My Outdoor Studio - or how to create a wildlife garden

My back garden is much like most other sub-urban gardens in size, about 25 feet long but triangular in shape, so quite small and as we live on the side of a hill, it slopes to the left. We only get diffused sunlight during the day, due to the surrounding trees but during early morning and late afternoon, direct sunlight and during evenings in the summer we often have a lovely golden glow.

When we moved into the house in 1996, it was more like a back yard, mostly concrete with a few Leylandii on one side, a rotten, broken and open wooden fence at the bottom and the left side, with a straight stone-flagged path which went right down the middle. With a few old and rather spindly trees and bushes, including Privet and box hedge it was not very inspiring and not somewhere you would really want to spend any time. Having moved from a house with a large garden, which we landscaped and planted ourselves, it was a disappointment but at the same time, a challenge.

We dug up the concrete and grassed a small area, adding shrubs with some year round interest at the back of the garden to give some privacy, added a wooden cabin for storage and cut a dustbin in half for a small pond when we found a frog living in an old plastic window box and added a nesting box, which we nicknamed "Rickety Rick" (well, it was a bit!) on the top of the washing line pole.

Soon, several families of blue tits had used the nesting box and we also had thrushes nesting in amongst the Leylandii. The grass was not successful however, mostly due to our beloved, but hopelessly untrainable, Beagle we had at the time, who insisted on using it as a urinal. With a very clay soil and little drainage, it soon started to smell. We also found we had an abundance of snails and slugs who ferociously devoured all of our lovely Hostas we had planted. Time for a rethink.

We dug up the grass, moved the cabin out of the sun to the other side of the garden and took up the flagstones, relaying them as a small patio where the cabin had been, took down the washing line and replaced it with a rotary dryer which we sited out of the way and cut back or dug up the old spindly trees. We replaced the open fence with panels with wicker trellices on top and planted climbers along the border so they would grow up and fill the panels with greenery, added a couple of new trees and more shrubs, all chosen for their colour, foliage or ability to attract bees or butterflies and things started looking much better.

Adding a wildlife pond

Where the grass had been, we dug a pond to make a permanent home for our resident frog, with easy exit and entry points, surrounding it with varying sizes of rocks, cobbles and pebbles. Planting the area with a variety of flora chosen to provide shade, perches, colour or an ability to attract insects, or for fragrance or year-round interest it wasn't long before our wildlife pond was home to a variety of lodgers.

The pond was planted to attract insects and to aeriate the water, with a pile of cobblestones added so any visiting wildlife had a platform on which to rest or take a drink. The Hostas were relocated into pots and positioned near the pond to attract the slugs and so provide a fast food service for the frog, placed on wooden tree trunk slices chosen to attract beetles and other insects. It wasn't long before our resident frog acquired a family and we counted five different frogs in the pond at one time.

To attract the birds, several feeders were added, hanging them from the branches of the old trees left at the bottom and left hand side of the garden, together with a couple more nesting boxes. We scooped the centre out of an old tree branch and filled it with seed after fixing it to a pole - it looked a bit like a sausage on a stick but when placed in amongst shrubs, you only see the branch so making an ideal stage for some photography.

Transformation

Within a year, the garden had transformed - our pond had attracted several more frogs and although we have had no spawn to date, I am hopeful. We started seeing dragonflies and many different types of butterflies as the Buddleia really earn their keep. At any given time, we have dozens of birds in the garden either at the feeders or mooching about picking up the seed on the ground. They of course love the snails. The Leylandii is full of various types of spiders and there are beetles and bugs everywhere. On one occasion last summer, a hedgehog visited, taking a swim in the pond and then a sleep in the sun before moving on. We have at least one mouse who spends the winter under the cabin but my husband keeps threatening to evict him as he poos on the cabin floor. (The mouse, not my husband ;) )

We added a couple of wooden half barrels, planted with fragrant flowers and used another as a water feature with an upturned wooden bucket on the top and a small pump so that there is constant running water. The birds love this, as they can splash about and wash their feathers more easily than in the pond and they can also drink the running water. This is especially useful in the winter as very often the water in the pond and the barrel will freeze.

