November, 2015

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!
  • December in the wildlife-friendly garden

    Those people with amazing memories (that's me out, then!) will remember from my last monthly round-up that November isn't my favourite month in the garden. I've had several people voice their empathy with that.

    Fortunately, I'm far more sanguine about December. Barely do we seem to have we entered winter than we soon reach the shortest day and the evenings begin - albeit very slowly - to get lighter again. In fact, due to the funny rotation of the earth, the earliest sunset is about 12 December - isn't that good to know?!

    Of course, it doesn't mean that winter has run its course, with the risk of snows and frosts continuing to grow into January, but you do get the sense that nature knows the corner is turning. Those little pointy shoots of bulbs piercing the soil's surface, the bursts of birdsong on still, sunny days (where would I be without my Robins to cheer me up?!) - yes, we're heading in the right direction.

    I imagine that for many of you, your main garden activity at this time of year is visiting your bird feeders to stock them up, time and again. Good on you! Don't forget to keep those birdbaths clear or ice and topped with fresh water, too. If you have a veg patch and you're not on heavy clay, you may still be doing some digging.

    Into the trees

    But the other big job for many of you at this time of year will be dealing with trees. Whether it be planting or pruning, now is the time to act while they are dormant (in the case of deciduous trees) or dozing (in the case of evergreens). There are a few types to avoid cutting now, the key ones being those in the cherry family which are prone to disease if you damage them in winter, but for the rest this is the time to get them into shape without the trees feeling too miffed about it.

    The added benefit is that, with the leaves off so many trees, you can see the bare bones of the garden, allowing you to get in there and do the work and judge your progress.

    I've got about 50 neglected fruit trees that I'm trying to nurse back to some kind of health. I'm doing it over several years, for if I went in too hard, the trees would just throw up loads of useless whippy growth. So it's a case of slow but sure, with a good, curved lopping saw and the kind of wonderful extending loppers you can get these days meaning you can cut from the ground rather than doing acrobatics on a ladder.

    At times as I restore the overgrown garden I've taken on, it has needed some adventurous activity...

    ...but when it comes to the really high stuff, then it is straight over to the professionals. I have a very reliable and competent tree surgeon called Phil (below, in my garden last winter) to do the circus-tricks side of things, chainsaw swinging at his side.

    The key when pruning fruit trees is to start with the three Ds - dead, diseased and damaged. Once that is done, stand back and think how you can create an open goblet shape that allows air to circulate. That way you'll get lots of luscious fruit on a healthy tree that the wildlife will adore as much as you.

  • Stocking up on the food and drink...

    I had my first mince pie of the season this week. Yes, it seems that I can no longer deny that Christmas is coming, so it was timely when this RSPB/Aldi video came dropping into my inbox with something you might like to try this weekend. It won't get the goose fat, but it might allow your garden birds to pile on the ounces!

    You see, apparently, this weekend it is Stir-up Sunday, when families across the land will be getting out their strongest wooden spoon to try and make the Christmas pudding. The lovely idea in the video is that, if you've any ingredients left over, you might like to chuck them in a bit of suet and make a very fine birdcake so that the little mites stuck outside get to share in the Christmas cheer too. (Vegetarian suet is fine, by the way.)

    Of course, if the birds have got some Christmas nibbles, they also need something to wash it down, which is where my birdbath comes in. After it has rained (which it seems to have done nonstop for a week now), they've got a plethora of puddles to choose from (mmm, mud soup anyone?), but in any dry or icy spell, the birdbath really comes into its own.

    Regular readers will remember that I made my 'pièce de resistance' earlier this year out of an upturned dustbin lid, four bricks and a bit of gravel (there's the Scrooge in me coming out!), and it has given me endless enjoyment.

    It fulfils all the principles of a good birdbath - it is shallow and wide, with plenty of opportunity to just get in and wallow and splash about like happy children, such as these House Sparrows...

    ...or this Robin and Blue Tit (and soggy Sparrow).

    Once birds get to know that there is always a first-rate bathing place available, whatever the weather, they come back daily, so I always like to have a well-established birdbath in view ready for RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch so that I can get my best totals during the count.

    It is easy to understand why birds need a daily drink, but it can seem surprising how many birds continue to bathe in winter. It is such an important part of keep their plumage in tiptop condition.

    So if you're stuck for Christmas present ideas for your nearest and dearest, consider a dustbin lid and a few bricks. It'll be much more appreciated than the birds, at least!


  • A happy ending after being up to your oxters in mud

    I'd hate this blog to be confined to tales from south-coast softie land! So my huge thanks to Jenny Tweedie from the RSPB's Glasgow Office for getting in touch and sharing some of her experiences in her garden north of the border this summer:

    It’s been a dreadful summer for gardeners in Scotland. We had one really nice week back in April (I remember it well; I had the flu…) but apart from that and a few sporadic sunny days here and there, it was pretty much all rain, rain, overcast and rain.

    The cold and lack of sun really impacted on what grew, and most people I know had poor harvests. Flowers bloomed late - when they bloomed at all - and the slugs and weeds, which never seem to mind the rain, made a bid for world domination.

    The weather also meant that the desire to go outside and actually garden was a bit muted. Weeding when the sun shines isn’t much of a hardship. Weeding when you’re up to your oxters in mud (I had to look up 'oxters' - for any other sassenachs like me, it means 'armpits'! - Adrian), is a somewhat harder sell.

    But it wasn’t just people that had a rough summer. The poor weather also had an impact on pollinating insects. The Big Butterfly Count recorded that butterfly abundance in Scotland was 37% down on last year and that very much backs up what I saw.

    Normally, my buddleia is alive with butterflies in late August and September, but although my total garden species count actually went up this year (ticks for painted lady and ringlet) the overall number of butterflies around was tiny.

    Until a surprisingly late rush in October. For the first two weeks, we had some gorgeous weather. It was still, it was sunny, and it was surprisingly dry. The bees and hoverflies were all quick to take advantage, and my still blooming flowers became alive with insects, really reinforcing for me why it’s so important to try to have flowers around for as much of the year as possible, such as this honeybee on a late-flowering gentian).

    Fortunately, my stripy visitors still have quite a lot to choose from: Cosmos, Calendula, Rudbeckia and sunflowers all drawing the crowds. But it was the tall and gracious Verbena bonariensis that was a top hit for one surprisingly late butterfly.

    It was a red admiral, and for two days it just mooched about at the tops of the Verbena, flitting from one flower to another. It was there so much, that I managed to get a few close up pictures that really showed off its beauty.

    Sadly, the night after its last visit, there was a frost that did for my courgettes and nasturtiums. Red admirals are mostly migrant butterflies to the UK, and aren’t built to survive the cold, so I doubt I’ll be seeing it again. But for next year, I’m going to make sure I have even more flowers around for the autumn. You really never know what might show up to take advantage of them.