wildlife and make watering more efficient.  Try to include a climber such as a leafy, small flowered Clematis or an ivy, which could make a nest site for a wren or robin.  Choose nectar and pollen producing plants for your containers – these could include displays of bedding plants and bulbs from the list.  If you have room on a sunny balcony, a dwarf variety of Buddleia, cut back to the ground early every spring, will attract butterflies such as small tortoiseshells and red admirals.  A sunny window box, with carefully selected wildlife friendly bedding plants or smaller wildflowers will attract some visiting insects.  Or you could plant herbs, many of which are very attractive to wildlife and a useful addition to the kitchen.  Try winter savoury, golden marjoram, chives and trailing thyme all of which are a magnet for bees and butterflies.  Annual nasturtiums will add colour, attract bumblebees, and large and small white butterflies may lay their eggs on the leaves of this particular plant.  You can keep the herbs neat and healthy by cutting them back in early spring each year and mulching with organic compost.   

Hanging baskets are another good way of introducing plants for wildlife into small spaces.  Make sure you use synthetic liners (not sphagnum moss) and peat free compost.  You may wish to incorporate water-absorbing gel to reduce watering. Choose your plants from the list below.  Hanging baskets have been known to attract nesting robins!  A patio provides an opportunity to design a small wildlife friendly area where you can even incorporate a small raised pond in a half barrel.  Try to include in your containers some small shrubs such as Hebe, a few herbs, a climber or two, and nectar and pollen producing perennials or annuals.  Some suitable wildflowers here and there would also be a great asset.  A water saucer for birds and hedgehogs, a couple of bird feeders, a nest box and perhaps a tiny pond and you could have the perfect mini wildlife garden.  

All of the above ideas can be used in a small garden as well as being adapted to your work place.  A bird feeder or drinking saucer just outside the window of your rest room may be a welcome and relaxing distraction during break time.  If there is communal planting around your work place, you may be able to suggest wildlife friendly alternative plants, or encourage environmentally friendly garden management.  If there are trees or fencing around, nest boxes for tits, robins, wrens or even bats could be added.

If wildlife and the environment in which you live are really important to you, your local Urban Wildlife Group could have a lot to offer you.  These groups often maintain community gardens and green spaces which you can visit and become involved with if you don't have a garden of your own.

The list below has wildlife-friendly plants that are particularly recommended for containers or small gardens

Annuals - Baby blue eyes, Californian poppy, candytuft, cornflower varieties, echium, English marigold, French marigold, nasturtiums, night scented stock, poached egg plant, poppy.

Bedding Plants – Dahlias (small single types), forget-me-not, heliotrope, impatiens, lobelia, pansy, petunia (blue or white), sweet william, tobacco plant, verbena (especially bonariensis), wallflower.

Bulbs – Bluebell, crocus, sedum, squill, winter aconite.

Climbers – Broad leaved everlasting pea, small flowered clematis, honeysuckle, ivy.

Cottage garden plants  - Aubretia, catmint, erigeron, evening primrose (small varieties), lamium, lungwort, sweet rocket, valerian.

Herbs – Borage,  chives, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, mint, sage, thyme, winter savory.

Shrubs – Buddleia (dwarf varieties), Ceratostigma, heather, Hebe (small varieties), rockrose.

Water Plants (for tiny ponds) – Brooklime, duckweed, fringed water lily, lesser spearwort, water lily (dwarf varieties).

Wildflowers – Bird’s foot trefoil, cornflower, field scabious, greater knapweed, lady’s smock, primrose, rockrose, small scabious, wild marjoram, wild thyme.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017