Make the Most of a Sunny Wildlife Garden

If you were to ask many people what their ideal garden would be, the majority would probably show a preference for a warm south-facing plot, awash with sunlight and with a stunning view thrown in.  This has certainly always been my ideal and I now have just that fantasy garden.  But despite the joys of warmth, light and space, I am beginning to appreciate the shady places in my new garden rather more than I ever did in my previous plot, which was based around an orchard with a great deal of light shade.  In my new garden a clump of overgrown saplings, the remains of what was an abandoned tree nursery, draws me like a magnet on a hot day and I have started to appreciate that sun has its problems as well as its advantages.  Where there is sun in a garden we need shade for balance and of course it is not just the gardener that benefits from this contrast.

Encouraging wildlife in any quantity, even to a tiny patio, is all about having a range of conditions in which wildlife can thrive and of course, just like us, those visiting creatures will have their preferences.  A bright light garden is wonderful for a huge range of wildlife – in particular butterflies, bees, hoverflies and many other invertebrates - but don’t forget the creatures that prefer the dark or dappled shade of trees or the gloom behind a north facing wall.  Take advantage of sunlight and hot spots to encourage the wildlife that loves heat, but it is worthwhile being aware that you can also have too much of a good thing.  If you have a bright south-facing garden you may want to consider shading some of your hot spots, especially if they dry out and hard, sun baked soil is the result. 

But first let us make the most of warm sunlit spots where butterflies should be our priority.  The vast majority of our native garden butterflies enjoy the heat of the sun.  The main exception is the speckled wood which, as its name suggests, prefers dappled light.  Butterflies are cold bloodied creatures and can often be seen early in the day basking on sunlit walls or gravel paths, warming their bodies to enable them to fly.  Sunny patios are excellent for this activity, so if you prefer your sitting out area to be shady, make sure you have a large pale stone or paving slab, or an area of gravel in full sun somewhere in the garden to enable garden butterflies to warm up – it will be used frequently.  Pale rendered house walls in full sun are also good for this activity. 

Plants that encourage butterflies and other insects can be used to good effect in hot spots, especially areas that occur next to house walls where reflected heat increases the temperature still further.  Fortunately many of the plants that butterflies prefer positively thrive in these conditions.  Numerous Mediterranean gems beloved of insects like these hot dry corners and Buddleias too give of their best in full sun.  This valuable shrub is able to resist even the most severe drought conditions that occur at the base of a wall, enabling it to colonise waste ground, railway embankments and even imbues it with the ability to cling to life half way up old brickwork if it can get a toe hold! Concentrating nectar plants in full sun will always bring worthwhile results and a purpose designed nectar border is the ideal solution in this situation.  Alternatively add lavender, thyme or buddleia to an existing planted area at the base of a wall to make maximum use of its bee and butterfly attracting potential.  A south facing wall base can also be the ideal place for a herb garden, or you could combine the herbs and nectar for an area that is doubly useful – nectar and pollen for insects and fresh herbs for the kitchen.  Along with the tried and tested rosemary, thyme and marjoram which are all excellent insect providers, you could try hyssop which is a good bee attractant, lovage with celery scented leaves and umbels of yellow flowers that hoverflies love, plus annual dill and coriander, again great for hoverflies.  For extra colour amongst your herbs add cottage garden plants and wildflowers that can stand the heat.  Scabious of all types and Verbena, especially the insect magnet Verbena bonariensis, will bring in the larger butterfly species and bird’s foot trefoil will cater for the tiny blues and small copper.

Hot dry conditions lend themselves well to wildflowers of the seashore and roadside.  Indeed our motorway verges have become havens for many wildflowers that are declining in their natural habitats and I have seen some cliff top species in this location – the added salt in the winter making them feel quite at home.  But salt is not essential for some of these plants and thrift, sea campion, wild thyme, sea pea and the afore mentioned bird’s foot trefoil make a lovely combination with stones or gravel in a warm dry spot to produce a scree garden.  These seaside plants all cope well with the lack of moisture and direct sunlight, are easy to look after and attract insects too.

If you are lucky enough to have reptiles in your garden, these will appreciate south facing habitats.  Slow worms and grass snakes may well shelter and lay their eggs in cool and shady garden compost heaps, but they do appreciate a bask in the sun, and may be seen warming themselves on hot dry soil or large pale stones that heat up quickly in the day’s sun.  Like butterflies they need that heat to get them going, being sluggish when their bodies are cold.  If you plan to create a warm border, stones and gravel amongst the plants will be welcomed by slow worms in particular, both for sheltering beneath and basking upon.

Lastly hot, baked, sun drenched areas are perfect for cornfield annuals.  These gorgeous flowers, favourites of mine, will not only survive in these conditions, but will positively flourish, soaking up the sun and flowering for the longest time.  Cornflower, corn marigold, poppy and corn camomile will provide a splash of colour throughout the summer while feeding your local insects with their copious nectar and pollen.  Goldfinches love the seeds of cornflowers too, so these multi purpose plants really are worth trying.  They can be sown at the end of the summer as well as in the spring, so make a note in your diary to sow mixed seeds in September or October into weed free soil.  Your garden will be all the more beautiful for them.

Cornfield annuals can also be grown in a large container.  If you have a sunny patio with pots, or even a space outside your back door that catches the full force of the summer sun, there are plenty of wildlife friendly plants that can cope with the heat and light, although traditional container plants such as bright red geraniums or pelargoniums have little to offer our native wildlife.  However culinary herbs work well in pots and lavender too, particularly the compact varieties such as Munstead, are the perfect solution to south facing patios.  Plant creeping thyme between the paving slabs or remove one here and there and plant into the space created.  Thyme is the perfect plant for this with its many varieties, some with lemon or orange scented foliage or variegated leaves, and will attract butterflies and bees in profusion.  Site carefully though as you will want to avoid walking on the plants, especially when there are bees about!

If you have reached the conclusion that your sunny garden really is just too much, then it will be necessary to create some shade. Wildlife will benefit from this approach in many ways. Plants shrubs of course but hot south facing walls can be shaded with climbers that prefer the sun, and a cooler, damper environment will be created beneath the stems and leaves.  The glorious wisteria is the first climber that comes to mind.  Its tangle of stems and leaves (if they are not pruned too precisely) provide nesting places for birds especially blackbirds and thrushes and possibly even a spotted flycatcher if you are lucky.   The flowers are not the best insect attractants but the plant itself is indispensable.  Some species of clematis are happy in full sun as long as their roots are shaded, including the lovely yellow flowered C. orientalis which again provides nest sites plus seeds for birds in the autumn.  Passionflower will encourage birds with its orange globular fruits as will a fig tree, although you would probably wish to deter your local wildlife from this one as birds love the ripe fruits!  There are many other sun-loving climbers or shrubs that enjoy a sunny position against a wall including solanum, hibiscus, and many of the climbing roses. 

Sun in the garden is undoubtedly an asset and can be put to excellent use by the wildlife gardener, but an area that is too hot can easily be adapted for a range of wildlife with careful planting.  An informed choice of plants will make sure that the warmest areas in your garden are just about the best spots to sit and enjoy your wildlife visitors.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017