Plant a small tree for wildlife

A bluetit perching on hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

A bluetit perching on hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

A tree will offer a wealth of seasonal food and shelter for all sorts of creatures. Adrian Thomas suggests a few suitable specimens for a smaller garden

 How many of us are put off from planting a tree because we don’t think we have the space? Or because we’re nervous of choosing badly and ending up with something that romps out of control like the proverbial beanstalk?
It's true that a badly chosen tree can quickly become a nuisance, blocking out light from garden and home, inhibiting the growth of plants beneath, and just looking out of place. I know it only too well: I moved into a house where a tulip tree had been planted only a few metres from the back door. It was barely 10 years old but its branches were already knocking (literally) at the first floor windows; it had to go, because they can grow to be 30m (100ft) tall!
However, while a tulip tree is clearly a big mistake in a small garden, having some kind of tree is so important, not only because of the all-season interest it will bring you, but because trees are elemental in the lives of so much garden wildlife, be it as a nesting place, song perch, safe retreat or free-standing food source.

The good news is that there are all sorts of wildlife-friendly trees to suit even the smallest space. It's all about judicious choice, and in some cases a cunning plan to keep them in check!
Your first option is to pick trees that are inherently small. For example, whereas the red-berried common rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, will typically grow to 10-15m (32-50ft), its Chinese cousin Sorbus vilmorinii, with its pink berries, normally only reaches about 5-6m (16-20ft), yet it’s just as much a hit with winter thrushes.
Another possibility is to choose one of the trees that’s receptive to pruning. There are many trees that won’t enjoy such treatment, but – as a rule of thumb – if a tree species can be used as a hedging plant, it’ll be quite happy being kept under control. This includes yew, hollies and hawthorns, all of which have so much to offer for wildlife.
The third option is to choose fruit trees that have been grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock. This is the magic trick by which the ‘head’ of one tree has been bonded onto the ‘feet’ of another, giving you the fruit type you want up top while the roots determine how large (or small) the tree will ultimately grow.
The naming system used to indicate the tree’s eventual size is a little baffling! For example, an M27 rootstock for apples produces a smaller tree than an M9, which is smaller than an M26. Don’t worry, our guide below will help you select the right one for your space.
In fact, fruit trees are a godsend, in that they can be turned into espaliers, fans and cordons, which are effectively two-dimensional trees that hug a wall, with all the same benefits for wildlife (and for you) as if they were growing out in the garden.
All those options mean there is a tree for even the smallest yard. Here, then, are my picks of the best small trees that will look good but will also pack a punch for wildlife.

 

Wildlife-friendly trees for small gardens

Amelanchier laevis A multi-stemmed small tree with masses of white blossom in spring, small midsummer berries loved by blackbirds, and often fiery foliage in autumn. Try looking for one of the smaller or more upright cultivars such as Amelanchier laevis ‘Snowflakes’. H and S8m (26ft) 

Ilex aquifolium (holly) If left, this familiar evergreen tree with spiny leaves would become large spreading tree, but you can keep it pruned to the height you want, creating a dense head of foliage that’s used by roosting finches and nesting blackbirds. It’s also the foodplant of the holly blue butterfly, a garden regular. Female plants will bear red berries taken greedily by thrushes, robins and wood pigeons. H12m (39ft) S8m (26ft) if unpruned

Malus sylvestris (crab apple) These deciduous trees have lots of spring blossom that’s great for bees, and then bear big crops of miniature yellow and red apples in autumn that often persist until midwinter to feed fieldfares and redwings. Most only grow to 6m (20ft), but weeping varieties such as ‘Sun Rival’ are even smaller at H8m (26ft) S4m (13ft)

Sorbus hupehensis (rowan) Deciduous rowan trees have large heads of white spring flowers, followed by berries that are often red but some are white, pink or yellow and adored by members of the thrush family. They also often have great autumn foliage colour. Choose Sorbus hupehensis, S. cashmiriana or S. commixta, none of which should get much over H6m (20ft) S3m (10ft)

Euonymus europaeus (spindle) A native shrubby tree, the spindle grows only to about 6m (20ft) with especially fine red autumn leaf colour and bright pink berries with orange seed-casings eaten by robins and blackbirds. The gorgeous cultivar ‘Red Cascade’ is usually even smaller at H4m (13ft) S2.5m (8ft)

