June, 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!
  • The Emperor's Old Clothes

    My pond has presented something of a mystery this year - the numbers of damselflies have been WAY down.

    Was it the drought? Was it the very warm spring? What was going on?

    Then one day a couple of weeks ago, a bucket blew into the pond in a gale, and when I lifted it out, it had within it THE monster of the deep - an Emperor Dragonfly nymph, fully grown.

    Now this is a creature as big as a Smooth Newt, with a taste for small fish (which it won't find in my pond), tadpoles (which it will), and insect larvae. And I reckon the nymphs of my Large Red, Blue-tailed and Azure Damselflies could all have been on the menu.

    Then this week it - or another - nymph dared to come up into view, just beneath the surface. I hope you can make it out.

    These fully grown individuals are likely to be two years old. They can mature in a single season, but two is normal. And I'd expect them to emerge from beneath the water and hatch into dragonflies this month.

    A warm evening is preferred, and they haul themselves up tall vegetation growing out of the pond, and even crawl into vegetation nearby.

    By the next morning, they will be ready for take-off. But if I miss the event, I'm still likely to find the spent cases - exuviae - from which they emerged. Here is one I collected from the pond a couple of years ago.

    It's amazing that the nation's largest dragonfly should breed in small garden ponds, but it does so regularly. And if it is these that have taken my damsleflies, then I'm happy to accept that that's nature and the interplay of species - I'm sure they'll have their day again.

  • A monster among moths

    I try to put the moth trap out in my garden every couple of weeks in the summer. It is the most amazing window on the nightime world, revealing life you would never otherwise suspect is dashing through the darkened garden.

    Last week, I was delighted to open up the trap and see this beauty trying hard (and failing) to hide behind an egg box.

    It is our biggest moth, with a wingspan of up to 12cm (5 inches). I called it a monster in the title, but I mean as in 'gentle giant', and not, as a Peterborough local newspaper reported a couple of years ago, something to shelter your children from. (Apparently a 'horrified' family had found its large caterpillar, and flushed it down the toilet before it could 'attacked' the children. Honestly!)

    This most amazing creature is found throughout southern England and Wales, and is probably moving north as the climate warms.

    If it does, it should have no problem finding foodplants for its caterpillars - they feed on lilacs, Ash and of course privets, including Garden Privet, before pupating in the soil.

    There is limited information out there as to which flowers it nectars at, probably because it is all done under cover of darkness at breakneck speed. But apparently honeysuckles are a favourite, and with a 10cm proboscis, it should have no problems delving into their slender trumpet flowers.

    As I extracted this perfect individual from the trap, it flashed its wings and pink-striped body at me, just to scare me off should I be thinking of eating it (which I wasn't), and then settled down to sleep the day out before no doubt another nighttime of adventures awaited.

  • Lapping up the Honeywort

    Funny how so many of the garden plants we go crazy over are actually thought of as weeds in the places they originate.

    And this is one that I'm growing in my garden for the first time this year. It is Honeywort Cerinthe major.

    In the Mediterranean it grows naturally on cultivated ground and 'wasteland', where the nodding flowers are two-tone, with a chocolate coloured base and a lemon yellow tip.

    However, the usual variety grown in this country, and the one I've been trying, is a natural variant called 'purpurea' where the flowers are entirely purple and the leafy bracts they emerge between have a purplish tint. You can also get a culivated variety called 'Purpurascens', and now one called 'Blue Kiwi' too, which are even richer in their colour.

    The foliage is not the neatest, a bit like a broad bean and growing up to 60cm (2 feet) high, but the flowers more than compensate. And it's not a bushy plant, so it can be slotted in little gaps.

    Their value in the wildlife garden is for nectaring bumblebees, who swing happily from flower to flower in midsummer. With mine just coming into flower now, it was so pleasing last weekend to see the bumblebees take to them so readily.

    It is an annual, which you can either start off in March in pots, or sow directly in the ground in April. I grew mine as part of my peat-free trial this year, and they did well at every stage from germination through to when I planted them out in early May. Don't over-pander them - they will grow too tall and floppy in a really rich soil.

    The flowers are likely to be over by July, but hopefully will set seed well, and I intend to collect some and let others self-seed, which they apparently do quite happily.  And next time I'm in the Med, I must look to see which weeds of ours they are growing in their gardens. Nettles, maybe?!