Two people garden in front of some brick flats, there are spades and garden forks in the foreground

Urban gardens and balconies are important places for insects, birds and other animals to find food and shelter.

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The best small trees, climbers and shrubs to plant for wildlife

'Planting what you enjoy will make both you and wildlife happy, but make sure you avoid invasive species,' says Tom McCarter, our Head of Gardens. Planting a diversity of shrubs, climbers and small trees, he adds, can help boost biodiversity. October to April is prime planting time, so have your spade at the ready.

Urban gardens and balconies might be small, but they are important places for insects, birds and other animals to find food and shelter. In fact, garden flowers in our cities and towns can provide insect pollinators with up to 85% of the nectar they need.

In some cases, our love of flowering plants means that urban areas are home to more of some pollinator species than surrounding rural areas. So, what should we be planting?  

Providing pollinators with nectar for longer

A study of Bristol gardens found that when it comes to available nectar, it's not the size of your balcony or garden that's the most important thing, it's what you do with it. The researchers found that planting a range of flowering plants will best provide nectar over the warmer months. They recommend planting nectar-rich shrubs, and plants that flower in late summer and autumn. 

In the 59 gardens the researchers looked at, non-native plants provided 91% of all nectar. Out of these plants, fuchsia, provided well over half of that nectar from July to October. 

A hoverfly on an ivy flower

Shrubs such as ivy and bramble are good choices for pollinators. Ivy starts to flower at the end of summer when other plants stop flowering, providing a handy food source for pollinators such as hoverflies, bees and wasps throughout autumn. © Marina Rose/ Shutterstock

A green iridescent beetle walks across a dog rose flower

Wild roses, including the dog rose, grow to around three to four metres in height and attract many insects and moths, including the barred yellow moth, the small eggar moth and the red-green carpet moth. Plus, during autumn and winter their rosehips are a good source of food for birds.

Depending on the species, wild roses either have strong stems and can stand up by themselves or have climbing stems and will need support. Roses don't tend to thrive in wet or acidic soil. © Sandra Standbridge/ Shutterstock

Planting for birds and other wildlife

Birds such as blue tits might visit your garden to find food. By planting small trees, shrubs and climbers that provide a home for caterpillars, you can help provide these birds with their next meal.

Many caterpillars only eat the leaves of one kind of plant, so planting a range of species in a hedge, such as hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, barberry, beech, spindle and privet, will encourage a variety of butterfly and moth caterpillars. 

A close up of hawthorn flowers growing in bunches of small, white flowers.

Planting hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, will help garden birds thrive. Hawthorn supports many invertebrates and its red fruits, called haws, are also a great source of food for birds in the winter.

Hawthorn typically grows on woodland edges as well as in disturbed or cleared places. It can flourish in a range of environments and has historically been planted in hedges. © MVolodymyr/ Shutterstock

A woodpecker peeps out of a hollow in a birch tree trunk

Silver birches, Betula pendula, provide a home to many species of invertebrate. In fact, an astonishing 334 species are known to feed on birch in the UK. Birch is also a great soil improver and is used to growing in some difficult conditions. It prefers growing in a dry place. Silver birches can grow up to 15-25 metres in height, so are not particularly small. If you can, try to plant a birch that is local to your area. © Erni/ Shutterstock

Three whitebeam trees growing together in a park on a summers day under a blue sky

Whitebeam, Sorbus aria, is popular with wildlife. This small tree flowers in May and June and forms bright red fruits in late summer and in autumn. Whitebeam flowers are a good source of nectar for pollinators, its leaves are a great source of food for the caterpillars of moths and its red berries are a favourite of birds, which also feast on the feeding caterpillars.

In autumn, its large, oval leaves turn a lovely russet colour. Whitebeam grows to be fairly compact, with its branches spreading out a couple of metres above the ground. Mature whitebeams rarely grow taller than 12 metres and are well suited to a range of conditions, including exposed areas. © APugach/ Shutterstock

When to plant your trees and shrubs

It's better to plant trees from October to April because during these months they're dormant and so are less likely to suffer damage.

