September, 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!
  • A catmint without the cats?

    The catmints tend to be excellent nectar flowers - Nepeta x faassenii 'Six Hills Giant' being perhaps the most commonly grown out there, which can heave with bees.

    So I was pleased while hunting around a garden centre at the weekend to see yet another cultivar 'doing the business' on the bee front - and with a butterfly indulging too.

    The plant is Nepeta 'Walkers Low', which some people list as another x faassenii cultivar, while others call it a cultivar of Nepeta racemosa, originally a wild plant from the Caucasus. The RHS go with the latter, so I won't argue!

    It grows to maybe 60cm (2 foot) tall, forming a good clump of rather greyish leaves with neatly serrated edges, and then sprouting numerous upright stems decked with, for catmints, quite large  flowers, big-lipped and mauve.

    Here (left) is my Small White butterfly and bumble playing good neighbours.

    I normally avoid catmints like the plague, not because I don't like them (I love them) but because the local cats like them even more than I do and will trash them within days. Now I have read that cats are not so keen on Walkers Low, but at £6.99 it was too expensive as an experiment. But if you have catmint experiences you'd like to share - good or bad - you know what to do: add a comment!

  • Trooping of the colour(ful birds)

    It was lovely - and a surprise - to hear the distinctive little 'pit pit pit' calls of troop of Long-tailed Tits moving into the garden. My garden is half a mile or so from decent hedgerows and scrubby areas, so they have to pick their way through whatever garden hedges and trees they can find to thread a safe route through the urban area I live in. I only expect to see them a few times a year.

    Long-tailed Tits are such sociable little creatures, with often a sibling helping a pair raise their young, and then out of the breeding season they like to band into groups of two or three families that travel together, chatting constantly while they go.

    And what tends to happen is that they pick up some hangers-on along the way, so I knew it was worth standing to watch the carnival go through to see who was hitching a ride.

    Sure enough, half a dozen Blue Tits and and couple of Great Tits were enjoying the roving gang, taking the most time to pick through an elderly Elder I have. And there in amongst them was a moss-coloured little Chiffchaff, silently darting from branch to branch looking for insects.

    Soon Goldcrests are likely to be arriving in numbers from Scandinavia, and they and their home grown cousins will also tend to join the flocks, livening up the garden for a few moments with a bit of colour. Irresistible!

  • Bees in your Bluebeard

    Now here's a plant I'm loving more and more - gentle on the eye, but big on the bee front (I photographed this on Saturday). And seeing a Comma butterfly on it this week too was another reminder that this is a real winner for those who like to see their autumn flower beds buzzing with life.

    It's Caryopteris x clandonensis, a chance hybrid from a family of plants that comes originally from Asia. Sometimes known as Bluebeard, it now seems to be popping up in garden centres everywhere, which is great.

    It is a little perennial bush, perfect for smaller gardens, that grows to about 4 feet (120cm) high or so, with multiple thin hard stems ringed with these little whorls of lovely blue flowers right now in September.

    Even better, it seems to be able to cope whatever the pH of your soil. It just likes a bit of a sunny position in soil that is free draining. It then needs a hard prune in spring, a bit like you might with Buddleia, and up pop a new set of stems ready for autumn.

    This one is Grand Bleu, which was rated Very Good in a Dutch growing trial, but the Royal Horticultural Society has done some trials too, and there are plenty of great cultivars out there such as Heavenly Blue, First Choice and Worcester Gold.

    If you have Caryopteris in your garden and have found it to work - or not - for wildlife, do let us know.