Planting: Basic principles

By Adrian Thomas and Marc Carlton                reviewed by Steve Head

Plants are at the heart of every garden. In Britain and Ireland a long tradition of horticulture has given us a huge range of plant material.  Whatever style of garden you want, formal, informal, contemporary, traditional, functional or simply planted for the pleasure of flowers, there is a large range of plants to choose from.

In recent decades, the idea of a special 'wildlife garden' has grown up,  although the idea of growing berry plants to attract birds has been around for a long time, and bee keepers have recognised for centuries that certain types of flowers provide especially good forage for their honeybees. The special 'wildlife garden' has become associated in some people's minds with 'wild flowers', 'native' plants, or a measure of untidiness. Some people equate 'wildlife gardens' with 'wildness' and 'wilderness' and see them as an experience that has nothing to do with them.

In fact scientific evidence shows that a special type of 'wildlife garden' is not necessary in order to provide food or a home to wildlife. There is nothing wrong with such a garden, but you can make your garden fit for the wildlife which visits no matter what style of garden you have. Simply by filling your garden with flowers of all kinds you can provide a diversity of habitats and food sources; a kind of contrived diversity. Of course if you cover your garden in concrete slabs or decking, or just have a lawn and nothing else, the scope for wildlife will be limited. But if you find some space for flowers, shrubs and climbers, and provide some variation in the hard landscaping such as a permanent log pile, a pond, or a rockery,  you will make your garden much more hospitable to wildlife.

Plants provide structure. Different kinds of wild creatures need structures to shelter under, or live in. For examples spiders need stems to anchor their webs, garden birds need dense shrubs in which to make their nests and tall branches to provide 'singing posts' Many invertebrates (such as grasshoppers and butterfly caterpillars) need grass that is longer than a closely mowed lawn during the summer Find more about plants for structure here:

Flowers provide food for pollinators. Many kinds of insects use pollen or nectar as a food source. These insects in turn are a food source for insectivorous birds, and bats. So garden flowers are at the base of many food chains. Find more about plants for pollinators here:

Plants provide food for herbivores. There are many kinds of of garden wildlife that feed on living plants in one way or another. While a few of these are regarded as pests, the majority are not. Garden herbivores include popular visitors like butterflies and all are vital components of food chains. For example, many garden birds feed their young on huge numbers of caterpillars. Find more about planting to help herbivores here:

Lawns are part of a planting scheme too. Lawns are often the biggest part of your garden, and the equivalent of a closely grazed meadow from the point of view of garden wildlife. There are various ways of managing lawns to increase the diversity of wild species that can make use of them, but even traditional closely-mown lawns can be a resource for certain wildlife species so long as you do not put chemicals on your lawn. We will be adding a page on lawns and alternatives shortly.

Ponds need plants. Specialised pond plants provide food and shelter for all kinds of creatures that live in ponds. Marginal plants are also important and they have a special role for the emerging adults of dragonflies and damselflies. We will be adding a page on planting ponds shortly.

Native or non-native?  There is a lot of mythology about this subject. In fact scientific research shows that in British and Irish gardens there is no need to plant 'native' plants to attract masses of non-specialist wildlife.  Our garden inhabitants will make use of many non-native plant species, so long as they provide food, structure, or shelter. Read our page on planting here, or a lot more science here! 

What plants to avoid?  There are  plants that we recommend that you avoid, but this is not necessarily connected to whether they are 'native' or not. The two main reasons to avoid planting certain kinds of plants are:

  • They may be horticultural forms (e.g. those with double flowers) that have been bred so that they do not provide accessible nectar or pollen (although they may well still have other value for wildlife;
  • They may be highly invasive in gardens or worse, spread out to cause trouble in the countryside.

Find more about plants to avoid here:

Plant Lists?

Wildlife gardening books and websites are full of plant lists, but we are wary of these. They can be very inconsistent, and often reflect one person's experience in one area, and often with one group of organisms like butterflies - or even one species - the honeybee. They can also be frustrating if they don't lso include information about plant hardiness or soil preference.

The Wildlife Gardening Forum has started research towards creating some better evidence-based plant lists using the principles described by Adrian Thomas in his discussion paper.  Nevertheless, you will find lists on this website, just treat them with a little caution!