Find out more about how to plant trees and which species are native to your area by reading the Woodland Trust's advice

Planting native UK trees and shrubs 

Sam Thomas, our UK Biodiversity Officer, says 'if you're planting for wildlife, you should consider native plants, as they tend to support more species'. But adds that 'any plant is better than nothing as long as you’re careful to avoid invasive species’. 

Native trees and shrubs are more likely to provide food and shelter for UK wildlife because they've evolved alongside them for thousands of years.

If you're thinking about growing a native species, Sam says you can go one step further and plant a species with local provenance. These are species that are adapted to growing in your area. Planting locally grown trees also reduces the risk of spreading pests and diseases from one area to another via seeds or saplings.

Trees and shrubs will have preferences for the type of soil as well as the amount of sun and water they need, so it's good to be aware of what they like so your plant can thrive. Sam says it's all about putting the right tree in the right place! 

A flowering, rambling crab apple against a blue sky

The small crab apple tree, Malus sylvestris, is both a pretty addition to a garden and great for wildlife, supporting about 93 different species of insect in the UK. The flowers it produces in May are great for pollinators whilst its small fruits, which are about two and a half centimetres across and ripen in October, provide food for birds and small mammals.

The word crab comes from the Norse word skrab, meaning small and rough. Crab apple trees can reach up to 10 metres in height, have thorny branches and grow as a shrub. © Peter Turner Photography/ Shutterstock

What are we planting in our gardens?

Here at the Museum, we're exploring the impacts of climate change as part of our Urban Nature Project.

We're looking to the future by planting Mediterranean species, such as cork oaks and stone pines, in our new gardens.

Our scientists will be collecting and monitoring biodiversity in our gardens to see how nature uses and adapts to these new plant species. 

Planting for a changing climate 

Many urban plants, particularly in the south of the UK, are showing increasing signs of heat stress and drought due to the impact of climate change. This is a particular problem for street plants that have their roots covered in concrete or pavement.

If you live in the south of the UK and have a particularly hot, sunny or well-drained garden, it's probably worth thinking about planting some trees and shrubs that would traditionally grow in the south of Spain, such as olive, holm oak and fig trees.

These plants are more drought and heat tolerant than native UK species. If you can, its best to plant these species alongside each other so your garden will thrive in current and future climates.

Juniper and cypress trees are very climate resilient and provide a lot of shelter in the winter for nesting birds, small mammals and invertebrates. The fruits of the juniper tree are eaten by birds such as the mistle thrush.

Even though they're not native to the UK, these non-native species can still create habitats for insects as well as places for mammals and birds to shelter. On top of this, they also provide benefits such as cooling shade, helping to reduce flooding, carbon capture, air purifying and boosts to wellbeing.

If you're thinking of growing species that originate outside the UK, check that they're not invasive. Bringing invasive species into the country can harm the environment, particularly when they out-compete our native species, becoming so abundant that they leave native species nowhere to grow. 

A butterfly on a leaf

Alder buckthorn, Frangula alnus, is an important larval foodplant for the brimstone butterfly while its flowers also provide nectar for other insects like the purple hairstreak shown above. This species often grows in hedges and damp woodlands and can reach up to six metres in height. Its fruits, which grow and ripen from July to September, changing from red to purple, are eaten by a range of birds, including thrushes. © Colin robert varndell/ Shutterstock

A pollinator buzzes about a willow flower wth the blue sky behind

Trees producing spring blossom provide a welcome source of nectar and pollen for pollinators early in the season. Goat willow, Salix caprea, also called pussy willow, is a brilliant tree for wildlife. Its pollen-laden catkins are a hit with bees in early spring. On top of supporting bees and other beneficial insects, it also provides seeds and nesting material for birds and makes a good hedge plant.

If you're short on space, why not plant Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock'. This cultivar is ideal for small gardens, as it grows to about two and a half metres in height and is much more compact than other varieties, which can grow up to 12 metres. © prambuwesas/ Shutterstock