Gardening for wildlife
April has been a month of chilly days and colder nights with regular frosts throughout the month. It was colder than March and the nights on average colder than January! I have been moving seedlings and tender plants in and out of my house and greenhouse so I cannot wait for the weather to get warmer. Another reason to think about climate change and the small things we can do to help reduce our impact, which includes gardening for wildlife.
Many of the gardening jobs for May are like that of April (see my April instalment). One of the best things about wildlife gardening is that not much needs to be done, which leads me on to…
No Mow May
This is an annual campaign by the wild plant conservation charity, Plantlife. Put away your lawnmower this month and discover the wildflowers that might lie dormant in your lawn. If you love a neatly cut lawn, then perhaps let a small patch grow for the month of May to see what happens. At the end of May take part in Every Flower Counts, to establish the pollen count for your lawn.
Last year, more people joined in with No Mow May and Every Flower Counts than ever, helping Plantlife to build a picture of wildflowers in gardens across the UK. The drought in May last year had a huge impact on Spring flowers but plants such as white clover and oxeye daisies bloomed earlier, which helped to provide nectar for pollinators. According to Plantlife, the highest numbers of pollinators were found on lawns left unmown all year, while the lowest count was on lawns mown the week before the survey.
It is fun choosing an area of lawn, making quadrants one metre square, then identifying and counting each species of flower. Last year on my front lawn I identified Lady’s Bedstraw, which has a small yellow flower and smells of honey when crushed. It has this name because it was put into ladies mattresses to improve their scent in the days when baths were few and far between!
So, give yourself and your lawnmower a break and watch the wildflowers grow.
Say no to the mow https://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/wildflower_garden/mynomow
Read more and sign up for Every Flower Counts here: https://www.plantlife.org.uk/everyflowercounts/
More ways to attract pollinators to your borders & balconies
Last month I made some suggestions for pollinator friendly perennials to plant in pots or in your garden. This is also the time of year to put bedding plants into borders, pots and hanging baskets. It is tempting, particularly at the first sign of warm sunshine, to plant out all those tender bedding plants, to add a splash of colour to your gardens and balconies. These plants will not survive night frosts, even in late Spring. The same applies to vegetable plants including courgettes, squash, sweetcorn, salads, and tomatoes. I have an allotment and I have learnt the hard way! Broad beans and peas are tougher so they can be planted out in early May, or earlier.
Bedding plants are bred for show, often with double flowers, and have little pollen and nectar value. I love Pelargoniums though, and variety is always good, so I still buy a few bedding plants and ensure that I grow lots of pollen-rich annuals.
Here are some extra tips for planting your pots and borders with annuals and bedding plants:
- Choose Calendula (pot marigold), Heliotrope, Cosmos, Nicotiana, single poppies, Bacopa, Bidens, Limnanthes (poached egg plant – a real winner for bees!) and single flowered daisies.
- Plant in drifts and blocks in the border rather than dotted around. Likewise, for pots, if you only have a small space or balcony, plant in groups, choose to have a pot of lavender or maybe sow wildflowers in a large pot or growbag. Pollinators including bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and moths love a glut of pollen and nectar.
- Choose a range of flower types for pollinators with different mouth shapes or different length tongues; umbellifers such as fennel, cow parsley and Ammi majus are flat topped, bell shaped flowers include nicotiana, foxgloves and campanulas, and flowers with cup shapes include cosmos, calendula, single poppies, and single dahlias such as Bishop of Llandaff.
- When buying plants to add to your garden, either annual or perennial, choose flowering times to continue all year round, providing valuable nectar not only in the Spring and Summer but also in Autumn and Winter.
- Do not forget the moths! They are remarkably effective pollinators and mostly come out to feed at night. If you were you use a moth trap in your garden overnight (harmless to the moths) you would find many different species the next morning, particularly if your garden is planted with strongly scented white flowers. Moths can see white colours clearly and they have a good sense of smell so night-scented stocks and nicotiana (particularly with white flowers) are good food sources.
- Sow sunflower seeds now in pots (this can also be done in late April) to be planted out in the garden or in pots once the danger of frost is over. They are wonderful for bees and if you leave the heads to dry out in the autumn, the birds love the seeds.
