We have had a lovely productive year in our tiny garden, with crops of broad beans, purple mange tout peas, Swiss chard, garlic, potatoes, blackcurrants and bumper harvests of strawberries and raspberries. The children have had a lovely time sowing and growing all these tasty treats, and I think our success this year has been partly down to the weather, and partly down to our wildlife helpers keeping many of the herbivorous pests at bay.
Normally I find black aphids a problem on our broadbeans - not spoiling the crop entirely but certainly making for messy, black stained fingers when harvesting and podding the beans. This year we didn't have any problems, which may be due to help from the bugs and birds we have been encouraging into our garden.
Beneficial, predatory insects such as centipedes, spiders, lacewings and even wasps can be of major help - when we had an allotment I watched in amazement as wasps carried off little fat green caterpillars from our kale crop. Minibeast helpers can be encouraged by leaving areas a little less than pristine - a pile of logs and sticks in a corner for example provides a useful place to hide and to overwinter. You can easily make a home for solitary bees and lacewings by bunching up short lengths of garden cane and wedging them into a plant pot, then hanging it somewhere unobtrusive (we have ours suspended in the small gap between the shed and the fence). I have also purposely left a few small troughs to self seed with 'weeds' this year. Placed near the productive containers they seemed to reduce the load of aphids on our crops - the weeds had plenty on them, but hardly any on the veg. I did this initially to provide flowers to attract in hoverflies and bees, but the aphid effect was an unexpected bonus.
Our biggest problems are slugs and snails, and for this we need to encourage Thrushes and Blackbirds into our garden. These are ground feeding birds, so a tray on short legs is best. Simply throwing food on the ground is a recipe for mess and a potential source of infection for the birds - a tray is better because you can give it a good scrub down with a bird-safe disinfectant every week or so.
Smaller birds such as Bluetits are fantastic at getting rid of caterpillars and I've also seen them feeding on roses covered in greenfly - hopefully eating the greenfly and not the unappetising Ladybirds. These can generally fend for themselves in the spring when there are lots of insects about - which is what their chicks need to grow - but later on in the year benefit from hanging bird feeders filled with bird seed. If you're going to feed with peanuts, it's a good idea to make sure these are bird-grade since they will have been guaranteed to be free from pathogens which could cause illness in the birds you are trying to attract. Small birds also appreciate really fatty foods, such as fat balls and coconut feeders. Peanut and seed tubs popular with birds and are fun and easy to make with your kids. Simply mix up a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter with a couple of tablespoons of bird seed and smear into containers such as yoghurt pots or old coconut feeders, then hang out of reach of cats.
We had success one year with a hanging feeder filled with niger seed - these tiny black seeds brought in Goldfinches, which were a glowing whirl of colour and incredibly exotic looking. They normally feed on thistle and teasel seeds, so if you have a big enough garden to leave a wild patch with native wild flowers in, make sure you leave it alone when it runs to seed and don't mow it down too enthusiastically. All year round, but especially in winter it is also vital to provide water, both for drinking and bathing. Important for the birds, but also you will see water sources often visited by bees in the warmer months.
As well as benefiting your crops, kids gain a great deal from watching wildlife visitors to the garden. You can use it as a catalyst for all kinds of learning, from learning how to make tally charts and recognise different types of birds and insects, to introducing ideas about food chains and life cycles.
This post was sponsored, but the images, anecdotes and nommy veg are genuine and all mine