Alan Titchmarsh: Grow for nature

Transform your garden into a thriving haven for bees, birds and butterflies with these easy ideas.

Bumblebees love colour – the brighter the better. Image: Getty Images

The past 50 years have seen a gradual role reversal. Nowadays, it’s often the countryside that is highly manicured, and it’s gardens that wildlife rely on for a living. The popularity of garden ponds has meant a huge increase in the numbers of newts and frogs. Many butterflies that are now scarce in the country find everything they need in gardens, and several once-common countryside birds now rely on them for food supplies, especially in winter.

Much of the difference is due to the lower usage of pesticides in gardens than on farmland, but a lot of gardens are also being designed and managed with wildlife more in mind.

Good plants for attracting butterflies include lavender and Buddleja. Image: Getty Images

Wildlife adds a lot to the garden. There’s always something to watch – a blackbird teaching her babies how to tug worms out of the lawn, and, if you’re lucky, hedgehogs on summer nights. There are butterflies, birds and bees, and strange insects to identify. With something to interest the whole family, the garden can become – dare I say it – educational.

Anything you can do to make the garden more wildlife-friendly will help. To encourage birds, grow plants that provide them with natural food: seeds of ornamental and wild grasses, berries and fruits, sunflowers and thistle-like plants, such as teasels. Put out bird seed, suet, bits of cheese and dried fruit, especially in winter and now in spring, when they have chicks to feed. Good plants for attracting butterflies and bees include lavender, marjoram, scabious, Michaelmas daisies (Aster novae-angliae), ice plant (Sedum spectabile) and the aptly named butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii).

blue tit
The sweetest tweet: a blue tit on a crab apple tree. Image: Getty Images

Wild flowers are more than just decoration. They are vital to attract insects and feed the caterpillars of butterflies and moths. To grow your own, sow seeds in pots or trays – annuals in spring, perennials in autumn – then plant them out into soil that has been forked over but not fertilised. Good wild flowers for damp ground and around ponds include lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), while wood anemones and foxgloves are perfect for shade under trees. In long grass, plant ox-eye daisies and field poppies; and in short grass, cowslips, primroses and violets. These are perfect for people who can’t get to grips with a full-blown wild flower meadow; just mow the lawn with the blades set high enough to miss these little treasures.

Once everything has been designed and planted up, leave it alone as much as possible – the less disturbance it gets, the better your chances of attracting scarce creatures such as slow worms and stag beetles. Don’t tidy away old perennial flower stems until spring; spiders and other beneficial insects use the dead plants to hibernate in during the winter.

Flowering perennials such as echinacea create an insect-loving country garden vibe. Image: Australian House & Garden

Most importantly, stop using pesticides. In time, a natural balance will establish itself. By doing something as simple as not spraying the greenfly on roses will encourage all sorts of creatures such as lacewings, hoverflies and blue tits to feed on them. The ‘good’ wildlife cancels out the ‘bad’ and will take care of garden pests automatically. Well, partially at least.

Ditch the chemicals

In the past, spraying was seen as a magic wand for plant problems. But today there are other controls to fight pests and diseases that are just as effective and more environmentally responsible. The advantage of these natural techniques is you don’t eliminate the beneficial bugs along with the bad guys.

Green and yellow sulphur dust
Good for powdering on stored bulbs to prevent rotting. It’s also handy for controlling mildew on plants ‒ but use a light puff, don’t drench them.

Crop protection jelly
Also called barrier glue, it’s a sticky gunge you apply round the rims of containers, the legs of greenhouse staging or the bark of trees to protect against crawling pests like snails, winter moth caterpillars, vine weevil adults, ants and woodlice.

Companion planting
It’s claimed that some plants ward off pests. It may be they emit deterrent chemicals, or they attract predatory insects. Try small flowered marigolds (Tagetes) between your tomatoes and garlic, or beneath your roses; pop nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) around fruit trees in the vegetable garden.

Biological control
Unleashing a powerful living enemy against pests, these insect ‘agents’ attack or eat the bad guys. Slugs can be wiped out by nematodes (tiny parasites that occur in the wild); while greenfly can be controlled in greenhouses by a parasitic ‘fly’ called Aphidius.

yucca extract spray
Put off pests with yucca extract spray and copper rings, says Alan. Image: GAP Photos Ltd

Yucca extract
Sold as a spray, which you apply to the ground as a barrier that molluscs such as snails and slugs won’t cross. A wide barrier of really sharp grit will also have a similar effect.

Copper tape or rings
This acts like a tiny electric fence around the edge of pots or vegetable beds. Molluscs won’t cross because the copper gives them a tiny electric shock they evidently don’t care for.

copper rings
Put off pests with yucca extract spray and copper rings, says Alan. Image: GAP Photos Ltd

Encourage birds
By putting up nest boxes and hanging out bird feeders all year round you will encourage birds to your garden and, as well as being a delight to watch, birds play a vital role in pest control – feeding on caterpillars and greenfly in the case of blue tits, and even slugs and snails in the case of thrushes. Make them feel at home.

Alan’s book Grow Your Own Fruit and Veg will be republished on 4 March by BBC Books, price £18.99. To order a copy for £16.14 before 27 March go to or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.