February, 2011

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!
  • Let's get squilly!

    On Friday I had the pleasure of visiting the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Hyde Hall in Essex for the first time. For me, visiting 'professional' gardens such as this is a great way to get to see a huge range of interesting plants and observe what wildlife, if anything, is taking advantage.

    My car thermometer said that it was 15 degrees Centigrade, but my body thermometer said otherwise, so apart from the Robins and Greenfinches singing their heart out, little wildlife was visible. But a few Honeybees from the garden's hives had bravely ventured out. And their plant of choice appeared to be this one (left).

    With its little bluebell-like leaves and icy, up-tilted, simple star-flowers, this is Scilla mischtschenkoana - try saying that without sounding slightly tipsy.

    Now here in the UK we have  a couple of native Scillas, which have the English name Squill. Those people who live near our weather-battered western coasts and up in the northern Isles will be awaiting the emergence in April or May of the delightful blue Spring Squill (Scilla verna) on grassy cliff-tops and rocky areas. Even rarer is the Autumn Squill. However, the one we are most familiar with in gardens is not native but does well in gardens, the Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica). It has nodding blue flowers, which I have also found to be good for bees.

    The main thing with squills is that they need good draining soil so that their little bulbs don't rot. They also prefer a well-lit position.The best time to plant squill bulbs is in the autumn. The flowers are so small that it is best to invest in quite a few bulbs and plant them just a few inches apart to have any kind of show.

    Unless you have a hive nearby I can't guarantee that your squills will be alive with buzzing so early in the season. But as a sweet little foretaste of spring just as the snowdrops go over, with the bonus that they at least offer the chance of nectar for early bees, why not put it on the wishlist for planting later in the year?


  • The ultimate fossicker

    The sun tried to come out here today. Because of the influence of the nearby cool sea, it wasn’t quite as balmy as I believe many of you had inland, and there was only a vague luke-warmness coming through. But, with only a light wind, it was certainly pleasant to get out at lunchtime and indulge in some wildlife observation in the local public gardens.

    In terms of insects, very little was on the wing. Some housefly-type flies were lapping merrily on the nectar pads in the green mouths of Euphorbia characias, and some tiny, green, flying insects barely a millimetre long (beyond my current identification skills) were nipping around a Viburnum tinus.

    There wasn’t much birdsong either, even though it felt like singing weather. But one species that was exercising its vocal chords (or rather syrinx) was this Dunnock (left), perched about six feet up in a twiggy bush. ‘Dibbly-dibbly, dibbly-dibbly’ (it’s very difficult to express birdsong in words!). And then off it would whizz at waist height and dart into the undergrowth.

    Which is where the fossicking comes in. It is a word I came to only recently thanks to a friend with a taste for fossicking, but it so superbly describes the kind of scuffling and noseying and pootling that Dunnocks do through the shady bases of bushes as they hunt out insects and small seeds.

    But the extra delight today was watching this Dunnock get excited. On meeting a rival, his little wings were waved around like demonic semaphore. It is one of the Dunnock ways of expressing territoriality, to show that he is the alpha male. I’ve just managed to catch the end of one such wing flick in this photo (right).

    Things to do in the garden for Dunnocks? Sunny shrubberies, lovely herbaceous borders, no chemicals, and some dense undisturbed undergrowth to nest in safe from cats, please. Then you can enjoy all the fossicking and semaphore you want!

  • Late winter treats for bumblebees

    I’ve now seen my first bumblebee of the year! Perhaps if 95% of my daylight hours in winter weren’t sat in front of a computer screen or incarcerated in meetings I’d have seen more (don't worry,  I’m not bitter about my job, but there’ve been some glorious sunny days down here this week which tug mercilessly at the heartstrings).

    The bee paused on a mahonia in flower in a neighbour's garden before bulleting up into the sky in that amazing way they have – seemingly so cumbersome and devoid of aerodynamics and yet so nippy when they want.

    These very early bumblebees are emerging queens, usually but not always the Buff-tailed Bumblebee Bombus terrestris, who are looking for nectar as a post-hibernation pick-me-up. It is a great reminder to check if you have the flowers they need at this lean time of year.

    My top choices are:

    * Winter-flowering heathers, such as Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis (left - and you don't need a full-on acid soil for them, unlike most heathers)

    * Winter-flowering honeysuckles Lonicera fragrantissima or x purpusii

    * Hellebores - also known as Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) and Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) and cultivars (right). (The only problem is that the bees disappear up into the nodding flowers so photographing them requires lying on your belly on wet ground for ages waiting for a bee to come by - as you can see, success still awaits me on that front.)

    * Viburnum tinus (a really easy to grow shrub)

    * And, if pushed, some crocuses and snowdrops, although bees don;t always go a bundle for them.

    Of course what I'd really love to know now is if you have some winter flowering plants that are bumblebee magnets for you. If you've seen a nectaring bumblebee, I WANT TO KNOW :-)