Further information available from this page:

Adrian Thomas's paper on deficiencies of planting lists
Gardens like this, with plenty of structure and lots of different plant species are good for wildlife. 
Plants provide structure. Different kinds of wild creatures need structures to shelter under, or live in. For examples spiders need stems to anchor their webs, garden birds need dense shrubs in which to make their nests and tall branches to provide 'singing posts' Many invertebrates (such as grasshoppers and butterfly caterpillars) need grass that is longer than a closely mowed lawn during the summer Find more about plants for structure here:

Flowers provide food for pollinators. Many kinds of insects use pollen or nectar as a food source. These insects in turn are a food source for insectivorous birds, and bats. So garden flowers are at the base of many food chains. Find more about plants for pollinators here:

Plants provide food for herbivores. There are many kinds of of garden wildlife that feed on living plants in one way or another. While a few of these are regarded as pests, the majority are not. Garden herbivores include popular visitors like butterflies and all are vital components of food chains. For example, many garden birds feed their young on huge numbers of caterpillars. Find more about planting to help herbivores here:

Lawns are part of a planting scheme too. Lawns are often the biggest part of your garden, and the equivalent of a closely grazed meadow from the point of view of garden wildlife. There are various ways of managing lawns to increase the diversity of wild species that can make use of them, but even traditional closely-mown lawns can be a resource for certain wildlife species so long as you do not put chemicals on your lawn. We will be adding a page on lawns and alternatives.

Ponds need plants. Specialised pond plants provide food and shelter for all kinds of creatures that live in ponds. Marginal plants are also important and they have a special role for the emerging adults of dragonflies and damselflies. We will be adding a page on planting ponds shortly.

Native or non-native?  There is a lot of mythology about this subject. In fact scientific research shows that in British and Irish gardens there is no need to plant 'native' plants to attract masses of non-specialist wildlife.  Our garden inhabitants will make use of many non-native plant species, so long as they provide food, structure, or shelter. Read our page on planting here, or a lot more science here! 

What plants to avoid?  There are  plants that we recommend that you avoid, but this is not necessarily connected to whether they are 'native' or not. The two main reasons to avoid planting certain kinds of plants are:

  • They may be horticultural forms (e.g. those with double flowers) that have been bred so that they do not provide accessible nectar or pollen (although they may well still have other value for wildlife;
  • They may be highly invasive in gardens or worse, spread out to cause trouble in the countryside.
Find more about plants to avoid here:

Plant Lists? 

Wildlife gardening books and websites are full of plant list, but we are wary of these. They can be very inconsistent, and often reflect one person's experience in one area, and often with one group of organisms like butterflies - or even one species - the honeybee. They can also be frustrating if they don't lso include information about plant hardiness or soil preference.

The Wildlife Gardening Forum has started research towards creating some better evidence-based plant lists using the principles described by Adrian Thomas in his discussion paper.  Nevertheless, you will find lists on this website, just treat them with a little caution!

Further information available from this page:

Adrian Thomas's paper on deficiencies of planting lists
Gardens like this, with plenty of structure and lots of different plant species are good for wildlife. 
Plants and Planting: Basic principles

By Adrian Thomas and Marc Carlton                reviewed by Steve Head

Plants are at the heart of every garden. In Britain and Ireland a long tradition of horticulture has given us a huge range of plant material.  Whatever style of garden you want, formal, informal, contemporary, traditional, functional or simply planted for the pleasure of flowers, there is a large range of plants to choose from.

In recent decades, the idea of a special 'wildlife garden' has grown up,  although the idea of growing berry plants to attract birds has been around for a long time, and bee keepers have recognised for centuries that certain types of flowers provide especially good forage for their honeybees. The special 'wildlife garden' has become associated in some people's minds with 'wild flowers', 'native' plants, or a measure of untidiness. Some people equate 'wildlife gardens' with 'wildness' and 'wilderness' and see them as an experience that has nothing to do with them.

In fact scientific evidence shows that a special type of 'wildlife garden' is not necessary in order to provide food or a home to wildlife. There is nothing wrong with such a garden, but you can make your garden fit for the wildlife which visits no matter what style of garden you have. Simply by filling your garden with flowers of all kinds you can provide a diversity of habitats and food sources; a kind of contrived diversity. Of course if you cover your garden in concrete slabs or decking, or just have a lawn and nothing else, the scope for wildlife will be limited. But if you find some space for flowers, shrubs and climbers, and provide some variation in the hard landscaping such as a permanent log pile, a pond, or a rockery,  you will make your garden much more hospitable to wildlife.

Search