March, 2017

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 Hole Truth

    I was in garden centre at the weekend and had a look at the 'wildlife gardening accoutrements'. There was shelf after shelf of it all - bird boxes, bird food, hedgehog houses, bee boxes...

    It then struck me how far things have come, in particular regarding pollinating insects. Back in 1982, the RSPB produced a book called 'Gardening for Wildlife' in which there is no mention of solitary bees or what you can do to help them; in fact, the entire book had just one mention of 'bumblebee' and one of 'bee'. In contrast, today there is widespread understanding that there are such things as 'solitary bees' and that some of them love of boxes full of tubes.

    If you have yet to put up a solitary bee box, then our Activity of the Month (Build a Bee B&B) should help.

    Just stick to the golden rules and success should be yours: the box should be in a sunny, sheltered position, ideally facing south, with a range of tube sizes with nice smooth entrances.

    So which bees will use boxes like this? They include various of the mason bees and leafcutter bees, and there is something very satisfying about seeing them arrive at your nesting tubes bringing in supplies and nesting materials, and to see how many of those open tube entrances get sealed up by the end of the season.

    In 2013, I was delighted to meet a man who has made it his passion to study the wild bees that visit his garden. Jeremy Early lives in Surrey, so a good part of the country for lots of bee species for they love the warm south and east. Even so, his garden is suburban rather than on the edge of a nature reserve, and yet in it he recorded an amazing 70 species of solitary bee between 2005 and 2013.

    To help them, he installed a 5-star 'bee hotel'...

    I love how Jeremy has a garden folding chair to make watching the coming and goings wholly relaxing!

    What is also revealing is the amount of standing deadwood Jeremy has used, which often has old beetle holes the bees can use. Often the advice you hear is to put logs in the shade for minibeasts, but this shows how it can have a completely different use for bees. I plan to put some standing logs right in my flower borders!

    If you choose to make a bee hotel, it can be quite tricky to find enough tubes, whether they be old plant stems or bamboo canes, but you can see how many drilled bits of log are in Jeremy's hotel - an easy and cheap way to create more holes.

    With flowerbeds nearby full of pollinator-friendly plants, your leafcutters and masons should have their every need catered for!

  • The Wildlife-friendly Garden in April

    Three cheers for April! There are likely to be days this month when the sun's warmth seeps under your skin and when the birds just can't stop themselves from singing.

    Then again, there might be other days when it feels like winter all over again. As Ogden Nash, the poet, said:

    "April soft in flowered languor,
    April cold with sudden anger"

    But none of that can stop the lengthening days, and key activities in the garden at this time of year include seed sowing and potting on. There's such a thrill in propagating plants from scratch, and it is so cheap. A pack of seeds usually costs little over £2 and a bag of peat-free compost is usually £4-£5, and for that you can produce a bed-full of wildlife-friendly plants.

    The biggest risk when growing seeds is 'damping off', the dreaded fungal disease where your seedlings grow and then suddenly keel over. Avoiding that is all about having clean compost, good circulation of air, and not getting the soil in the pots over-wet, although of course they shouldn't dry out, either. But I bet even Monty Don loses some of his plants to damping off - it's all part of the process.

    Our featured activity this month is to build a Bee B&B. You just need to find - or make - a rudimentary, open fronted box about 15cm deep. I didn't do carpentry at school, so I just make it up as I go along, as you might be able to tell!

    Then it's just a case of packing in 'tubes' - old bamboo canes cut into 15cm lengths can be good, or use blocks of wood with holes drilled in them. The tiny ones in this picture are reeds, which have tiny holes for tiny bees.

    These are then the nesting tunnels for several types of solitary bee.

    As with so many things to do for wildlife, there are just a few key facts that, once you know them, increase your chances of success massively. So, with bee boxes, here are my top three tips:

    • Face the box south in a sunny, sheltered position. The bees don't like it chilly.
    • If you drill holes in wood, make sure the entrance holes are smooth, not splintered. Bees avoid holes where they might snag their precious wings.
    • And if you use hollow plant stems such as bamboo, make sure the hole is all the way to the bottom - some are blocked part way through, and solitary bees can't tunnel.

    Who knows, you might be so inspired that you end up with something like this!

    Adrian is too modest to admit it, but the second edition of his RSPB Gardening for Wildlife book has just been published. The first one won the Garden Media Guild award; eight years on, this second edition has had a full re-write, loads of new pictures, 60 extra pages, 100 extra wildlife-friendly plants to try. And it looks fantastic, if we say so ourselves!

  • Don't you love spring?

    Sometimes it's healthy, I think, just to look, rather than to think too hard.

    So here are the results of me looking around my garden this week, not thinking, just enjoying.

    And then you chance upon something you've never noticed before...

    Know what it is? It's the flowers of a male Yew tree, ready to drop their pollen into the breeze, without which we wouldn't have the red 'drupes' (Yew berries) in autumn to feed the Blackbirds.

    And now that you're all relaxed and ready to think again, I've got a little task for anyone visiting a garden centre in the next ten days, please, for a project we're doing with Friends of the Earth, the National Trust and Plantlife.

    When you're there, go to the compost section, count how many types of compost there are, how many of those are peat-based, how many are peat-free, and how many are just not clear. Then fill in this VERY quick survey and it will give us a great sense of how easy it is for gardeners to buy peat-free compost in 2017. Thank you!