August, 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!
  • In the Wildlife-friendly Garden: September

    With my start-of-the-month blog now linking to the main RSPB e-newsletter (which is now known as Notes on Nature), I'll be bringing you a little wrap-up of what's happening in the world of garden wildlife.

    I'll be sharing a bit about what I've been getting up to, giving my predictions of what you will see in your garden this month, and suggesting some of the things you might like to do to help wildlife where you live.

    So here we are into September: meteorological autumn has begun! Astronomical autumn doesn't start until the autumn equinox on 22 September, whereas it certainly feels like autumn out there already, with hedges dripping with berries, some leaves starting to turn and almost all our Swifts now well-gone from our shores.

    I've had the pleasure in the last month of attending an Open Gardens scheme in East Sussex, where my good friends, Sue and Darren Vallier, were one of many gardens opening up to the public. Sue is a wonderfully natural gardener, in all senses of the world, so their garden was advertised as being wildlife-friendly, with plants chosen to help pollinators.

    What it means is that people visiting the gardens get that extra message that a wildlife-friendly garden can look amazing.

    You can see that Sue's passionflower is in good fruit, and its flowers are surprisingly good for bees. And Sue's new wildlife pond, which is barely six months old, is also awesome:

    What to look for in September

    Even if the Swifts have gone, the Swallows and House Martins are only just thinking about it, beginning to line up on wires. This one below is a young bird that allowed me to get quite close, quite fresh out of the nest and still with the yellow 'gape' along the bill edges, which once the bill is open says to its parents, 'I want food!'.

    Wherever you are in the country, you have a chance of seeing Common Darter dragonflies, which keep on emerging this month. This is a photo I took a few years ago, but it shows how they seek out places where they can get the most out of the weakening sun, and a fence panel works wonders for allowing them to line up, lie back and bask.

    Given that it's now autumn, I ought to include a creature named after it, so here is the Autumnal Rustic moth, which indeed comes out at this time of year, and I'm pleased to say is found from Lands End to Shetland and across into Northern Ireland, so gardeners across the country have the chance to look for this beauty.

    I had several records of Hummingbird Hawkmoth in my garden this summer. Hopefully many of you will have had chance to see one, too, zipping from flower to flower is the most precise aerial manoeuvres, somehow managing to poke its immense uncoiled tongue deep into flowers

    But have you seen one stationary? See if you can spot it in this photo.

    I'd better give you a close up to help. Yes, once it closes up and sits still, it is really rather drab, but brilliantly camoflaged.

    What to do this month. September is a great month to:

    • tie in rambling roses, and you can prune them, too, taking out a third of old stems to ground level, but leaving hips to ripen where you can
    • trim Yew hedges, now the breeding season is over
    • lift and divide large clumps of wildlife-friendly perennials, creating new plants to fill borders or give to friends
    • mow or scythe areas of longer grass, if you haven't yet done so, raking off the cut material for the compost bin.

    And if you are unsure of when to leave grass to grow long and when to cut it, here is our Giving Nature a Home page with simple instructions of what you might like to try in future.

  • If you want to help wildlife in your garden, should you plant native plants?

    If you want to help wildlife in your garden, should you plant native plants? It's one of those long-standing questions that is an important part of wildlife-friendly gardening. Some would say, "Of course you need to grow native plants. It's obvious!". Others would say, "But some non-native plants are great for wildlife, and some native plants are not".

    Add into that the fact that some native plants just don't do very well in the rich soil of gardens, that many of them aren't very pretty, or can be rather too vigorous, plus the arguments about what is native and what isn't, and it gets rather confused and confusing.

    So where is the science to get us to a better answer?

    Well, bits and pieces have been done over recent years, but this week the RHS released the second set of results from the 'Plants for Bugs' study. It compared a limited suite of 'native' plants (naturally found in the British Isles) with 'near-native' plants (from the Northern Hemisphere) and 'exotic' plants from the Southern Hemisphere, all grown under scientific conditions in trial plots at RHS Wisley and a second site nearby.

    The study involved a giant vacuum cleaner that sucked up 22,700 creatures from the plots over a four-year period!

    The first set of results, released last year and looking at pollinating insects, was fascinating. Of those plants grown, 'native' and 'near-native' plants were pretty much as good as each other, whereas 'exotic' plants were less good...except that they turned out to be good at the tail end of summer when they helped fill a gap.

