Green Tips: Wildlife gardening

The willowy verbena are dancing in the late summer breeze in August and there’s a change in the air. If you look up, you’ll see the swallows and house martins gathering, while the swifts have already left for their winter break in Africa.

Wildlife is all around us at Hever Castle and Gardens, and the team and I often swap stories in the gardeners’ mess room over lunch. Felix may have seen a magpie moth in the newly created Dye Garden and Darren may have noticed the holly blue butterfly in Blue Corner. It’s a sure bet that one of the team will have something to share.

There is plenty we can do to support nature and the wildlife in our gardens. If it’s hot and water is hard to find, we leave out water for the birds in tiny saucers: they need it for drinking and for taking a bath. While you have your watering can out, it’s worth checking that your ponds are topped up, especially as we have had a good amount of heat this summer – nothing like last year’s scorcher, but it’s been warm enough to evaporate the water from the features.

The early perennials may be turning to seed in your borders, but do leave the heads in place. They provide food for the birds and visiting wildlife in the harsher months of winter. I’m a stickler for leaving the perennials to run to seed and I don’t cut them until late February.

Leave perennials like sea holly to go to seed. (Credit Vikki Rimmer)
Leave perennials like sea holly to go to seed (Credit: Vikki Rimmer)

August is a good time to attend to your hedges but before you start to trim them, make sure that the blackbirds and thrushes, who like to nest a second time, have left.

We cut the yews in August and while this particular variety of evergreen is slow-growing, it’s quite a big job for us. We have a beautiful chess set created from golden yew by William Waldorf Astor at the turn of the 20th Century. Over the last couple of years we have been renovating the set, and reducing the ‘pieces’ in height, in order to create a more compact and visually impactful display.

If your yew is overgrown, it’s actually better to take it slowly and cut back over a couple of years. We have spent the last few years trimming the chess set gently, so that we can create a denser effect. Unlike most conifers of age, the yew tree will provide new stems from old wood.

While people are often impressed by the fact that our yews are over 100 years old, they’re actually youngsters in the yew world. If looked after properly, yew trees can grow for 1,000 years!

Lazy summer walk on Lake Walk at Hever Castle. Credit: Vikki Rimmer
Lazy summer walk on Lake Walk at Hever Castle (Credit: Vikki Rimmer)

If you visit Hever Castle and Gardens this month then make sure you take a leisurely stroll on Lake Walk: the bird spotting opportunities at this quiet area of the ground are many and varied. It is home to owls, blue tits, robins and woodpeckers and if you’re lucky you may spot a kingfisher close to the reeds. You’ll no doubt see swans, herons and great crested grebes on the lake itself. As a gardener there’s no greater sight than seeing tawny owls, barn owls and common terns when they appear to almost hover above the lake and dive down to catch a fish.

One final tip that will help enhance your garden even further as a top destination for wildlife visitors: refrain from deadheading your shrub roses and allow the rose hips to redden, these will not only provide fantastic colour but are also a great food source for garden birds.

Hever Castle and Gardens is open seven days a week.

Head gardener Neil Miller at Hever Castle
Head gardener Neil Miller at Hever Castle (Credit: Vikki Rimmer)
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