February, 2010

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Gardening for wildlife in years past

    Well, what a wash-out it has been for me this week in terms of doing anything meaningful in the garden. From the weather reports, I suspect for some of you it has been white-out rather than wash-out. Again.

    At such moments, penned indoors, I like flicking back through my gardening diaries from previous years. I don't write in them religiously, and it is usually no more than a few sentences when I do, and at the time, it barely seems of interest. But it is when I look back that I see their real worth.

    So, on 23 February 2004, I can see that I was busy pruning Buddleias. These days I leave them a few more weeks to try and delay their flowering to try and catch summer butterflies at their peak. Six years ago I was also tidying the old dead stems of the previous year's herbaceous plants, and again my current attitude is to leave them in place that little bit longer, just in case they still harbour insects or maybe their eggs or larvae tucked away inside.

    One of the really interesting things that the diaries show is phenological changes. (As regular readers will know, I love my words, and phenology means the study of things appearing or coming into view. It's what a 'phenomenon' is too - something that appears). So, on 23 February 2004, I recorded the first Wild Daffodils of the year coming into bloom in my woodland garden. In comparison, it took until 25 February in 2006, and 27 February in 2005, but in 2008, well what an advanced year that was, with seven out already by the 9th.

    This year of course things are very different. The daffodil leaves are barely a couple of inches high with no sign of flower buds yet, let alone a glimpse of sunshine yellow petals. My estimate is that this year they will some three weeks behind average at least.(The photo is actually from my garden on 11 March 2007 - oh, how I'm looking forward to sights like that this year!)

    So what does this say about climate change? Well, nothing actually. Just as if they had come into flower in the last week of January it wouldn't have said anything either. You sometimes see the media trying to latch on to single events as evidence one way or the other for climate change, but the climate is all about averages and patterns that emerge over long time periods. So I guess the thing that is important here is that I am at least keeping the records so that at some stage I can see if I can spot a pattern.

    And of course my diaries give me a nice excuse to wallow in remembering my gardening from years gone by. I'd encourage every gardener to give it a try!

  • Lamb's tails in the bushes show spring is coming

    On it goes, the seemingly endless cold and damp, frost, snow and hail we're having this winter. The daffodil growers say the season is a month behind schedule, so the borders are looking all rather bare at the moment.

    But travelling by train this weekend, I saw one of those wonderful tell-tale signs that the season is on the move. In some hedgerows and gardens, little shrubby trees were festooned with streaks of creamy catkins - the Hazel is coming into flower.

    The catkins are the male flowers. They began to form in autumn, when they were hard and small and inconspicuous. But now the tree starts to sense the lengthening days and the catkins expand, until now they are like little dangling lamb's tails (I took the photo in the garden at RSPB Rye Meads (Herts) yesterday). Each catkin has a hundred or so tiny flowers, each capped with a hard bract, below which, if you look closely, you can see the dangling stamens. From these, the Hazel wafts its pollen to drift in the late winter air. Waiting to catch them as they pass are the tiny female flowers, which look like little buds along the stems, each with a tuft of red hairs at the end. (They are not yet open in the photo, because a tree will wait until its male flowers are spent before it opens its female flowers, a nifty device to avoid self-fertilisation).

    It is by being wind pollinated that Hazel can flower at this time of year - it just doesn't need to rely on insects to do the job. But wildlife gets its value out of hazel as the season progresses, with various moth caterpillars, sawfly larvae and other insects eating the foliage, birds eating those caterpillars, and then the autumn nuts being a favourite of Wood Mice and Grey Squirrels, and - if you're very lucky - Dormice.

    Overall, I think this is a fab plant for the wildlife gardener. It is one of our smallest trees, so is great for a small garden. It can also be inserted in a native hedge, or even grown as a hedge in its own right. And then if it gets too big, you just cut it down the base in winter and it throws up vigorous new shoots the next season - the old art of coppicing. And of course how can you resist a plant that waves such wonderful flags to say that spring is on its way.

  • The wildlife gardening blog turns seedy

    It may be still incredibly cold and wintry outside, but the calendar doesn't lie - we're into the second half of February, and that means that wildlife gardening is about to get very exciting indeed!

    The big job looming, for those who like the challenge, is to start planting seeds indoors. I still find that it feels really premature to be thinking of this while snows are still falling and ponds keep freezing over, but if you wait until it feels springlike you'll be weeks behind.

    The first job, of course, is to choose and buy your seeds. Here are some of the packets I've already bought this year. I love the fact that inside each are hundreds of little grains of potential, primed and waiting for warmth and moisture, pre-programmed to turn into beautiful blooms.

    Some are old favourites I've tried before, had success with, and adore, such as the Nicotiana sylvestris (with its exotic scent that draws in hawkmoths), and the Californian Poppy (Latin name Eschscholzia - what a name with two 'sch's after each other!) which is good for hoverflies.

    Meanwhile some are plants I've seen in other people's gardens which I know to be good for particular creatures, such as the Echium Blue Bedder which is a magnet for Honeybees.

    But Rudbeckia Toto Gold is going to be a bit of an experiment. There are plenty of Rudbeckias that I've seen being enjoyed by Honeybees, but will this dwarf variety that only grows 12 inches high cut the mustard? Only time will tell.

    I've managed to pick up several packets of seeds at half price from garden centres in the past couple of weeks, which is great value when even full-price most are only two quid or so. And for rarer species I turn to Chiltern Seeds, an excellent internet company. With them, you don't get the glossy packet and detailed planting instructions, but their range is huge.

    Even writing about it I'm getting all fired up with expectation. I hope you're feeling it too!