Frangula alnus (alder buckthorn) This shrubby native tree is the foodplant of the brimstone butterfly, together with the purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). The alder buckthorn in particular is one of the very best plants for bumblebees, and both then have small berries in autumn. H and S4m (13ft)

Crataegus spp (hawthorns) Your choice includes two native species (Cratageus monogyna and C. laevigata) and a range of non-native varieties such as Crataegus prunifolia. They rarely exceed 8m (26ft) but can be kept much smaller through pruning. Almost all have excellent blossom for insects and copious red ‘haws’ for birds. H and S8m (26ft)

Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) This evergreen, native to southern Ireland and the Mediterranean, is rather tender, but there is a hardier hybrid to try, Arbutus andrachnoides. It’s compact, has leathery leaves, and – unusually for a tree – has autumn flowers rich in nectar, at the same time as red fruits for the birds. H and S6m (20ft)  

 

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Meet the Forgotten Pollinators

The humble hoverfly

The humble hoverfly

Mention pollination, and everyone thinks of honeybees and bumblebees, However, there are some other insects that are just as important, says Adrian Thomas

High summer: flower borders everywhere are putting on a show. But as you sit back and revel in your planting skills, it's likely that you’re not the only one enjoying the flowers. Some of your blooms are likely to be abuzz – colourful pit-stops for those insects that do such a great service by moving pollen from one plant to the next, ensuring that our flowers and crops set seed or produce fruit.
Everyone knows how valuable honeybees are as pollinators. One hive can contain up to 40,000 workers, an all-female army spreading out on daily shopping trips in search of abundant nectar and pollen. The nation also seems to have fallen in love with bumblebees, the teddy bear of the insect world, and have been moved by their plight given that many species are in terrible decline.
But look closely among these more familiar pollinators and you may notice different insects going about their business too. Indeed, you may suddenly realise that some of the insects you thought were honeybees or bumblebees are in fact something else altogether. They may look similar, but on closer inspection turn out to be too rounded, or pointed, or the colour isn't quite right, or they move in a different way.
The variations can be so subtle it’s like a game of Spot the Difference. The reality is that where you may have four or five species of bumblebee in your garden, you may also have a dozen or more types of solitary bee, and 20 or more types of hoverfly. In fact, in the warmer southern half of the country, you may have even more. In her seminal 30-year study of asuburban garden in Leicester, Jennifer Owen recorded an astonishing 45 species of solitary bee and 94 species of hoverfly.
This gives us some hint towards the real number of uncelebrated insects that are out there delivering ‘pollination services’. To give you some idea of their importance, a 2013 government paper for the Office of National Statistics reported that “globally, evidence is emerging that wild bees and other insects are more important to crop pollination than managed bees”.
Gaining the skills to identify every type of bee and hoverfly is not something most of us have the time or inclination to do. Yet it’s really quite easy to learn the basic differences between bees and hoverflies, as our simple guide shows (see right). Take that simple step and you’ll have a much better understanding of which creatures are using your garden and hence how your garden is working, for wildlife and for you.

THE WHO'S WHO OF WINGED WONDERS

•    Hairy-footed flower bee. One of the first solitary bees of spring, they move like lightning from flower to flower making a high pitched buzz. Males have round, golden bodies and white faces; females are black with reddish hind legs.

•    Narcissus bulb-fly. This hoverfly is a bumblebee mimic. It is a pest̶  its larvae love nothing more than munching the bulbs of your prize daffs.

•    Marmalade hoverfly. Very easy to identify, as this is the only hoverfly with thin black bars in between each thick black bar on the abdomen. A migrant from Europe, sometimes millions arrive in summer.

•    Ashy mining-bee. What a stunner, in evening dress of shiny black leather and grey furry collar and waistband. It nests in sandy soil, often many females choosing the same area.

•    Batman hoverfly. This wasp-mimic has a very distinctive black marking on its thorax (the middle section between head and abdomen) which looks rather like a bat with its wings outstretched.

•    Hornet hoverfly. The biggest of all the hoverflies, this is a dramatic insect but is totally harmless. It enjoys visiting Buddleia flowers, and its larvae are waste-disposal workers in the nests of bees and wasps.

