Wildlife Gardening for Beginners: Adding Water

Common frog by Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Un-green-fingered Rebecca Neal, Communities and Wildlife Officer, took a website dive into wildlife gardening advice to research for a presentation, and wrote a series of blogs based on what she found.

Adding water to your garden is one of the simplest and best things you can do for wildlife.

I have to admit to knowing a little bit about ponds already, due to my love of amphibians, but I also learned some new things during my wildlife gardening research. There is a lot of advice out there and I have included some links at the bottom of the page.

The easiest option

I am all for the easy options! You don’t have to dig a pond to help wildlife. Water can sometimes be difficult for animals to access if it is very cold or very dry, so any kind of water in your garden will help: a bowl on the floor for hedgehogs, or even a (home-made?) bird bath.

Female house sparrow bathing by Joan Burkmar

Female house sparrow bathing by Joan Burkmar

Alternatives

If you can’t have a pond, then you could consider creating or enhancing a boggy area, or making some mini ponds. These options work well for anyone with small children who might be worried about having large areas of deep water.

For boggy areas, planting native wet-loving species will attract pollinators. Try cuckoo flower, purple loosestrife, common fleabane or water mint (you might want to keep this one contained by planting it in sunken pots, as it spreads easily). If you don’t have a wet spot in your garden, you can create one with a leaky liner, by digging an area around 30cm deep, laying the liner, piercing some holes, and then replacing the soil. I have tried this myself and advise that you be prepared to top it up with water during dry spells.

Mini ponds can be made from any container that will hold water (and even something that doesn’t if you can get hold of something waterproof to line it with)): an old washing-up bowl, a sink, or maybe a bucket with no handle. You can sink them into the ground or create access using log piles or stones. Add some gravel and rocks and then one or two plants such as starwort or spiked water-milfoil. There are some great example of different types of mini ponds at our Paxton Pits Environmental Education Centre.

 

Mini ponds at Paxton Pits Environmental Education Centre by Rebecca Neal

Mini ponds at Paxton Pits Environmental Education Centre by Rebecca Neal

A top choice

Providing a pond is one of the best things you can do for wildlife in a garden. If you want to add frogs to your garden (and who wouldn’t?), having an area at least 60cm deep, with shelves of different depths will be most attractive to them. Males will sometimes hibernate in the bottom of the pond and it needs to be deep enough for it to avoid freezing solid and to stay oxygenated. Tadpoles like warm shallow areas and will move into deeper spots as they get bigger. Keeping your pond fish-free will allow for a greater variety of species.

It is important with any water feature, that you allow easy access in and out of the water, you can do this with stones, bricks or branches. Hedgehogs can easily drown if the sides are too steep. I once found a hedgehog that had drowned in a large bucket pond at a community garden and was very sad.

Wildlife pond by Anna Williams

Wildlife pond by Anna Williams

Pond plants

When planting up your pond, use aquatic compost as this limits the amount of nutrients in the water. Consider a range of plants for different depths: submerged plants will provide oxygen to the water, plants with floating leaves will provide shade, and marginal plants will provide hiding places for animals. Research the right plants for the size of you pond as some species can take over, and definitely stick to native plants. You can limit plants from spreading by keeping them in pots. It is a good idea to buy your plants from a specialist supplier, as they are less likely to spread invasive species. Try not to be tempted to stock your pond using a friend’s plants or frogspawn as this can spread invasive species and disease.

Algae

Algae grows in ponds which are warm and full of nutrients. When topping up any kind of water in your garden, it’s best to use rainwater, as it contains less nutrients. It is best to site your pond in partial shade and plant it up with some floating plants to ensure it doesn’t get too warm. If you can prevent too many leaves falling in and remove the build-up of any that do annually, you will reduce the nutrient levels.

Pond liner

EPDM is a more flexible (and therefore less likely to puncture) and cheaper modern alternative to butyl. PVC liners and pre-formed ponds work for smaller areas but do not last as long.

There is lots of advice out there about providing water for wildlife in your garden.

Hoverfly on water mint by Richard Burkmar

Hoverfly on water mint by Richard Burkmar

Conserving water

Reducing water is becoming more important as climate change makes our weather increasingly unpredictable. Here are some ways:

Collect rainwater

My partner has just added an extra water butt to his collection because rain patterns are changing and we have more long dry spells with short periods of intense rain. He was finding that he was running out of rainwater for the birdbath and the starlings were not happy!

Save cold water when running the hot tap

I did this a lot in a previous house where you had to run the tap for ages before any hot water came out. We put it in bottles and a bucket, and used it for drinking or cooking, as well as in the garden.

Re-use grey water:

I have never been sure about this but RHS says household soaps and detergents are ok for irregular use, but not to store grey water, or use it on veggies that won’t be cooked. Anything containing bleaches, disinfectants, dishwasher salt and stronger cleaning products should not be used.

Reduce the use of sprinklers

 

Increase the use of mulch

 

Choose drought-resistant plants

As our climate changes, high-maintenance plants might in your garden might be best abandoned, in favour of those that can survive periods of low rainfall

  • Ivy
  • Knapweed
  • Yarrow
  • Thyme
  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Buddleia
  • Lavender
  • Sunflower
  • Valarian