July, 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!
  • Clever with heather

    I realise Hampton Court Flower Show was a few weeks ago now, but I can't resist one last post from it.

    Have a look at this...

    It;s a nice looking garden, with plenty of wildlife-friendly features such as a dry stone wall, a 'pond' in the form of a water tank (ok, it's not ideal for wildlife but is better than nothing as long as it has the means for creatures to get in and out of it), and pollinator-flowers such as salvias and monarda (bee-balm).

    And then you notice that they've done something clever with the hedge, which looks like it is multi-coloured yew or something.

    But then one of the staff on the garden thrust a leaflet into my hand and I realised that this was the garden of the British Heather Growers Association. That hedge...it can't be?...surely not?...that's not heather, is it?

    Well, it is! The designers had used irrigated vertical growing systems that are getting ever more available commercially. I'm not yet completely sure of their environmental credentials in terms of water use. But the concept of living walls sure does appeal from a wildlife point of view.

    I spoke to one of the team who built the garden to find out how realisitic this is in a real garden, and they said it was prefectly do-able.

    "And as the heather matures, does it go leggy and woody?" I asked, wondering if the perfect chequerboard effect would become a straggly, holey mess. They reckoned not.

    And they claimed that when the thing blooms, it is the most glorious, purple-and-pink bee-filled wall imaginable. Now that is something I wholeheartedly approve of!

  • A savage star for the bees

    One of the things that pollinating insects seem to like is massed planting of their favoured species. Instead of just having a snack and then having to wander off to find something else, which is what happens when there are only a few flowers of each type, they can just concentrate on one particular type.

    It this way, insects don't have to learn a new technique to extract the nectar or pollen from each plant they visit. It's like us having to master new and complex drinking vessels for each sip - far better if we can stick to our favourite mug.

    A few weeks ago I visited the lovely Waterperry Gardens near Oxford, where they let the public wander around their herbaceous nursery beds. Here you can see individual plants grown en masse, which is the perfect way to spot which ones are working wonderfully for pollinators and which are devoid of life.

    Those species that were packing in the bees and bumblebees were predictably the excellent catmints (Nepeta), especially 'Six Hills Giant' and 'Walkers Low', and the Salvias, especially Salvia x superba.

    But the one I'm going to pick out is this gorgeous Eryngium.

    It's Eryngium bourgatii, which originates from the Pyrenees and is closely related to our native Sea-holly. It is a perennial that grows to a couple of feet tall at most, with really spiny leaves, and little balls of tiny flowers surrounded by a savage star of silver-blue bracks. They look rather thistle-like, but are actually in the carrot family.

    Bumblebees were loving it, as they do with so many of the Eryngiums. You may also be familiar with Eryngium giganteum Miss Willmott's Ghost, and I like the tale of how Miss Willmott loved it so much that she used to surreptitiously spread seed in the gardens of people she visited.

    Most cultivated Eryngiums are hardy, and like moist but well-drained soil. Eryngium planum is also commonly grown, and its smaller flowers are also good for Honeybees and hoverflies. So if you're after something which is quite dramatic in colour and prickly architecture, AND good for insects, these are definitely plants for your border.

  • Danae's one-year wonder!

    Each January in recent years, I have chaired the Sussex Ornithological Society's Annual Conference, and so I get to meet all sorts of interesting speakers.

    The highlight for me this year was a talk about a project that is trying to find out where some of our migrant birds go to in Africa. Birds such as Cuckoos, Spotted Flycatchers and Turtle Doves are declining alarmingly, and if we are to look after them we have to understand their needs not only here in the UK but in their passage and wintering quarters too.

    The speaker was Dr Danae Stevens, who heads up this project for the RSPB. I'd really recommend that you check out what she and her team are up to - it's such vital work. And thank you for your RSPB membership which helps support projects like this.

    But I was extra delighted to find out that Danae is a keen gardener. And she has been kind enough to send me a little piece about her garden, and the inspiration she gets from it.

    "I moved in last spring when the garden was just all mown grass. The difference in a year is so exciting - it just shows you what you can achieve in a short space of time.

    "The pond has been there a year and a week. Here it is in June 2010...

    "and a year later...

    "Construction of the bog garden only started this April...

    "...and here it is by June.

    "Yesterday, I had my second species of newt when I saw some young Great Crested Newts for the first time.

    "The amount of wildlife visiting the garden has just rocketed – there are masses of birds (there was a Turtle Dove calling in the field behind the garden when I took these pictures on 19 June), but also lots of other wildlife, including loads of invertebrates.

    "The insects just love the wild flowers and the self-seeded Purple Toadflax and Borage that is all over the place.

    "Later in the summer the long grass is alive with crickets and grasshoppers – a lovely sound on a warm summer evening!"

    What can I say, Danae? I love it love it love it!