Visitors

Regular bird visitors include bluetits, coat tits, great tits, house sparrows, robins, thrushes, a yellow hammer, goldfinch, wood pigeon, starling, blackbirds, crows and a dove. I also see magpie and house martins around but have never yet seen one in my garden. The house sparrows nested in the hedge at the bottom of the garden this year and we were treated to lots of family outings as the fledglings were brought into the garden to feed and bathe. A wonderful sight. To get close enough to photograph the birds I have hidden in the cabin and in amongst the washing on the rotary dryer but finally, I persuaded my husband that we should replace the back door with a stable door so that I could keep the birds happy with the bottom of the door closed, set up my tripod in the kitchen and wait for them to come to the pond. This was a great idea as the birds don't feel threatened as long as I keep low and make no sudden movements or noise, so that they now come quite close to where I can use a 200mm lens quite easily.

Although the garden is small, it is always busy. The plants are now all established and attract a huge variety of butterflies and other insects. There is always plenty of material on which to practice techniques or just enjoy taking pictures of the life in my own back garden - my outdoor studio.

 

Summer 2013 update

After what seems an entire year of rain, the garden is looking decidedly soggy and very sorry for itself. There is just no opportunity to get out and do very much at all so my activities have gone from photographing the plants to actually using the plants themselves to make prints. This has been part of a one year residency that I have been doing at the University of Central Lancashire where I have been using leaves for making prints on Japanese washi paper.

Autumn 2012 update

Completely replanted the side garden to make an autumn garden and have to say it looks lovely with gold, yellow and auburn everywhere. A variety of Black-eyed Susan, Globe thistles, Chocolate Cosmos and a variety of Cornus Dogweeds are making a transformation.

Spring/Summer 2011 update

This year has seen an incredible change in the garden - everything is growing like mad after all the sun in April and then all the rain that followed. We have had to do some selective pruning of some of the larger shrubs and replanted the Echinops, Acuba, Magnolia and Jasmine in the side garden as there was not enough space in the back. The Angelica grew around 10 feet tall and there were masses of blooms.

The blackbirds have nested three times and the sparrows twice - and its only June! The woodpigeon family still crash in every day, smashing the Angelica and spreading seed everywhere, much to henry the woodmouse's delight as he scampers out, collects a seed and then runs back under the cabin. The hedgehog still does his nightly rounds and we still have a frog in the pond. He seems to be the only one though, so we've called him Billy no-mates.

As there are so many wildflowers doing so well in the garden, I have potted several of them up, including some Angelica, and taken the pots down to the small area outside my studio at Oxheys Mill Studios in Preston. Hopefully this will create a small wild garden to attract some insects, provide some fragrance and provide some ready subjects for participants on my workshops.

Autumn 2009 - update

The difference has been amazing since the Leylandii went we have had so much more sun in the garden that all the other plants have done really well, spread and grown so well we've had to prune them back a bit. My Angelica was stunning - growing to about 10 feet tall with some magnificent flower heads. Not bad for a plant costing £2.50 from the 'Casualty Corner' section of our local garden centre!

We have had lots more birds in the garden this year as well. We can see them better and now have space for some underplanting now the bigger shrubs have grown. A hedgehog is a regular nightime visitor, often heard snuffling about. The frogs were back again this year and are still in the pond now. Another edition was Henry, a cute little wood mouse who has made his home in our cabin.

Autumn 2008 - update

We dug up the Leylandii as they were taking up far too much room, blocking out the light and taking all the moisture from the soil. A massive task but well worth it - we now have an extra 6 foot in width along 10 foot of garden which is a massive amount in a small garden. We treated the soil, added some trellises and set about replanting some of our existing plants to give them more room and more light. Berberis and Pyracantha went in along the bottom and corners to try and keep out a neighbour's cat and give some protection to the birds. I moved the bird feeding station nearer to the other trees to provide branches for perches and planted Angelica and some other scented and striking plants for part of the research I was doing for my MA and to give me a ready supply of subject to photograph. The sparrows didn't seem to mind and soon found another nesting site.

Spring 2007 - update

The garden is now busier than ever. We had coal tits nesting in the front garden hedge and bluetits in the side garden. In the back garden we have had tree sparrows nesting in the Leylandii behind Rickety Rick and house sparrows nesting in the bush at the bottom. It has been great watching each day as the chicks have been learning to jump from branch to branch and sit watching as Mum gets seed from the feeder for them. They are getting quite brave now and are really up to some fun and games.

In the tree at the side of the garden, we have a blackbird nest and although I can't see in as it is quite high, the female spent weeks picking up twigs and moss from the garden to build an enormous nest. It is quite noisy so I guess there must be a few chicks in there. I watch the male bringing beakfuls of worms, bread and anything else he can find, every 15 minutes into the tree. Any day now the chicks should appear which will be really exciting to watch.