December, 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!
  • Whatever happened to the dragonflies?

    With 2011 drawing to a close and the evenings long and dark,  I like to grab the opportunity to get my garden wildlife records up to date.

    Throughout the year, I record the numbers of birds, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies in the garden as an indication of whether my efforts to improve things for wildlife are bearing fruit. Each week, I record the maximum of each species that I see at one time. For example, if I see a Red Admiral seven times during the week, but only see a maximum of one at a time, then it just goes down as '1'.

    In two years of writing this blog, I don't think I've asked you to bear with my graphs before, but I think they make interesting reading.

    Here are my butterfly records since I started recording in 2001.

    Numbers started very low. But as I planted flowers that the butterflies love, and foodplants for their caterpillars, so the overall number of butterflies grew (purple bars and left-hand axis), and the number of species (blue line and right hand axis).

    As you can see, the last two years have been something of a disappointment - much higher, yes, than in the early years, but a fall from the peak. In 2010 it may have been the cloudy, wet summer. But my suspicion is that the increasing shade cast by neighbours' trees is reducing the attractiveness of the garden.

    My dragonflies and damselflies graph is a right dog's dinner:

    After not a single dragon or damsel in 2001, the first pond went in in 2002, numbers boomed, but the pond became increasingly shaded by 2005 and numbers plummeted again. So the new pond went in in a much sunnier location.

    The numbers soared almost instantly, up to dizzying heights, until this year's massive and unexplained drop.

    Now I suspect that dragons and damsels have somewhat boom and bust years, but I'm wondering whether the increased shade is again having an impact.

    But then that's what's so interesting about gardening for wildlife. With a leylandii removed this winter to open up much more afternoon sun, I'm predicting a bounce back for butterflies and dragonflies next year, but if they don't then it's back to the drawing board!

    Have a very Happy New Year, and here's to a butterfly- and dragonfly-filled 2012.

  • Teasing the Goldfinches

    Happy Christmas, everyone, and I hope you had a great day yesterday.

    One highlight of a winter walk last weekend was coming across a large stand of Teasels, and sure enough there were some little red faces amongst them...

    There aren't many British birds which are so associated with a plant as the Goldfinch and the Teasel, and it is a joy to see a 'charm' of the finches picking their way dexterously over the spiky seedheads.

    Male Goldfinches have slightly longer beaks than the female, so can reach the seed without having to bend the spines out of the way, so although you can't guarantee that a Goldfinch on a Teasel is a male, it is far more likely.

    I find it interesting that Teasels don't tend to be sold in garden centres. Sure, you can pick them up from some 'wild flower' sections, and especially from wild flower seed providers, but if this was a plant from another corner of the globe, we'd surely go as wild as the Goldfinches for the amazing seedheads.

    Maybe it is the fact that Teasels are a tad robust in the leaf, and the flowers aren't that showy. Or maybe it is the spiny stems. But most 'garden plants' are less than perfect in some way. So I think the reason is just that garden centres play on the human desire for the exotic, whereas this is 'just a weed'. It's a crying shame, because it is such a great wildlife plant, and so easy to grow.

    I do grow a small patch of Teasels in my small garden. There aren't enough to excite my local Goldfinches, who prefer a mass of plants for it to be worth their while. But the flowers are great for bumblebees. And with each seed head producing several hundred seeds, I'm sure some of my garden birds get to enjoy the bounty.

    And if you tell your kids or grandkids that it is probably one of our very few native carnivorous plants, I'm sure they'll insist that you grow it.

    Carnivorous? Well, the Teasel is well known for collecting pools of water in its lower leaves, and I don't mean just a few drops - an average plant collects about half a pint. Insects then drown in the water, faster than they seem to in a normal puddle, so it is suspected that the Teasel then absorbs the nutrients. It's not yet proven beyond doubt, but the idea just adds to what must be one of our most charismatic wild plants.

  • Bare-root roses for wildlife

    The latest addition to my garden are two roses. Anyone that knows me well will gasp in amazement, for roses in general don't float my boat. The flowers are all very grand, but the plants they sit on tend to be rather straggly and untidy to my eyes.

    And then of course there's the problem that most varieties you can buy have been so heavily bred for bounteous petals and rich colour that they have lost their heart and soul - their pollen, hips and seeds. For wildlife, they have little value left, except if you don't mind leaf-cutter bees coming and nipping little semi-circles out of the edges of the leaves

    But there are just a few varieties that retain much of their wildlife value, and now is a great time to buy them as bare-rooted plants.

    What I look in a rose are those with single flowers, which allow insects in to the stamens, followed by small hips. And if the rose can offer a structure that benefits wildlife, such as dense growth where small birds can nest or shelter, even better. So by far the best in my view are some of the climbers and ramblers.

    The two I chose, both costing about £15 by post, were an old rambler Frances E Lester, and a species rambling rose called Rosa helenae. Both should scramble happily 5 metres (15 feet) or more, and both have masses of single white flowers followed by loads of red hips.

    So on Saturday I gave them a good long soak to ensure that the roots hadn't dried out...

    ...and on Sunday I planted them, with plenty of compost and gave them another good long drink.

    Then, on Monday, I was up at RSPB headquarters at The Lodge in Sandy, and couldn't resist a walk around the gardens. And what do I find? Good old Frances E lester doing all the things I want mine to do:

    Being deciduous, it's all a bit bare over the trellis at the moment. But look at that haze of hips glowing red along the top - wow! That should keep plenty of Blackbirds and Fieldfares happy in late winter. Perfect! If you've got a space along a fence or trellis, why not give a good old rambler like Frances a go?