July, 2013

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!
  • By eck! The magic of Echiums

    I remember only too vividly my first trip to the tip of Cornwall and seeing a plant apparently growing wild that had a 12-foot high spike of blue flowers covered in bees.

    That it had the name Echium pininana was a bonus, for here was a Latin name that I could remember. The first word was a bit like 'Ecky thump' and the second sounded like a cross between a pineapple and a banana.

    I was then still a teenager when I grew my first Echium in the garden for wildlife, but it was the native one, Echium vulgare, better known as Viper's Bugloss - another great name don't you think? (Better than 'George', anyway).

    Reason number one to grow it: it looks stunning, massed spikes of sea blue. Reason number two: what a supremo it is for bumblebees - it's fantastic.

    So I'm always thrilled to find it growing wild, as here in Norfolk back in June.

    Even better when darting in to feed on these spikes was this:

    Yes, a Hummingbird Hawkmoth - reason number 3 to grow it.

    Thinking that other Echiums might be just as good, I've been growing Echium wildprettii, and this year for the first time I got it to flower.

    I was so proud - what a flower! But oh, how I wish it had turned out to be brilliant for insects. Sadly not one visited, and I'll probably stick to the other Echiums now, but I enjoyed the experiment!

  • A tree of fire and brimstone

    You know how some people appear all meek on the outside but hide fiery secrets on the inside - well the equivalent in the tree world is the Alder Buckthorn, and what a cracker it is for wildlife.

    It is a rather straggly small tree that grows in damp and acid conditions. It's leaves are simple in shape and it doesn't bother with fiery displays of autumn hue.

    Even its flowers are small and inconspicuous, tucked away at the leaf junctions.

    But they are adored by bumblebees - here is a Bombus pratorum visiting.

    But its real wildlife claim to fame is as one of only two plants used by the caterpillars of the Brimstone butterfly (the other being the Purging Buckthorn of chalky soils).

    So it was a huge thrill last month to find that the Alder Buckthorns I'd given my parents to plant in their Midlands clay garden about a decade ago are hitting their target. There on a leaf was a Brimstone caterpillar doing its fantastic trick of pretending to be the midrib of a leaf - isn't the colour match astonishing?

    And then the tree produces autumn berries for the birds - what more could you want for wildlife from a small tree?

    I did say this was the tree of fire as well as Brimstone. I love the fact that an unassuming green caterpillar turns into such a dramatic lemon-yellow butterfly, and the Alder Buckthorn is the same - its timber is bright yellow, and its charcoal was used to make the best gunpowder. You can't get a more explosive secret than that!

  • Everything's coming up roses

    Well, after over two years of a blog every Friday, last week I missed my first. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn't work the technology of the newly revamped Community pages. I'm so much safer just left in the garden!

    And I'd been wanting to tell you about these roses I'd found. Previously, I just haven't 'got' roses - I've felt them to be straggly, overrated things, prone to disease, and all rather blousy. Yes, I know they're good for aphids and hence for ladybirds, lacewings, and hoverflies. And they're enjoyed by leaf-cutter bees. And those that bear hips are snacked on by Greenfinches. But, no, you could lead me to water but you couldn't make me love a rose.

    But I've then had something of an epiphany. It started with rambler roses, those that have single or semi-double blooms and copious hips for the birds.

    And then the week before last I popped in to RHS Wisley and saw this beauty and fell in love:

    Not only does it look good (in my eyes! You can't beat red polka dots on green.), but it was COVERED in bumblebees. Now rose blooms aren't generous in the nectar department, but this was clearly dishing out the pollen like there was no tomorrow.

    It is Rosa 'Geranium', which is a cultivar of the species rose, Rosa moyesii. AND it goes on to have hips too. Winner!

    So feeling warmer towards roses, I spent some time watching this one too:

    This is Rosa 'Lyda Rosa'. And it too had some bumbles on it, but also this solitary bee (which are a nightmare to identify and I'm not going to attempt it with this one).

    I have it on good authority that it is the best rose for shade, but no-one can tell me for sure if it gets hips. Do you know?

    And if you yourself love your roses and what they offer the garden and wildlife, do pop a comment on the blog and help me with my emerging passion.