May, 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!
  • The Wildlife-friendly Garden in June

    June is when you really begin to get a sense of whether your efforts to give nature a home are paying off. Do you have a garden bouncing with baby birds? Is there a hum of insects around your flowering shrubs and flower beds? Is your pond alive with tadpoles turning into froglets, and is the surface skimming with pond skaters above and backswimmers below.

    June is the peak season for many of our damselfly species - those you are most likely to see around your garden pond are Large Red, Azure, Blue-tailed and Common Blue. Remember, all damsels are thin, and at rest almost all hold their wings behind their back like a sail; dragons are as chunky as a pencil and always hold their wings out flat.

    Key jobs for June include

    • clearing excess pondweed from the pond. Removing a little bit regularly is better than hoiking out masses in one go. And always leave it to sit for a day or so on the pond edge for any creatures caught up in it to have a chance to crawl back
    • I bet you've still got lots of weeding to do - I certainly have. Nettles, bindweed, docks - they will all have put on oodles of growth in May, ahead of your herbaceous perennials really getting going. I think the golden rule with weeding is knowing what you intend to fill the gap; the ideal is that the plants you DO want effectively do the weeding for you by covering the ground and giving the plants you DON'T want no chance of surviving
    • any trees or shrubs that you planted bare-rooted in the winter still won't have put down a good network of roots, so they will need you to keep watering them. 

    One thing you won't see much of in June is butterflies. Yes, there'll be the odd white and Speckled Wood, but the real butterfly season doesn't kick in until July. However, what that does mean is that now is a good time to get ready for the summer flush by planting the flowers they love.

    So in my new garden, I decided to make a Pollinator Bed, full of a range of plants that all sorts of insects should love, and including some of those special plants that butterflies like.

    I prepared the ground in early April, trying to remove as many of the fleshy pale roots of Greater Bindweed as possible, while it tried its hardest to fight me by breaking off into little inch long sections that I know will all form new plants this summer. The war has just begun.

    I'd then got dozens of plants sitting unhappily in pots from my past garden,crying out to get their own bit of proper ground. Most of the plants are cuttings or divisions, cementing my spendthrift reputation!

    My planting plan has no artistic merit - the only plan is that those that will grow tall went in centre-back; those that are ground hugging are at the front on the south side. In time, I can jiggle the planting to create something more considered for colour and form, but for this year, it is just about getting things going.

    And here it is, today, and you sense the plants are still finding their feet. I keep watering and willing them into growth, but at least all the plants are looking healthy, and the thing is that I need this to be pumping out the nectar in July, August and September. I just need to be patient, and to be confident that it will be all right when it needs to be.

  • Give your butterflies a boost

    Didn’t Mother Nature have a moment of genius when she created butterflies? What a brilliant idea to put flat, tissue paper wings in glorious, colourful symmetry onto little cigar-shaped bodies and let them take flight. They seem to encapsulate natural beauty and grace.

    So I bet you wouldn’t mind seeing lots more butterflies in your garden (perhaps with the exception of ‘cabbage whites’!)

    Most people realise that to do that you need to plant flowers so that butterflies can sup away at their drink of preference – nectar.

    But what isn’t as well known is how picky butterflies are when it comes to which flowers they will visit. Of the 70,000 or so garden plants grown in the UK, I’d say about 20 stand the test as being high on butterflies’ preferred drinking list. Begonias, petunias and other bedding plants might be colourful but they offer zilch to butterflies.

    It means that, if you work hard to find those special plants, your chance of success can skyrocket. And that's what we'd love everyone to do this summer - give their butterflies a boost.

    My top choices of native flowers are marjoram (below, with gatekeeper), hemp-agrimony and fleabane; each is magnificent for butterflies, and all look good in a flower border.

    I then augment them with Verbena bonariensis (below, with comma), single-flowered Dahlias and Echinacea, and maybe some field scabious*.


    Almost as important as flower choice is where and how you plant them. You need to grow them in groups in a sheltered, sunny spot for your chances to be boosted. In large pots is fine, but keep them well watered.

    There is an important caveat to this story: if we all planted lots of the flowers that butterflies like but didn’t do anything for their caterpillars, populations wouldn't increase. So we do need to think about growing the special plants the caterpillars need, too. But that’s the next step on your Giving Nature a Home journey.

    For now, go on a mission to a good garden centre, seek out some of those special flowers, plant them, water them and you should be ready for the main butterfly season in July and August. You’re just in time to get your flowery cafe open!

    Have a go and let us know how you get on, or tell us about what you've already done for butterflies where you live – Giving Nature a Home is all about sharing your experiences as the nation pulls together to improve our world for wildlife. There's more advice about this activity on our Giving Nature a Home pages, and it's one that should make your garden look a treat, too

    *I bet some of you are also thinking of Buddleja davidii as being good for butterflies. It is, but it is also proving to be invasive. If you have one, you don't need to cut it down, but dead head it after it has flowered so the seed doesn’t spread. And if you don''t have a buddleja, maybe try one of my suggested alternatives.

  • Over at the pond, Steve Redgrave and Torvill & Dean have arrived

    One of the wonderful things about putting in a new pond is watching to see which creatures come and set up home there.

    My new pond was filled last December, and as expected it sat quietly for the first few months, apart from the stream of birds that quickly took to their new deluxe bath.

    Now, with temperatures rising, it is prime time for smaller creatures to begin to arrive, and a new pond is like a red carpet waiting to receive its guests.

    Sure enough, I now have three Whirligig Beetles which career across the surface at speeds that should not be possible for such tiny creatures, barely visible themselves but easily picked out by the wake they leave behind.

    I also have vast shoals of what must be hundreds of thousands of Daphnia, which are sometimes called water fleas but this hardly does them justice for they have none of the more unpleasant qualities of fleas. Each one is tiny, but in their swarms they look as if pepper has been shaken into the water.

    And a couple of pond-skaters are now doing a 'Torvill and Dean' routine across the surface.

    But I knew things were really moving on when this arrived last week:

    You'll probably recognise it, for it is a backswimmer, common in ponds across the country. They do exactly as their name suggests using their long, flattened, hair-fringed back legs to propel them like champion rowers.

    You can also see the small front legs poised to grab onto any prey it finds, for these are carnivores, and indeed can give humans a painful nip.

    They always cling onto a bubble of air on their belly, and they have to come to the surface regularly to top it up.

    So how did it get to my pond? Well, flipped the right way over, the adults have a fine pair of wings and are good flyers, and hence can head off to find new ponds as and when they need to.

    The females then lay their eggs underwater at this time of year in among weed, and the youngsters (larvae) when they emerge will look rather like the adult, only small and rather pale and greenish.

    There are just four species of backswimmer in the UK, which some people call water-boatmen. However, I like to keep that term for a different group of aquatic bugs which have long, hairy hind legs but swim the right way up. There are about 35 species of 'water boatmen' in the UK and they all tend to be smaller and spend much more time down at the bottom of ponds.

    So the first lodgers have arrived, and the stage is set for whichever other pond celebrities feel like dropping in.