August, 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!
  • Something to drive your bees WILD

    I'm a real sucker for 'finding' a wildlife-friendly plant that I haven't encountered before. And this week's 'discovery' was courtesy of that most magnificent of gardens - the RHS's Wisley, in Surrey.

    The plant was just a single clump in the little walled garden, and the Honeybees were overcome with excitement.

    Here it is for those that like the game of identifying the plant before I give its name away.

    As you can see, it forms quite a dense clump of rather large, maple-like leaves, with a candelabra of strong, upright flower stems, topped with whit bottlebrush heads of fluffy stamens.

    This is the herbaceous perennial Actaea japonica, the Japanese Bugbane. You may be familiar with its relative, Actaea simplex, which is more widely available and is a whizz for autumn butterflies.

    All the Bugbanes need a rich and preferably moist soil, and a rather shady position. My soil is too dry for Actaea simplex, which also gets nibbled by the snails and slugs when the leaves are young, so I'm guessing I'd struggle with this one too. All are also poisonous.

    But if you have rather damp conditions in a 'woodland garden' or area that is shaded for some of the day, and want to see your Honeybees in a frenzy, then why not seek this out?


  • The wild side of local government

    Much of my day job at the moment is spent in the offices of organisations other than the RSPB and in particular the County Hall of West Sussex County Council.

    As I arrive, I pass by the manicured lawns and rose beds that front the building, and head into whatever meeting I'm attending that day. But the bit I love the most is a rather tucked away corner, outside and around the back.

    What the Council has done is abandon the very formal, and instead they've sown wildflower seeds.

    It's a little haven of Wild Carrot, Fleabane, knapweeds and other species.

    I think it is fantastic. There are bees and hoverflies and who knows what else in amongst the shelter and microclimates of all those stems and leaves. It is one giant wildlife salad.

    I think it also brightens up this rather dull corner.

    It cuts down the carbon footprint of all the mower work needed elsewhere. And it even is probably even kind of the purses of the folk of West Sussex because it doesn't need daily tending.

    So a big thumbs up from me - it's definitely a big step in the right direction. And I look forward to the day when the Council - and society - feel that this wouldn't be out of place on the front lawn either!

  • Don't be a mophead!

    If there is one plant that is dominating front gardens everywhere where I live right now, it's the hydrangea. And I have to admit it is not one of my favourites.

    It's not dense enough or thorny to give birds somewhere to shelter; it's leaves don't appear tasty to insects, so there's little value there; and most of all the flowers seem so unattractive to insects.

    The reason is quite simple. The giant globes of flowers you see on so many hydrangeas are entirely sterile. These are the 'moptops' of  Hydrangea macrophylla, a plant originally from Japan, which has been bred and bred for visual impact, but in doing so has lost all its fertile flowers. Score for wildlife: 0 out of 10.

    I was therefore pleased this year to find some 'lacecap' Hydrangea macrophylla with the odd hoverfly on them. The lacecaps have only a ring of sterile florets around a densely packed core of fertile flowers. But even these don't appear particularly valuable for wildlife. Score for wildlife: 1 out of 10.

    So I was delighted to at last find some love for hydrangeas when I found this - Hydrangea paniculata.

    It is also from Japan (and China), grows to about 3 metres tall (but you can prune it hard back in spring). And it just hasn't been tugged and pushed by growers in the same way that macrophylla has.

    It means that the tiny fertile flowers among the white or cream sterile florets are full of nectar, and loved by bees. You can see one here in the photo towards to bottom left of the flowerhead.

    You don't get the 'giant pompom' effect of the moptop hydrangeas - the flower spikes are rather more pointed. But score for wildlife? I'm giving 5 out of 10. And I never thought I'd say that about a hydrangea!