February, 2018

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!
  • Sowing the seeds of satisfaction

    A garden full of plants is the bedrock of giving nature a home, and April is prime time to start many on their journey. Yes, it's time to sow seeds.

    I still can't believe how cheap it is to grow plants this way. Many potted plants at garden centres cost a tenner each, when you could grow 50 of the same from seed for about two quid plus the cost of a bag of compost.

    Many people do say to me, "Oooh, no, I can't grow things from seed. I kill everything!" Well, I'm here to convince you that you can! Don't worry about whether or not you have 'green fingers' and just put your trust in the fact that seeds want to grow. It is by far the cheapest and most satisfying way to grow plants.

    Here are a few secrets that will boost your success rate:

    1. Use clean pots. Dirty ones can harbour diseases that can quickly kill seedlings.

    2. Use freshly-bought compost rather than old. Last year's compost is best saved for potting on established plants

    3. This is the one time in the garden to use tap water. Again, it is all to do with good hygiene.

    4. Keep your seeds in the bottom of the fridge until ready to use them. Seeds left in warm places will quickly lose their viability.

    But here's the real secret: everyone has failures. Monty Don, Alan Titchmarsh – I bet they all have seeds that don't germinate or seedlings that die on them. I certainly do. So celebrate your successes and don't stress about those that don't survive.

    So what seeds can you plant right now that will give you amazing wildlife-friendly plants? Here are some ideas to try:

    Herbaceous perennials. Why not grow some of our most beautiful native plants that will look great around the garden and attract pollinators. Perfect plants for the flower border include Betony, Greater Knapweed, Musk Mallow and Welsh Poppy. You can start them off in seed trays or in individual small pots. There are a whole host of wonderful non-native garden plants for wildlife, too, such as Echinacea, and various types of Agastache, Eryngium and Salvia.

    Something for the kids. Sunflowers are a great way to get children involved in growing wildlife-friendly flowers. They are incredibly easy to grow, and it will be a race to see whose grows the tallest. They are prone to slug and snail damage if planted out too young, so keep them in pots until they are pretty well established. Sunflowers attract bees to the flowers, and then birds to the giant seedheads once they have ripened. Here are some where I grew some biggies and some much shorter ones at their feet, as there is a sunflower for every situation.

    Perennial meadows. Now is a good time for sowing seeds in an area of prepared, weed-free soil that will become a 'mini meadow'. This is where you sow a hay meadow native seed mix full of wild grasses, and then let it grow all summer before mowing in August or even September. This is the perfect home for many of our meadow butterflies. We've got step-by-step instructions here.

    Annual flower mixes. If it is a colour blast you're after, then dig over an area of soil, rake it finely, and scatter annual flower seeds, often sold as cornfield mixes with Common Poppy, Corn Marigold, Cornflower and Corn Cockle. However, there are even more colourful mixes with Cosmos, Coreopsis and Californian Poppies. Just scatter on the surface, tread lightly in, water, and nature should do the rest. Annual mixes are good for bees and hoverflies, and you can find full instructions here. Here's a bed I grew in 2016 full of Echium 'Blue Bedder', one of the very best flowers I know for bees.

    Growing plants from seed is good for the soul, good for the wallet and good for the planet. What could be a better combination than that?

  • Slowly stirring the rich pot of life

    I do have mixed feelings about this time of year. On the one hand, I'm eager for spring to really show its hand, feel the warmth of the sun, and be surrounded by an explosion of life. On the other hand, I don't want to rush it and spring be half way through before I've even had chance to appreciate it.

    So today I thought I'd head out into my garden and just enjoy those little signals that spring is starting to stir life's rich pot.

    Great Tits and Goldfinches were singing, there was a Smooth Newt moving in torpid slow motion in the bottom of the pond that yesterday had been frozen over.

    But I turned my attention to plants.

    The most visible change in the last couple of weeks has been the lengthening and colouring up of the creamy lambs' tails of the Hazel catkins.

    These are the male flowers, masses of them in each catkin, shaking their pollen into the air. Close up, each is like a little felt cap over the dangling stamens.

    But this is where I urge you to really go into the detail, walk up to a Hazel tree, admire those catkins up close, and then notice the female flowers, barely a few millimetres long, like little sea anemones poking their red tentacles out.

    In my garden, I have another small tree that is in subtle flower at this time of year - the Cornus mas from southern Europe, pre-empting the yellow to come from the daffodils. It will have berries later in the year for the birds.

    But the real fire at this time of year is from the Witch Hazel, Hamamelis.

    With daytime temperatures under ten degrees Centigrade, I struggled to find a single flying insect out and about, but trhat's as it should be. As that sun climbs ever higher day by day, its heat will further stoke the fire, and that pot of life will begin to bubble.

  • A garden full of Mumruffins

    My garden is currently alive with Mumruffins.

    Maybe you come from Nottingham and call them Bum Barrels, or from Norfolk and call them Pudding Bags, but I'm from Worcestershire so Mumruffins it will stay.

    In a birdbook you're stuck with the rather more prosaic Long-tailed Tit, and I have to say I have a rather soft spot for them.

    A troupe of about a dozen - which will be an extended family party - passes through my garden most days, but of late they have become constant companions.

    The number of times they return to the feeders, maybe once every half an hour, reveals why they are so dependable recently. And what they love more than anything is to cluster inside the fat feeder and gorge on fatty nibbles. Up to seven can squeeze in at a time, but here are three.

    They have recently taken to eating sunflower hearts as well, and for this they need to take one seed at a time in their tiny bills and fly off to a nearby branchlet where they then hang upside down clutching the seed in one foot in order to hammer little fragments off it.

    They even visit the peanut feeder, and here you can see just how tiny and short their wings are, and how flexible that incredibly long tail is when they fly.

    During the breeding season they construct their incredible domed nest from feathers, lichen and spider silk, the origin of the Pudding Bag and Bum Barrel names. The female alone incubates the eggs, and squeezed into the dome her tail can get permanently curved during the hours of sitting.

    But now in February it is just a case of enjoying their bubbly little personalities, always in conversation with other with calls that erupt into 'sirrut sirrut' when anxious and an even more petrified 'seeee-seeee-seeee' when the Sparrowhawk appears.

    Little Mumruffins, eh?!