April, 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!
  • Our big, wild, interconnected world

    Every now and then I need to ‘reconnect’ with the truly wild - nature unbridled and awesome.

    So last weekend I gave the garden a hefty dousing with water to combat April’s drought, and headed off to north Wales for some gorgeous BIG mountains to cleanse the soul (left).

    However, you’ll be heartened to know that while striding across the mountain tops, skipping down the slopes (oh, and huffing and puffing back up the other side), I still found things relevant to gardening for wildlife.

    One was the presence of great gatherings of tadpoles in some of the little, peaty, mountain pools (right). The highest I found was probably at about 700m altitude (almost 2500 feet), where some of the spawn was frosted and the eggs white.

    But the many many survivors show just how hardy Frogs can be. Any worries that we might have about our ponds freezing over and our frogspawn ‘copping it’ with late frosts – well, that’s what Frogs have had to cope with for millennia (you can see them turning green with algae in the photo).

    Another thing that may not have seemed immediately relevant to gardens were the Pied Flycatchers in the wonderful hanging oak woods on the steep valley sides (below left). These little gems fly all the way from Africa each year to spend the summer in these ancient woodlands, where they sing simple ditties, nest in tree holes (and nestboxes), and feast on caterpillars.

    The link is that, in 2005, a Pied Flycatcher paused in my garden on its autumn journey south. Here it fed happily on insects over my pond. Pied Flycatchers don't nest anywhere near where I live, so my visitor must have bred somewhere much further north, probably well away from gardens, possibly even in the Welsh valleys I visited, .

    Doesn't it all show how interconnected everything is, and how gardens can offer temporary succour for wildlife whose main home may be hundreds of miles away?

  • So far so good on the peat-free trial

    A few weeks back, I set out to test for myself some of the peat-free composts on the market.

    This, I quickly explain, is no scientifically rigorous test. I don't have the time, experience or facilities to do that.

    But what I do feel is important is that we 'normal gardeners' share our experiences of peat-free so that we build up a shared knowledge of how to use them and which work best for us, just as was the case with peat several decades ago before people understood the conservation damage that would be caused by its use.

    Here then is the first report on how I've been getting on.

    My key focus was on growing plants from seed. I'm pretty happy that peat-free composts are fine for potting on well-established plants, but how well would they fare where germination is concerned?

    This first stage was trying out B&Q Peat-free compost versus New Horizon Peat-free Organic Growbag compost.

    Both composts had to be sieved to start with, with the B&Q in particular containing some finger-sized shards of half-rotted bark or wood.

    I then mixed the sieved material with some vermiculite in a ratio of about 2 to 1. The photo shows a range of the seeds I have been trying.

    Interestingly, germination was better for all seeds in the New Horizon than in the B&Q. This of course is not due to the nutrients in the compost, but presumably the contact that the seeds made with the compost.

    However, after germination, the B&Q compost tended to show faster growth. In the tray to the left in particular, the larger plants are Ageratum, with those central in the tray grown in B&Q, and those bottom left in New Horizon.

    The paler green plants in the right-hand tray are Cerinthe (Honeywort). The smaller seedlings with feathery growth are Cosmos which have struggled, the seedings with four new leaves are Sage which are barely a couple of weeks old and doing great, and the pots with tiny seedlings are Knautia which have been very hit and miss.

    The B&Q compost has proved to be very free draining, drying out quickly, while the New Horizon has, a little alarmingly, had a tendency to throw up short-lived tiny toadstools.

    Overall, I sense that larger seeds do much better than smaller in these composts, with a tray of Dianthus totally failing. But I'm getting close to the point where I'm happy that both composts, with a bit of willpower, can grow a whole range of plants successfully from seed.

    I'm currently testing some more seeds with the two composts above and with Westlands Earth Matter Peat-free Growbag compost, whose consistency I thought was excellent and a step above the other two. I'll let you know how I get on!

  • The garden cuckoo with four wings

    With a blog title like that, I'm sure you'll think I've been sampling toadstools in the garden again.

    But, no, I've genuinely found a four-winged garden cuckoo, and I have the photos to prove it.

    The scene of my discovery was once more the Bishop's Garden in Chichester, where again the patches of Red Dead-nettle were the only real attractions as far as nectar was concerned.

    Common Carder Bees were guzzling merrily, and male Hairy-footed Flower Bees were whizzing backwards and forwards manically from flower patch to flower patch, as they are wont to do.

    But then I noticed a rather more sedate black bee dipping its head deep into the Dead-nettle flowers. It looked quite dramatic, about the size of a small bumblebee, but with a very pointed rear end (left), and on close inspection a couple of pale dots on either side of its abdomen (you can just make them out in the photo), and white knees (easiest to see in the right hand photo ). It was quite a savage yet dramatic looking thing.

    And then there was another. The red head? I think that was pollen.

    Now insects can be tricky little blighters to identify, but this one turned out with a bit of research to be fairly recognisable. It turns out that they were females of a species called Melecta albifrons, so I'm going to call them Mel for short.

    It is a cuckoo bee, a species that lays its eggs inside the nest of another bee. Its larvae then munch the food supply that has been collected by the adults of the other bee - yes, an act of stealing you might say, but of course we will be careful not to tarnish the species with the human emotions one would associate with that word. This is after all just nature doing what nature has designed it to do.

    The 'host' that unwittingly provides the food for the cuckoo is our old friend, the Hairy-footed Flower Bee, one of which came whizzing through my garden this week, pausing at Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'.

    See, it all happens in gardens! You don't have to go far to find little dramas playing themselves out, and four-winged cuckoos called Mel.