Time to stretch those green fingers

by ZSL on

Ben Camps is London Zoo’s Team Leader of Horticulture. He shares his top tips for getting out into the garden this spring, how herbs could make you the talk of the town’s wildlife, and why sometimes less is more...

Spring is here, and it’s time to stretch those green fingers and get down to the proper business of planting!

When we choose plants for the Zoo we always think about our local wildlife: What will the birds like? We’ve got one of the few remaining populations of house sparrows in Westminster. Will this area be suitable for hedgehogs? Regent’s Park is home to the only group of hedgehogs in Central London. And what about the butterflies? Their bright colours make them a good indicator of the health of a wild space. If you’ve got butterflies fluttering around your plants, chances are you’re also catering for the less visible (but no less important) bees, flies, wasps and moths who keep our plants pollinated and other animals fed. 

So how can you cater for the animals in your own back garden? Here are my tips for you in your own gardens this spring. 

Butterfly borders at ZSL London Zoo
Butterfly borders outside London Zoo’s Butterfly Paradise

Herby delights

If you’ve only got limited space, fresh herbs are a great way to bring wildlife into your garden and improve your own cooking at the same time. A few pots, a window box or a patch of soil planted with rosemary, lavender, oregano, thyme and sage will not only add flavour to your dishes but attract animals big and small from the surrounding area. 

At London Zoo, the Horticulture team provide over 2,500 pots of fresh herbs to the animal teams every year to stimulate the senses and enliven the diet of our animals. The lions go crazy for catnip, rolling and salivating like their smaller domestic cousins, while our African wild dogs prefer the scent of fresh basil. 

Meerkats like to chew on a piece of rocket, our lovebirds love to nibble on some chamomile and our Sulawesi crested macaques go ape for mustard. Try them out on your own pets or watch as local wildlife flock to the different scents. 

Herb growing gets underway in London Zoo’s greenhouses
Herb growing gets underway in London Zoo’s greenhouses

Birds and the bees

Ivy, for example, is an excellent choice for British wildlife. Its bushy vines provide abundant habitat for a range of minibeasts, like holly blue butterfly larvae that feed on ivy leaves, and the ivy’s berries are loved by blackbirds. Some birds even like to make their nests inside the vines! 

If you’re looking for flowers, borage and daisies are a great place to start. Anything in the daisy family is a good bet for pollinators – bees make a beeline for their nectar – while the borage family (think forget-me-nots) are known to replenish their nectar quicker than most other flowers, making them perfect for feeding insects. 

Wildlife love variety though, and good garden centres will mark their wildlife-friendly seeds with a ‘pollinator’ symbol, so experiment with lots of colours, species and sizes! 

Members of the borage family, like these forget-me-nots, regenerate their nectar quicker than other flowers, making them perfect for insects

Go wild

Part of the joy of gardening can be putting something in place and watching it evolve. If cooking isn’t your thing, embracing your wild side might be the way forward. 

Less is often more with Mother Nature, and she’ll go wild given a bit of free reign, so why not leave a patch of your garden to do its own thing? Even a small patch of wilderness can be a haven for little animals. 

Imagine a beetle crawling around in a manicured patch of lawn – there’s not much to explore, few opportunities to collect nectar and little in the way of hiding spots from predators and bad weather. But let the grass grow long, make a space for wildflowers to grow or let some weeds spring up and you’ve got a haven for bugs. These minibeasts will also attract another of the gardener’s best friends – birds! 

Introducing wild spaces, no matter how small, will give insects like this ladybird more habitat to explore

Make a grand gesture

There’s nothing like the year we’ve had to remind us to appreciate the nature we have on our doorsteps, and you may be thinking about how to make a grand gesture for our wildlife. If that’s the case, look no further than building a pond or planting a tree. 

Fruit trees, like apple, pear, plum and cherry, provide a delicious food source for birds and insects (if you can bear to share the fruit!), while even a small pond will change everything. It will become a watering hole for local wildlife and, in a few months, you could have damselflies and dragonflies flitting about. 

Help the frogs find their way to you by cutting small holes at the bottom of your fence (great for helping hedgehogs too) and you could have frog spawn appearing as early as next March. 

Whatever you do this spring, big or small, the right time to plant is the best time for you. Take it at your own pace, and enjoy it. Good luck gardeners, stay green!

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