•    Tawny mining-bee. This is one of the commonest solitary bees in gardens, sometimes nesting in lawns, but its ideal home is south facing dry banks. Females have chestnut backs and dense ginger fur on their abdomens.

•    Wool carder-bee. A shiny black bee, with bold yellow spots down either side of its abdomen. Males guard their favourite plant - lamb's-ear (Stachys byzantina), waiting for females who come to feed or to collect the downy wool from the leaves to line their nest cells.

 

"I'm creating my own wildlife paradise"

Last August, our wildlife columnist Adrian Thomas gave us a sneak peek of the suburban garden he’s restoring. When he took it on in December 2014 it was an acre of impenetrable thicket. His aim is for the garden to become a great place for wildlife, but also somewhere to grow flowers and vegetables, with pleasing vistas and a surprise around every corner. Now, just over two years in, here’s his progress report...

When I took on this garden I knew it was going to be a five-year process to get the basics in place. You know what? - so far it's on track. I can't believe it myself. It’s taking some elbow grease to get there, and some end-of-day flopping on the sofa, barely able to move. But I'm beginning to believe that one day the proverbial phoenix might indeed rise from the ashes.

If the first year was dominated by digging the pond and preparing six new vegetable beds, so the second year has been more about consolidation. After all, once you've started parts of the garden, you can't just abandon them – they have to be maintained. This means that the rate of progress on other parts of the garden has inevitably slowed a little.

However, the grand plan is coming together, helped by the final burst of major tree work in January. It's important to know your limits in a garden, and shinning 40-feet up a tree with a chainsaw is one of them. This sort of work is best left in the hands of fully trained professionals.

When I took on the garden it had more than 400 trees and large shrubs to take in hand, creating an almost closed canopy. After all the judicious tree felling I'm now down to perhaps 250 trees, which means light is streaming into many a long-hidden corner of the garden.

I'd given some of the most neglected fruit trees a final year to prove themselves – a stay of execution if you like –  but after another barren fruiting year, and with many showing signs of long-term canker and others with trunks closer to horizontal than vertical, they finally faced the chop. It seemed brutal, but I still have more than enough fruit trees left to keep me full of crumble and the blackbirds full of windfalls for months.

Holding beds

Initially I’d brought more than 400 favourite plants from my previous garden, as potted cuttings and divisions. Getting some of those out of their pots and into the ground was important, both to reduce the watering burden through the summer and to stop them sulking. That meant digging some holding beds in areas where I'm due to have bee and butterfly borders in the future. Once out of their pots, the plants seemed tiny but soon began to bulk up and thrive. Some will need further transplanting later into their final positions, but at least I'll be working with larger and happier plants.

One of the things I think is essential with any new garden project is to take photos before, during and after. It’s easy to forget exactly how things used to look. I try to take my shots from pretty much the same position so that I have a direct visual comparison, and it’s those taken from the bedroom window that have really given me confidence that I'm making progress.

The thing that made the biggest difference to that upstairs view this year was the laying of the first bit of proper turf. It was far from simple. The ground required considerable preparation, with me digging in of two tonnes of topsoil and another two of sharp sand. For such large bags, once spread on the ground the layer seemed pitiful but hopefully it’ll help reduce the clay quagmire there previously. Now the new turf is laid it gives the pond a deep green embrace. It’s amazing how something that simple can begin to make a garden design feel more coherent; the far side of the pond is now definitely on the list to do next autumn.

It's when I look out at this view, or when the sunset sky is reflected in the ripples on the pond, or the sparrows nip in and out of their new nestboxes, that I like to pause and pat myself on the back. Bit by bit it's all coming together and it’s definitely worth it. *

Adrian’s top tips

Restoring an overgrown garden is hard work but not impossible. Here are a few tips:

• Do it little and often. A little bit of work done regularly helps keep things moving - committing to just an hour three or four times a week soon brings big changes.

• Listen to your plants. Stick to those that love your conditions as you won't have time to mollycoddle those that just aren't suited.

• Take time with trees. Be careful when planting trees – choose those that won't become a problem in the future, and site them carefully. You don’t want to have to move them next year.

• Make a clear plan. Sketch out the garden on paper – it will evolve, but it gives you a target to aim for. Don't be afraid to be ambitious!

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