How to grow a wildlife-friendly allotment

My Wild City Project Officer, Hilary Wood, tells us about her wildlife-friendly allotment plot. From seedlings to slugs, cabbages to caterpillars, growing vegetables and flowers in harmony with wildlife can be so rewarding.

Across Manchester and Greater Manchester allotment sites are home to some great wildlife. More and more allotment holders are keen to garden with nature and not against it, so the plots can be quiet and valuable refuges for mammals such as hedgehogs, as well as birds, bees, butterflies and other insects. Allotment sites can act as great stepping stones in the nature networks we’re creating across the whole city, by providing food, water and shelter for our local wildlife.

If you’re lucky enough to have an allotment, you’ll know that not all living things help your crops to grow: slugs can devour seedlings, birds can eat your fruit, foxes can dig and badgers can tunnel.

Growing vegetables on the allotment

A wet spring feels like a personal battle on my plot: me versus the slugs. But through trial and error I do know that some crops, locations, and sowing conditions are better for slugs than others.  It’s obvious that if I let the grass path overhang my rows of seeds, slugs have super easy access to dinner on damp evenings. So I try to keep the path edges cut right back. It’s also obvious that if I get over enthusiastic and plant seeds early when the soil is still wet and cold, seedlings will be slow and struggling and easy for slugs and snails to finish right off. When I’m planting out delicate seedlings that I’ve been nurturing first at home, I will protect them using beer traps made from old plastic bottles – not slug pellets. And after finding drowning beetles in my beer / cider traps, I now try to remember to put in a little grass stem for them to climb safely out on. Many common beetles actually eat slugs themselves, so the more beetles, the better!

A large white butterfly feeding on lavender flowers

Large white butterflies are fond of lavender. Image by Megan Lowe

Every year I wonder if I can successfully grow brassicas (the gardeners term for cabbages, kale, broccoli etc). Most years I realise it’s a no, when the pigeons have pecked at them, and masses of caterpillars of the large white butterfly have stripped any leaves left.

My solution is to create a tunnel of horticultural fleece and grow cabbage plants in there. I know from experience that if you leave even a tiny gap in the tunnel, say between the soil and the fleece material, the large white butterflies will find their way in and lay their eggs. As I open the tunnel up to let these butterflies fly out, I know that at best, I’m now sharing my cabbages with caterpillars, and probably, they have just won again. I used to grow a couple of cabbage plants to leave out for the butterflies, thinking they then might leave the others alone, but it just seemed to encourage more butterflies onto my plot.

I feel very lucky having an allotment plot. I grow flowers there for insects and birds, as well as fruit and vegetables for my friends and family. I love being able to provide for nature on my plot as well as for myself. And every spring I have that great excitement of not knowing how it will all turn out this growing season, as I try to find ways to grow fruit and veg well, and to provide a great place for our local wildlife. 

You can join the gardening for wildlife movement too: sign up for our free online booklet today to get started.