August, 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!
  • Have you got this gentle giant in your garden?

    A couple of weeks ago I did a blog about the delicate little Marmalade Hoverfly. So I felt I just had to show you this  'beast' I photographed in my garden yesterday.

    At about 19mm long, this is Britain's largest resident hoverfly. A few people call it the Hornet Hoverfly, for rather obvious reasons, but most books stick to the Latin name - Volucella zonaria.

    In fact, this particular individual has been roving my garden for at least several days now. Every morning, she sits in the same branch on the sheltered, east-facing side of a Leylandii tree to gain a bit of warmth from the early sun. And then for the rest of the day she comes down onto my Hemp-agrimony to have a good long drink of nectar.

    For me, there are three fascinating things about her.

    1) She will lay her eggs in wasp and Hornet nests, where her larvae will act as live-in cleaners, mopping up bits that the wasps have spilt

    2) She is an urban garden specialist, rarely seen in the countryside, and most frequent in London. (I'm afraid this is another one of those southern species, but it is expanding north and west quickly, and has reached counties such as Devon and Gloucestershire).

    and 3) I'm using the word 'her' for a reason. The trick with hoverflies is to see whether the eyes are joined (male) or separate (female). As I think you can see, the one in my garden at the moment is most definitely female! The chestnut back is also a feature of the female.

    Favourite nectar plants include Buddleia and Hebe. But if you've seen it on anything else, I'd love to know.

  • A wildlife gardening job for a very wet day!

    "Yes!" I cheered, on hearing that it was going to pour it down.

    The thing is, my pond has been getting choked with Hornwort. It's that furry underwater weed a little bit like a green feather boa. It's a brilliant oxygenating native, but liable to go a bit rampant.

    And when that happens, any stems that are just under the surface are lush and green. But any that are trapped deeper in the water are so shaded that they turn yellow and begins to rot, and then the nutrient level in the pond goes up, risking algae attacks next year.

    So I like to hoik out great piles of the stuff at this time of year. It makes great nitrogen-rich compost, but a wet day is essential.

    The reason is that in amongst the weed are lots of aquatic creatures - pond snails, water shrimps (Gammarus), and damselfly larvae. By putting the piles of weed right by the side of the pond and letting the rain wash through, lots of the animals will be flushed back into the pond.

    I tend to aim for two thirds of the pond covered in waterweed of some sort, a third open water. It's only a rule of thumb, but it does let sunlight into the depths. It is a technique that has worked a treat in all the ponds I've made, helping them maintain what seems to be perfect equilibrium year-round. Don't you just love how nature regulates itself - so much so that my pond water looks clear enough to drink. I don't, of course, but a little wiggling of my toes in the water has been known!




  • Joe Pye and the Butterflies

    The title sounds like the name of a 1960s pop group, but this is all about my plant of THIS week - Joe Pye Weed.

    It's a perennial, native to eastern USA, and grows to six foot or more high, with these architectural purple stems and deep pink clusters of small flowers. It is apparently named after an Indian healer who used the plant in his potions.

    And you'll have noticed that last weekend I managed to photograph a butterfly happily feeding on it, in this case Holly Blue, but I also saw Gatekeeper, Common Blue, Small Copper and Meadow Brown feeding avidly on it too.

    Because of its height, it is one for the back of a border, and it will need a good, moisture-retentive soil or it will struggle in dry periods. but if you have the space, it's a real winner for Honeybees and bumblebees too.

    Oh, and the Latin name if you want to find it in your garden centre? Eupatorium purpureum. And from that you might notice the link with one of my favourite native plants for wildlife. Yes, this is the American (and hence rather showier) cousin of Eupatorium cannabinum, also known as Hemp-agrimony.