February, 2016

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!
  • March in the wildlife-friendly garden

    After what looks to have been the warmest winter on record in the UK, the Met Office now seem pretty sure that we're going to have a colder than normal March. Brrrrrrrrr - I'm still in my long-johns!

    My Magnolia buds have been thinking of opening for two weeks now, so they'll have to press the pause button, and the frogspawn that was laid in mid February may go into slow-motion development.

    In this topsy-turvy world, nature just has to cope as best it can and let all those survival instincts guide them through, And, of course, anything we can do to lend a helping hand gives them just a bit more of a fighting change.

    I'm sure many of you are beginning to enjoy the lengthening days and starting to sow your tomatoes and getting the garden shipshape. Here are three key things to do in the wildlife-friendly garden in March:

    1. Sow cornfield annuals. We'd love everyone who hasn't yet tried this to give it a go. All it takes is to prepare a large pot or patch of ground and scatter some annual flower seeds on the surface, whether it be a 'cornfield annual seed mix' with poppies and Cornflower, or something a little more exotic.

    Here's a pot I did last year, sowing in early spring...

    ...to a green 'salad' by early May for the effort of just the occasional water...

    ...to a bouquet of Corn Chamomile, Cornflowers and Corn Marigold by July.

    Check out here for my more detailed blog.

    2. Complete any pruning. With birds now actively seeking nestsites, the last thing you want to do is go snip snip snip and find you've exposed an incubating bird to the elements. Dunnocks and House Sparrows have already been busy with nesting material in my garden, although Robins and Song Thrushes will no doubt be already raising a brood in many places around the country. It's then away with the hedge clippers until September.

    3. Keep feeding the birds. Finches in particular can find it tough going in March, given that nature's cupboard is now largely bare.

    And listen out for those first Chiffchaffs returning from the winter-sun holidays. It may be a rather nondescript little olive bird but that song, which also gives it its German name 'Zilp Zalp' and Dutch 'Tjiftjaf', is an instant giveaway and a real sense that spring is on the move. When that happens, maybe those long johns can finally come off!

  • Fancy a flourish of floral bolognese?

    Don't you love things that are quick and easy? And when it comes to wildlife gardening, beds of pollinator-friendly annuals must rank up there for creating the best return for your effort - what Richard Brown, whose garden featured in the latest Nature's Home, affectionately calls 'floral bolognese'.

    I never used to be that taken with them - herbaceous perennials were what rocked my boat. But then Nigel Dunnett at Sheffield University started experimenting with various seed mixes, creating amazing colour combinations and long flowering times.

    These mixes really came to prominence at the Olympic Park (below), which I was fortunate enough to see and photograph first-hand and was just as exciting as seeing Tim Daley win his bronze medal (both were VERY exciting!). Now every major seed company does their version.

    Doing it in a pot is fine, but if you have the space it is always worth sowing on a larger scale as more wildlife is likely to find it. Last year, I had a large bare area I needed to fill quickly, so with a quick rotavate (2 hours), seed sow (30 minutes) and occasional water (2 hours), I then had weeks and weeks of pleasure for the most.

    As long as you have a good, weed-free starting point with a fine tilth, it's hard (although not impossible!) to go wrong. Mid March through April is the perfect time to sow, so I'd love you to get a packet and give it a go and let us know how you get on.

    Check those packets carefully - they should be made up of annual flowers, NOT 'meadow wildflowers' (which are where perennial flowers grow in among grasses). And if you want something that is an authentic version of the cornfields of yore, Google on 'cornfield annual mix' and you'll get combinations of Common Poppy, Corn Marigold, Corn Chamomile, Corncockle, and the electric Cornflower. Then again, why not try something more exotic as I did below in a pot - your very own delicious bolognese to your own taste!

  • All a-hover for Valentine's Day

    I knew when I took on an acre of garden that I might get some visitors that were inconceivable in a smaller garden, but even so I didn't expect that it would be big enough to attract the attentions of this lovely boy.

    Yes, over the last week I've been lucky enough to be visited by a male Kestrel. At first, we saw him a couple of times hovering over 'the meadow' (which is still a long way from becoming a meadow!).

    But in the last couple of days, he has taken at intervals to sitting proudly on top of the Norwegian Spruce (blithely ignoring the protestations of the local Magpie pair) or, on occasion dropping down to the pond for a bathe or the path to pick up some morsel or other.

    But the thing he really seems to like doing is hunting the 'Northern Hills'. This is where I stacked logs and covered them with soil, and where a number of rodent holes have now appeared!

    I don't know if you feel you see fewer Kestrels these days 'wind-jamming' over motorway verges, but the RSPB has been concerned about declines in the UK's population in recent years. A study has been looking into possible causes of this, and preliminary results point to changes in agricultural practices and increased use of rodenticides.

    For now, I just glad that my garden is giving a bit of succour to this male, and I hope that he's spotted my Kestrel box (which I thought was a very long-shot originally), and that he's got a lady Kestrel in mind to show it to!