December, 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!
  • And so this is Christmas, and what have we done (to give nature a home)?!

    "And so this is Christmas, and what have we done?"

    Yes, it's that time again, a chance to reflect, to wonder where the year went to, but to remember the good times in the garden.

    For me, I've had a great year, so excuse me while I indulge in a little bit of retrospection about some of my wildlife gardening highlights of the year, and I hope it will stir some happy memories for you too.

    Getting to design a feature garden for Gardeners World Live 2013 has got to be up there for me. Did you get to create something in your garden that you're proud of?

    This year I delved deeper into the world of micromoths than I had previously, and found them to be more fascinating than I had dared imagine. It is so rewarding when a creature like this turns up in your moth trap...

    ...and you find that it lives in hawthorn hedges. Well, the only garden in my vicinity with a hawthorn hedge is mine, and I planted it, so I felt proud to have given this creature a home! (The moth is Acrobasis advenella, by the way).

    I was wowed once more by the winter garden at Anglesey Abbey, and enjoyed the Piet Oudolf gardens at Pensthorpe, but I always find there are just as pleasing moments in one's own garden. This year, one such moment was when brief snows came in March, here forming a pure blanket around my Crocus tommasinianus.

    Out in the countryside, I was entranced to see Swallowtails on the Norfolk Broads in June. There are some gardeners who live near the Broads who get Swallowtails visiting their gardens, which must be amazing. It was great to see Yellow Flag being used as a nectar source...

    But perhaps one of my favourite memories was at a Bed & Breakfast I stayed at in Norfolk. The owners wouldn't have thought of themselves as 'wildlife' people at all, but they were visited daily by a pair of Blackbirds and this was clearly one of the delights in their life. As I was presented with great fry-ups at breakfast each morning, so 'their' Blackbirds would arrive outside the patio windows waiting for their little handful of raisins.

    It was a reminder that wildlife can touch all our lives, and where better to have those moments than in your own garden?

    Thank you for tuning in this year to read my ramblings, and here's to a fantastic 2014 for us all.

  • We'll gather lilacs in the springtime...because the bees don't want them

    I've been sorting through my photos this weekend from the year just gone. Digital photography, eh? It's all very well but you do end up taking a trillion photos and then spend days discarding the trash.

    This photo caught my eye, taken on a lovely day on 1 June. Yes, its a lilac (Syringa). A beautiful bush, gorgeous scent, and you'll find plenty of texts that say 'Great for wildlife; great for pollinators'.

    So why was this one - and almost every Lilac I see - bereft of any insects whatsoever?

    In fact, if you Google images using a combination of the terms 'syringa', 'lilac', 'bee' and 'pollinator', you come up with almost nothing, except some photos of North America butterflies and hawkmoths nectaring.

    So what's going on? My suspicion is that

    a) the tubular flower shape is too deep for most pollinators

    and b) most garden lilacs are cultivars or hybrids that have lost much of their nectar or pollen.

    But I could be wrong. And I'd love to hear if you have any joy with lilacs where wildlife is concerned.

    For me, it is another example of where the information we have is far from complete, and where assumptions are repeated without checking their veracity (often to help sell a product!).

    I'm currently working with the Plants and Planting Group of the Wildlife Gardening Forum to try and pull together better information about which garden plants are good for which wildlife. We know we've got years of fascinating work on our hands, and your observations will be an important part of that.

    But for now I hope you have a very happy Christmas, and I trust Santa will bring you something lovely for the garden.

  • The bee that loves fluff

    We humans do love to put names to things. It means that the world of garden minibeasts can seem quite impenetrable because they can be so difficult to identify.

    It is nice, therefore, to find a creature that is relatively easy to tell apart from the others. So here is one I photographed in my garden this July.

    To give you a sense of scale, it is about the size of a Honeybee, but is clearly darker and much stouter. Look closely and you will notice the yellow marks on its knees, but especially the yellow dots down its sides

    This is the Wool Carder Bee, a species of solitary bee that is found throughout much of lowland England and Wales in gardens and on allotments. The northern edge of its range it poorly known and it may be expanding northwards.

    The great thing about Wool Carder Bees is that it is easy to provide its three main home needs:

    • Nesting holes in which the females can prepare their nurseries - solitary bee-boxes full of bamboo canes can work a treat
    • Nectar and pollen, preferably from tubular flowers such as those in the mint family
    • And wool!

    Yes, the eggs are laid within a protective woollen cocoon, built from fibres collected from the leaves of fluffy plants.

    Perhaps the best plant of all is Lamb's-ear (Stachys byzantina), which offers nectar and pollen and the craziest of shaggy leaves.

    This is the moment this year when a male who had been lying in wait pounced on a female as she visited my Lamb's-ears for a spot of nectar.

    So plant Lamb's-ear next year and you've a good chance that you will have created another Home for Nature.