August, 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!
  • September in the wildlife friendly garden

    With the summer holidays nearly over and the kids on the cusp of their return to school, you might be forgiven into thinking that summer is done. Not so in the wildlife-friendly garden.

    I thought I'd raid my collection of photos-past to reveal how glorious September can be.

    Blocks of pollinator-perfect, late-summer flowers - such as these Monarda and Helenium - present a thousand landing pads for bees of many species to come to nectar.

    Perennial grasses begin to put on their own shooting show, with species such as Pennisetums having almost as much colour as the flowers. While they may not offer the nectar that flowers do, we now know that many beetles love to squirrel themselves away down at the base of the grasses where the mass of stems provide excellent protection.

    Perhaps the stars of September are what we used to call Asters but now include ther Symphotrichums. Heck, let's just call then Michaelmas daisies!

    And where there are Michaelmas daisies (or at least the single varieties), there is a good chance of autumn butterflies such as Red Admirals, even after what has been a dreadful butterfly year.

    If you haven't yet seen, our quick 'n' easy Giving Nature a Home activity for September is to offer your butterflies a little bit of banana mush as a treat. It is a technique that is widely used in the tropics but - until now - it has never really been promoted in Britain.

    Follow the link or see last week's blog to see just how easy it is, and please do log in and let us know if you've tried it. Today when I looked, 313 people had given it a go.

    And if I tell you that all the photos above are from the second half of September, you can see how much summer there is still there is still to enjoy. So keep those shorts and t-shirts on, and revel in nature's fireworks display.

  • Bananas for butterflies

    In many parts of the country, this year is shaping up to be one of the worst on record for butterflies. That's so sad, given that they bring so much joy to us all in gardens.

    One reason for the poor season, the scientists think, is last December's astonishingly mild conditions, in which much of England was over 5 degrees Centigrade warmer than average and even Scotland was a couple of degrees above. This meant that the caterpillars of many butterfly species were active when there was nothing to eat and when they should have been fast asleep.

    This comes against the background that many of Britain's butterfly species are struggling anyway, so anything you can do in your garden to help them is a bonus.

    While growing the particular foodplants that caterpillars like to eat is the thing that ultimately will help them, this month our headline Giving Nature a Home activity is something much more simple...if a little bananas!

    Here's the trick:

    • Take a banana that has gone past its best - you know, the last one in the bowl with brown spots that no-one really wants.
    • Still in its skin, squidge it between your fingers. Go on, give it a good massage! You'll feel the banana turn to mush within.
    • Cut a few small slits through the skin along the top of the banana.
    • And then put it out in your garden somewhere warm and sunny and near flowers, ideally where Foxes won't feel like stealing it overnight.

    What will happen is that the banana juices will gradually ooze out and - with luck - some of our most colourful butterflies such as the Red Admiral will drop in for a long, blissful drink.

    Here's one I made earlier, complete with Red Admiral (one of the few butterflies doing ok this year).

    And here's where you can find our full Butterfly Banquet page on the Giving Nature a Home pages - do go and click the blue box half way down the right hand side to let us know that you've given it a go. 

  • Blame it on the algae

    Don't blame it on the sunshine, don't blame it on the moonlight, don't blame it on the good times...

    Yes, now that the Olympic swimming pool has turned green, I think it's time to turn the spotlight on algae.

    In fact, it is one of the questions I get asked about most frequently: How do you stop a pond going all scummy with the stuff?

    The answer, I'm glad to say, is not what they're having to do at the Olympics, where I believe they have been pumping in a supercharge of chlorine. But then few of us are likely to need to do a triple somersault with double twist into our ponds.

    So what can you do to combat algae?

    Understanding your enemy is a good place to start. There are lots of different types of algae - some types are microscopic but suspended en masse in the water they cause it to discolour brown or green; some form long threads which tangle together and cause the dreaded blanketweed; some cause a kind of bubbly scum on the water surface. One even causes birdbaths to turn red.

    What algae loves is lots of nutrients in warm, sunny water where there are few other plants. And what the algae can then do is rob the pond of oxygen, making it difficult for other plants to survive.

    I always warn that it is worst in new ponds, where aquatic plants haven't had time to establish and where nature hasn't found a balance. Here is the blanketweed in my new pond this week.

    However, algae can strike established ponds too.

    So, to reduce the risk of algae:

    • Get your pond planted up so a third or so of the water surface is covered by aquatics, providing shade to the pond
    • Try to fill and refill the pond only with rainwater. Tapwater tends to be high in nitrates and phosphates.
    • Fish out algae where you can. Blanketweed can be wound around a stick and hoicked out.
    • Don't introduce fish. Their excrement and fish food just add nutrients to a pond.
    • Add pond snails - they can be efficient munchers of algae.
    • Move the water about - I use solar fountains.
    • Don't use normal soil or compost ANYWHERE in ponds - put a layer of washed gravel if you want to cover the liner, and plant up aquatic plants in baskets using a special peat-free aquatic (low nutrient) compost
    • Don't allow run-off into the pond from fertile areas of the garden.

    And this talk about tapwater being nutrient rich? Just take a look at this. This is me testing the waters this morning - the tapwater I drink on the left, my pond water on the right.

    And here are the results. Check out the pink square at the top of each strip. On the left strip, deep pink shows lots of nitrates in tap water; on the right strip, hardly any nitrates at all in my pond water.

    I don't use tapwater nor soil in my pond, so my algae, I believe, is due to it being a new pond in a sunny position with as yet not enough aquatic plant growth to shade the water or snails and other algae-munchers to combat it.

    And as for 'don't blame it on the sunlight'? Well, as we've seen that isn't strictly true!