April, 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!
  • Relax! It's what your lawn would want

    Of all the things we suggest you do to make your garden more of a haven for wildlife, surely those that involve actually stopping doing something are the most attractive. After all, in this age where time is such a precious commodity, we could all benefit from doing a little less.

    But I do realise that for some people, the following idea will cause a little sharp intake of breath, for it is all about letting the lawnmower sit quietly in the shed.

    Letting your grass grow a little longer, you see, has been proven to have a range of wildlife benefits. The taller micro-forest of stems creates a safer, more humid microclimate, allowing more minicreatures to survive, and hence providing more food for birds.

    Little flowering plants growing among the grasses grab their chance to do what nature hoped they might - they bloom, which is good news for bees and other pollinators.

    Plus the extra cover is just what wildlife like Hedgehogs and Slow-worms need. Having to dash across bowling green lawns makes them feel very scared indeed.

    I always make the case that much of the impetus for this national obsession with mowing is just a cultural thing - we do it because we are expected to do it, and if we don't then we fear the tongues will start wagging and your social status will plummet.

    However, if you go somewhere like the Alps, you find that having what looks like a meadow outside your door, bouncing with butterflies and dotted with a million wildflowers, is seen as normal. Those towns and villages live life to the sound of cowbells, not mower blades.

    You don't need to leave the whole lawn; and you don't need to let it grow unchecked all year. Our simple Giving Nature a Home advice page here sets out some of the different approaches to try.

    Personally, I love the technique of mowing the edges, showing that you're still in control, but leaving 'islands' of shag-pile grass and flower, such as here at Denman's Garden in West Sussex.

    But it is when I see members of the public embracing it and 'leading from the front' that I get most excited. Here is a front lawn I passed last week - yes, a front lawn, in full public view! - where the honeowner had let a bed of Cowslips bloom in the lawn.

     It's when I see sights like this that I firmly believe it is time for the nation to relax in the lawn department!

  • In praise - yes, praise! - of dandelions

    I know how to pick my challenges! Yes, I'm going to attempt to blow the trumpet of a plant that is the sworn enemy for some people who strive for the perfect lawn - the dandelion. Those rosettes of tooth-edged leaves that evade the mower's blades; that deep tap root that refuses to be eradicated - some of you may be shuddering at the very thought.

    But I love them, and last weekend I grabbed some photos which reveal some of the wildlife that also thinks they're marvellous.

    At this time of year, these little drops of sunshine scattered through the grass are a very valuable source of nectar and pollen. In fact, they're stuffed with it.

    It means that many types of solitary bee wander happily from flower to flower, such as this rather small species (I won't attempt to put a name to it)...

    ...or this rather larger Andrena mining bee (probably Grey-patched Mining Bee, a widespread species that breeds in sloping lawns).

    And here's a little tester - what group of insects do you think these two belong to?

    If you said 'wasp', we can all understand why, but they are actually another solitary bee, called a nomad bee. This one I believe is Gooden's Nomad Bee, and it lays its eggs in the nests of other solitary bees.

    Here is the same bee resting after its dandelion drinking-session - groovy antennae or what!

    And there are some spring butterflies that turn to dandelions too, such as this Peacock.

    What I don't have is a photo of Goldfinches feeding on the ripening seeds, plucking away. Nor of kids playing "What time is it?" by blowing on the seedhead. Or of distant lovers casting the little parachute seeds into the air to send tender thoughts to their beloved.

    And with 229 different micro-species of dandelion in the UK, spread across every corner of the land from Shetland to Scilly and even growing at up to 1200m on mountains, you can but admire the success of this plant.

    So why should a lawn have to be flowerless? Why can't it be allowed to be dotted with pure gold?

    Oh, and those tooth-edged leaves? In French, they are called the 'dents du lion', just in case you wondered where the flower gets its name.

  • Time to say goodbye to peat

    Apparently, Easter weekend is the busiest of the year in garden centres across the land. Given the generally mild and dry spring most of us have been enjoying, Easter 2017 could turn out to be even busier than ever.

    Along with all the ready-to-plant plants flying off the shelves, there will also be tonne after tonne of compost and grow-bags humped into car boots ready to fill several million pots and seed trays.

    I’m sure all of you are aware of the long-running campaign we have waged against the mass extraction of peat for the horticulture industry, and the harm it is doing to rare and threatened wildlife in the peat bogs. I’m sure, too, that you’re aware how long it takes for peat to grow – about one metre every thousand years (one millimetre a year)! Here's one of the nation's best preserved lowland peat bog, called Cors Caron National Nature Reserve in Mid Wales, which I was fortunate to visit last year. It was glorious!

    But how easy is it in 2017 to buy peat-free compost. Well, I visited a garden centre last week to check.

    The two peat-free composts (a multi purpose and a growbag) were clearly labelled. Great! And they were no more expensive than other types.

    But the problem is that all the other composts (about 12 in total) took detective work worthy of Hercule Poirot to work out if they had peat or not! A couple called themselves ‘peat reduced’, but you had to find a little box on the back of the bag to find that they contained ‘40-70% peat’. Other bags didn’t even explicitly say that they contained peat, except some very small text (on the back, again) saying “Our peat is sustainably extracted”, whatever that means. Who knows how much peat they contained!

    Thank you if you took part in the RSPB/National Trust/Friends of the Earth survey last month, which found that my experience is not a one-off: the majority of composts out there are not clearly labelled at all.

    It means that 1.5 million cubic metres of peat are still sold in UK garden outlets. That's every year. That's enough to fill St Paul's Cathedral, floor to ceiling, ten times over, including the dome.

    So while the RSPB and partners must keep up the pressure on the major outlets to better label their products, we gardeners must continue to do what we can to seek out peat-free composts, get used to using them, and spread the word.

    It’s not as if they don’t work. I’ve been peat-free for over 20 years now, and I think they are getting better and better. I still sieve it to make seed compost, and mix it with some perlite or vermiculite (below). But I'd happily use any of the major brand peat-free composts these days.

    And for simple potting on, they usually don't need any preparation at all, with great results.

    So, this Easter, why not pledge to either go peat-free yourself if you haven’t made the shift, or share your tips for using peat-free compost with friends and family to help others make the change. A host of rare dragonflies, birds and other wildlife is counting on it.