    This week's second set of results looked at what were termed 'plant-inhabiting creatures'. In other words, all sorts of little creatures that live above ground and use plants but not for their pollen or nectar.

    Even the proportions of the different creatures caught was a revelation. Almost half were springtails, those tiny invertebrates almost invisible to the naked eye which can indeed catapult into the air to escape. 12% were 'sucking herbivores', which are typically true bugs such as aphids. And 5% were parasitic wasps and 5% web-spinning spiders.

    So which plants were better for wildlife? Well, when adjusted to compare equivalent amounts of cover, native plants supported about 10% more invertebrates than near-natives and 20% more than exotics. (When I say 'more invertebrates', I mean 'more headcount' rather than 'more species'; this study looked at what is called 'abundance', not 'diversity'.)

    The survey also showed something else: the greater the density of plants, of whatever type, the more invertebrates there were.

    So what should we make of these results? Should we, as a national newspaper reported this week, "Ditch the fuchsia to boost British wildlife"?

    It is an understandable knee-jerk soundbite, but I think we need to be careful not to jump to instant conclusions.

    After all, if the suggestion of this is that native invertebrates prefer native plants because they have evolved to eat them, then it is difficult to see how growing Spiked Speedwell in Surrey will lure in insects that feed on what may be a 'native' plant but is actually very rare plant from East Anglia.

    Conversely, when I think of 'near native' plants, I don't think of plants from Mexico or Japan, which were included in the study. My idea of 'near-native' plants are those from western Europe. Almost all of Britain's wildlife also lives in continental Europe, so maybe growing some of the gorgeous plants from the Alps or France would be perfectly acceptable to 'our' wildlife? Maybe the 33% of 'near-native' plants in the study that came from eastern Asia and central and north America is enough to account for the small difference in the results? We don't know.

    Also, we need to bear in mind that successful wildlife-friendly gardening isn't just about abundance. Sometimes it is about encouraging a diverse range of species; sometimes it is about focusing your efforts on helping a rare species to thrive. If abundance is all we're after, then we might as well just grow a bed of Broad Beans - mine are host to about a million blackfly this year, by my reckoning!

    In fact, some gardening for wildlife is about having fewer plants! For example, there are plenty of insects that need bare soil, and we know that House Sparrows prefer feeding where plants grow thinly.

    But make no mistake, this study is a good one, and takes our knowledge a step forward, and all credit to the Royal Horticultural Society, supported by the Wildlife Gardening Forum, for doing it.

    So, informed by these results, here are my headlines, in simple terms:

    • I will grow native plants where I can, and in doing so will probably do considerable good for wildlife.
    • I will continue to focus on plants that are found in my area (and by that I mean within a few miles of where I live).
    • I will continue to grow non-native plants, choosing them carefully for known wildlife value, but knowing they help my garden look great.
    • I will avoid all invasive non-native species
    • And I will grow some of my plants densely, knowing it will probably support more invertebrates
    • But the types of plant I grow is only part of the equation; the way in which I put them together to make habitats is arguably even more important.

    And here's to the next important piece research to help refine our ideas even further!

  • That's why they call it the blues

    I've been trying my own little trials this year of annual seed mixes to see if I can grow a better mix for pollinators. The traditional 'native cornfield mix' of Field Poppy, Corncockle, Corn Marigold and Corn Chamomile can be beautiful, but it doesn't exactly buzz with life.

    So I wanted to inject a bit more of some choice pollinator annuals - Borage, lots more Cornflowers, and my beloved Scorpionweed, whose Latin name is Phacelia tanacetifolia if you prefer to get your mouth around that. All are on the blue and violet end of the spectrum, which many bee species in particular are known to prefer.

    Here it is, Phacelia, barely two quid for a big packet of seeds (look for the packets sold as green manure). All it takes is to prepare the ground, chuck the seed down, a couple of waters in dry weather, and eight weeks later there it is unfurling day by day its scorpion-tail of lilac flowers.

    Sure enough, it did what it was supposed to for bees, here a Honeybee from someone's local hive.

    The Borage played its part, too. It is quite a robust plant for an annual, but I love it.

    But I can't deny that the blue Cornflower (centre top in the photo below) and the fabulous Echium 'Blue Bedder' (bottom left) are the blues I really adore, and what's more they're great for pollinators too. Mixed in with a range of more typical cornfield annuals, the annual bed zings as well as buzzes. 

    Adrian will be giving a talk at the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland this Sunday at 4pm, with loads of time for questions and chatting, too.