October, 2012

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 Hedge of Glory

    You'll by now have probably gathered that I LOVE hedges. I think they are such an out-and-out winner for so much garden wildlife.

    So I thought today's blog could be very pictorial, in the hope that it will inspire someone out there - maybe you! - to take up our special offer with Ashridge Trees and plant one (remember to quote the special code RSAT112 to get your discount and for Ashridge to make their donation to the RSPB).

    So I just took out my camera for ten minutes this week into my small front garden, where I have about 10 metres of hedge.

    The elegant Hawthorn leaves, neatly nibbled, are beginning to turn yellow.

    The Field Maple leaves are well on their way too - they can be one of the yellowest leaves of any of our native trees.

    The Dog Rose hips are looking vibrant, waiting for a Greenfinch to find them.

    What I bought as 'Dogwood', expecting black berries, turned out to be Cornus sericea with white berries. But lovely nevertheless. (Shame the ladybird on it was a Harlequin!)

    And these are the leaves of Burnet Rose, neatly etched with the trails of leafminers. (I think in this case they are of one of the Stigmella micromoths, but is there an expert out there who can put me right?).

    To me, my hedge is a never-ending delight of life, colour and texture. Oh, and it has been so cheap compared to a fence too - now there's a thought to keep me extra happy!

  • Getting to grips with your appendages

    I myself am a creature myself of warm, sunny places. I can 'do' snow and ice if I have to, but only from the comfort of several layers of thermals.

    So I find myself drawn to those species of garden wildlife that help me cling onto the idea that we're still closer to summer than we are to winter.

    The 'winter deniers' in my garden this week have included Chiffchaffs, those little olive-coloured warblers that are one of the last of our summer visitors to depart for sunnier climes (and indeed a few stay in warm pockets of southern Britain overwinter).

    And there was a Red Admiral butterfly and, yesterday, a Silver-Y moth too.

    But at Pagham Harbour on Wednesday I was delighted to see some dragonflies still on the wing. Some were Common Darters, the short red dragonflies, coupled up in their 'wheel' mating position - very kama sutra.

    And then there was this beauty:

    It's a mature male Migrant Hawker.

    You can tell male dragonflies from females because they have three 'appendages' instead of two (the lucky things). These are the flappy bits right at the tip of the abdomen.

    Hopefully in the photo you can see the three appendages. The two either side are long and dark, and the one in the middle in this photo looks short and very pale. These are used for grasping the females by the head - it's more romantic than it sounds (I think).

    What makes this a Migrant Hawker is the row of dots down the abdomen, which end with two smaller dots rather than a bar.

    And you see the thick blue bar at the top of the abdomen? Well, above that is a thin yellow mark edged with black that looks a bit like a yellow nail (as in the thin you hammer into wood rather than finger nail), another distinguishing feature.

    The blue-on-black colours make this a male Migrant Hawker, whereas a female would have a brown abdomen with yellow spots.

    This is a dragonfly that is very typically on the wing in late summer and early autumn, their numbers boosted by migrants from southern Europe, hence the name. And over the last couple of decades it has spread further and further north. The British Dragonfly Society's wonderful webpages have a map showing where it has been recorded, and it is amazing to see it has even reached Scotland  now.

    And this is a dragonfly often seen flying around in the shelter of trees and tall hedges in garden, so keep your eyes peeled for them and the last gasp of summer they bring

  • Duped by duff gen

    There is a Sedum that you can find in almost every garden centre and garden called Sedum 'Herbstfreude'. Sometimes you see it under the same name but translated into English, Sedum 'Autumn Joy'.

    It's that fleshy Iceplant that grows to about a foot and a half tall, with clusters of deep pink flowers on top from August through into October.

    Soon after I started out in gardening for wildlife, I read a book that said that Sedum 'Herbstfreude' was a hybrid, and therefore it had no nectar, and therefore it was rubbish for wildlife. Like an innocent abroad, I believed every word.

    So then when I saw it at Wakehurst Place some years ago smothered in Honeybees, I wondered what was going on.

    Eventually I found out that just because a plant is a hybrid, it doesn't mean that it loses its ability to produce nectar - not at all. Yes, I'd been duped by duff gen.

    But the thing about Herbstfreude is that I just don't think the flower shape of the hybrid is suitable for butterflies to poke their tongues into, whereas one of its parent plants, Sedum spectabile, which has more open flowers, is an easy drinking hole.

    So here is the soft pink Sedum spectabile, which I photographed just a couple of weeks ago, with the inevitable Red Admiral on it:

    But note to the right of the picture Sedum 'Herbstfreude', its flowers all tightly scrunched, which for a butterfly must be like threading a wobbly straw into a tight-necked bottle.

    Now that's just a theory, I don't present it as fact. But maybe you can tell me whether you think it's duff gen or not.

    Nevertheless, for now, I'd strongly recommend that if you want butterflies on your Sedums, go for S. spectabile. But if you've got 'Herbstfreude', don't worry, at least the bees will be happy.