A balcony wildlife garden
by Linda Harrison
credit: Keith Reynolds
A lack of space can often be an issue for city plots. But the transformation of one tiny city balcony into a haven for birds, butterflies and bees shows that big ideas really can flourish in small places.
Keith Reynolds, 47, moved into his flat in Hulme, Manchester three years ago. Having downsized from a house with a larger garden, he was keen to attract at least some of the wildlife he’d enjoyed to his new outdoor space. With this in mind, he put out some feeders and waited for the birds to come. The food though, remained untouched. Deciding he needed a fresh approach, Keith started to do some research and soon realised the answer was to transform his outside space into a mini wildlife reserve.
Keith planted foliage, flowers and herbs to attract insects and birds. He created a mini wildflower meadow in an upturned dustbin lid and made a birdbath from an old pan and bowl and attached it to the edge of the balcony. He even got a council grant to plant some Chinese crab apple trees near his flat, on land owned by his housing association.
The result of the changes is quite inspirational, with coal tits, blue tits, robins, wood pigeons and magpies now all regular visitors.
“Living in an inner city doesn’t mean you can’t have birds around you, as long as you provide food, water and some shelter,” says mental health worker Keith. “One very important thing is bringing in the wildlife that birds like to eat. It’s all about supporting the food chain.”
Keith’s balcony is not just a magnet for birds but also for all sorts of insects including bees, ladybirds, hoverflies, moths and different types of butterfly. Cabbage whites breed on the nasturtiums that Keith grows and their caterpillars eat the leaves. Small tortoiseshells sip the nectar from his wild flowers and speckled wood butterflies have been spotted sunbathing on his climbing hydrangea.
For Keith, the first step was to protect any plants he put on his second-floor balcony from strong winds. “I got a brushwood screen to provide shelter as balconies can be quite drafty. This has actually also attracted birds because magpies like taking bits of the brushwood for nesting.”
With this natural windbreak in place, he researched which areas of his balcony would be in the shade and which spots would get sun. In the shadiest part, Keith planted ivy – a good winter hibernation spot for invertebrates – along with comfrey, foxgloves, ferns and bee-friendly snowdrops.
For planters, Keith mainly opted for galvanised metal buckets because they’re inexpensive, look stylish and are easy to reposition. He also turned a dustbin lid into a mini wildflower meadow by drilling drainage holes into it, filling it with peat-free compost and sowing mixed wildflower seeds. Placed in a metal plant pot and secured to the balcony rail with strong wire, it now attracts masses of bees, hoverflies and butterflies. Flowers include bird’s-foot trefoil, a massive hit with bees, and white campion – the flowers give off a scent at night for moths.
As well as a whole range of plants, Keith has also managed to squeeze a small birdbath and feeders on to his small crescent-shaped balcony that’s just over two metres at its widest point and 1.3 metres at its deepest. Feeders containing peanuts hang from a hook on the wall and are popular with blue tits, while a small tray hangs below the feeder holding mealworms to attract robins. “The fact that my balcony is very green helps to attract birds to the feeders as it gives them something to hop on to so they can keep an eye out for predators before they feed,” Keith says.
Planting on the balcony
When deciding what to plant, Keith started by doing some research at his local garden centre. He visited on sunny days and observed which plants attracted the most insects. He tried to use native species as much as possible and to pick plants that would really earn their keep by providing benefits for lots of different kinds of wildlife.
“Ideally, I wanted each plant, as far as possible, to provide both nectar and pollen for insects; seeds or berries for birds as well as leaves which could be eaten by a range of caterpillars and insects,” he explains. “I also wanted to introduce some evergreens such as ivy, which could offer shelter to insects hibernating in winter.”
Michaelmas daisies are amongst the plants that Keith has chosen for his balcony. While he warns that some overbred hybrids can be less attractive to wildlife due to their lack of nectar, others are extremely useful in a wildlife garden. Flowering in autumn when many other sources of nectar have disappeared, it’s very popular with butterflies, bees and hoverflies. And nothing is wasted – the seed heads are left on the plants over winter to provide food for birds.
From the native plants he’s tried, Keith recommends the woodland wildflower, red campion because it’s tolerant of sun and shade and is popular with bees and butterflies. Other star performers include cuckoo flower and garlic mustard which are both great for butterflies.
Other successes include: his two colourful ice plants, which are magnets for bees and butterflies; anise hyssop, a favourite with bumblebees and ox-eye daisies – popular with hoverflies.
The trees planted below the balcony have made a massive difference to the number of birds visiting his space, according to Keith. He says: “There weren’t many trees nearby before and there was nothing inviting birds into the street. But the trees provide open flowers for bees and fruit for birds. They’re about seven feet high and even though I’m on the second floor above them, they really help. It’s like creating a miniature wildlife corridor – or stepping stones for wildlife. The birds like to land there first before coming up to my balcony.”
Keith decided not to use pesticides on his plants as he wanted to attract all kinds of wildlife, even aphids, which are commonly seen as pests. He explains: “In a wildlife-friendly garden there’s no such thing as ‘pests’. Every single creature is a potential source of food for another creature higher up the food chain.”
His plan seems to be working. Plants such as comfrey provide food for aphids, which are eaten by ladybird larvae, which in turn attract birds.
Keith adds: “I hope my balcony can inspire people to think about how we can all take practical steps to encourage and support our urban wildlife, and to see how easy it is to bring our fascinating ‘natural world’ to the bleakest window box or inner-city balcony.”
Keith’s recommendations for wildlife-friendly balconies:
• Mint: Good for bees and butterflies if allowed to flower.
• Marjoram: Good for hoverflies, bees and butterflies.
• Lavender: Loved by bees and butterflies.
• Mini wildlife meadow: Just sow a packet of mixed wildflower seeds into a container to create a magnet for bees and butterflies.
• Ox-eye daisy: Easy to grow and great for hoverflies.
• Nasturtiums: Cabbage white butterflies breed on them and the caterpillars are popular bird food.
• Honeysuckle: Keith has spotted robins feeding on the honeysuckle berries on his balcony.
Keith records his progress on his blog, The ‘Wildlife Garden’ Balcony, including advice and photos (valiantveggie.wordpress.com)