November, 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!
  • Cornish beauties

    For the past week, I have been office and desk-bound, with not a moment spent in my own garden, or anyone else's. Now that's tough!

    So for today's blog I'm forced to wind the clock back a couple of months to my first ever visit to The Lizard in Cornwall, but what happy memories.

    I've long known about the place, and how the serpentine rock allows plants to grow that are either very rare or indeed are unique to the area. What is of added interest is how some of the plants are ones that are quite widely grown in gardens.

    Perhaps the one that I most wanted to see was the Cornish Heath, a knee-high heather than grows almost nowhere else at all in Britain, but on The Lizard it seems to grow everywhere. One of my plant books describes it as the 'commonest rare plant in Britain' and they were right. I didn't have to hunt to find this one - it was on all the road verges!

    In later September, it was still smothered in flowers, which are usually pink or lilac but sometimes white. As the flowers go over, the spent heads turn a warm umber, adding to the richness of the colour mix. And this was the prime plant I saw for nectaring bumblebees, given that so many other flowers were long gone over.

    Garden centres that sell heathers will often have it marked by its Latin name, Erica vagans, and I'm sure many gardeners are totally unaware that what they are growing is this Cornish speciality. You will need a warm, dry, acid soil to grow it well.

    The other 'garden plant' I was eager to see was Bloody Cranesbill Geranium sanguineum. There were only a few flowers left, but they included this one above the glorious Kynance Cove.

    Now this is a plant that many of you probably already grow, it having such richly-coloured flowers but growing on a neat mound of foliage barely 20cm high. Once again, this is a great nectar plant in gardens when in full bloom earlier in the season.

    It's so educational to see familiar garden plants out in their element (and in the case of the Cornish coast, out in the elements!) - you feel you are getting to see an old friend in their home for the first time.

  • Honesty is the best policy

    It's pretty lifeless out in my woodland garden at the moment, but there's one thing that brightens it up:

    It's the closest thing to 'money growing on trees' - the silvery coin seedpods of last spring's Honesty flowers. With even just a little bit of light behind them, it adds a bit of frosty sparkle in the gloom, matched only by the trunk of my Silver Birch stump beyond.

    This is a plant found in the wild in southern Europe, and Man hasn't done much to tinker with nature's blueprint. In spring I find it just as pleasing on the eye as in winter, especially the rich magenta-flowered basic variety which can enliven the gloom of a shady corner.

    There is a white-flowered version, and one with variegated leaves too.

    And for wildlife? Well, this is one of the very few flowers that Orange-tip butterflies will stop off at to nectar in spring. And the females will lay their eggs on the leaves, although there is some doubt about whether the caterpillars can make it through to being a chrysalis.

    Honesty is easy to grow. Sow as seed between about April and June, making sure that you plant the seed deep, an inch or so down. Then plant out in summer where you want it to flower the following year to let it bulk up into a good sized plant.

    Being a biennial, it will die after flowering, leaving those lovely wafer-pods, and then self-seed sparingly around the garden. For a plant in the cabbage family, it's not 'alf bad, eh?

  • Resisting the urge of the real Twiggy!

    On my recent trip to the subtropical gardens on Tresco, Isles of Scilly, one creature I was eager to see was this fella:

    Now I had heard that stick-insects were living wild on the islands, but I hadn't twigged (groan!) that they would be so big. This is the Prickly Stick-insect from New Zealand, and those that I found were almost the length and thickness of a pencil. They were groovy!

    What I also didn't know was that they can also be found in the St Mawes area of Cornwall, and around Torbay. Or that there were a further three species of stick-insect happily sitting about in bushes around Cornwall, Devon and Scilly.

    Now I fully admit that I was really quite excited to find them. I have what I believe is in almost all of us - an instinctive fascination with other living things.

    What is then really difficult is to put that natural curiosity to one side and consider how healthy it is to allow these creatures into our native ecosystems.

    Now I'm not aware that any of the stick-insects are currently a problem, and they may never be. But consider this next example photographed in my garden, one of the commonest moths I see, and the first I found in the new RSPB South East office roof garden:

    It is the Light-brown Apple Moth, from Australia, which has been accidentally introduced to North America, New Zealand, Hawaii and Europe, and whose caterpillar happily munches away at the leaves of all sorts of fruiting crops. Away from its native lands, it has few predators, and so has become a major pest in many places. The result? Many orchards use pesticides extensively to deal with it.

    Or how about this, again photographed in my garden:

    Yes, it's the Harlequin Ladybird from Asia, which is already the most widespread ladybird in America having arrived there in only 1988, and has almost spread from coast to coast in Britain since 2004. As you will know, there is deep concern about the effect it will have on our native ladybirds.

    Now nature is often incredibly robust, in spite of everything we do. But faced with habitat fragmentation and degradation, with climate change, with chemical use, and with Man's capacity to spread disease and organisms around the globe as we're seeing with ash die-back, there are just those continual warning signs that as a society - and as gardeners - we need to be really really responsible if we are not to cause permanent and irreversible damage to our one and only planet.

    So my stick-insect excitement was tempered with a nagging sense of concern. And I most certainly resisted any urge to smuggle one home in my rucksack!