Chemical free gardening
If you have the right balance of wildlife in your garden, from hedgehogs (if you’re lucky), wild birds, pollinators (including not only bees, butterflies, and moths but also beetles – including ladybirds) to the slugs, snails, blackfly, and aphids that we all love to hate, you are providing a chain of food types to keep that balance healthy. Ladybirds and ants love to eat blackfly and aphids – so if you kill the ants, you lose a natural way of controlling the smaller bugs. Hedgehogs eat slugs and insects but come to a horrible end if they eat a slug that has consumed slug pellets. Build a pond (it need not be excessively big) and you will have frogs, toads, maybe newts to add to your army of pest controllers. Most chemicals, including weed killers, pesticides and fungicides are harmful to wildlife and not good for us either if we breathe in the spray or eat produce that has been sprayed.
It is difficult to be truly organic. Some seeds that we buy contain fungicides, and many plants have sadly already been treated with pesticides, even those claiming to be ‘bee friendly.’ Quite a few plant nurseries are working on using more biological controls for the pests and diseases that can spread through mass produced plants, but we still have a way to go. Buying organic seed or plants from organic nurseries is the only way to ensure that the things we grow are completely chemical free, but this also can be expensive.
Here are a few ways you can avoid using harmful chemicals in your garden:
- Healthy soil supports healthy plants. Use peat-free compost (or homemade compost) and natural fertilisers such as organic chicken pellets.
- Ensure plants are grown in the right conditions for each type. Stressed plants are more likely to succumb to disease or unwelcome garden insects.
- Grow flowers around your veg patch or allow some weeds to grow to attract beneficial insects (hoverflies, lacewings, ladybirds) to feast on predators.
- Create barriers to deter slugs and snails from eating young tender plants. Cover with a bell cloche or cut up a plastic bottle to use as a cloche until the plant has grown bigger and stronger. Be vigilant, especially after rain, to watch out for slugs and remove them. Make a garlic ‘soup’ to water the dry leaves of plants, especially hostas. Use beer traps so at least the slugs have a happy ending or nematodes, a biological control, to kill them. Not all slugs are harmful to plants. Green cellar slugs (mottled green) eat algae, compost, and mould. Slugs and snails will also shelter from the sun in daytime so keep a look out in the shady areas under plants such as hardy geraniums. Encourage hedgehogs, birds, ground beetles and frogs who love to eat them.
- Use a mulch from natural materials to starve weeds of light. You can also use cardboard and newspaper. Use a hoe to kill weed seedlings as they appear. Prevent bare soil where weeds may grow by planting ground cover, creeping shrubs, and flowers. Use a pressure washer or flame weeder between stones on patios and drives.
- Relax and leave some areas untended.
More information can be found here:
Birds now have nestlings & fledglings
The first Sunday in May is International Dawn Chorus Day. Many people rise early to listen to the beautiful birdsong that occurs at around this time each year. Although many people think that the songs are of birds happy to be alive, the reality is that male birds are in their nesting territories, shouting out that they are very suitable mates and warning other breeding males not to come near.
This is the breeding season and whereas a female blue tit will lay just one brood of around 8-10 eggs, blackbirds produce up to five broods of 3-4 eggs.
If you have any birds nesting in your garden, do not disturb them. Tempting as it may be to peek at the eggs or chicks, any intrusion can cause an adult bird to abandon the nest. Wait until the chicks have fledged and you can watch them, all fluffed up, almost as big as their parents, and clamouring to be fed.
Continue to feed the birds in your garden as it is particularly important at this time of year to supplement their diet. As the recent weather has been so cold and dry, worms are not so easy for birds to find as they are well below the ground surface. Mealworms are extremely popular, either live or dried. Dried mealworms can be soaked in water to soften them for the young birds. Live waxworms can also be bought and are a good source of food to keep up the birds’ energy at this busy time. Sunflower hearts and suet pellets are also very beneficial for ground feeders and hanging bird feeders.
Hedgehogs breed from April until September and are at their busiest during May and June. Usually solitary, they look for company to breed. To attract a female, a male will circle around her while snorting. If another male turns up the rival males will head butt and chase each other. If you hear strange noises at night, it is possibly hedgehogs! After mating takes place, the female gives birth to around four young hoglets a few weeks later.
Continue to put out hedgehog food and fresh water every night. If you are unsure what is eating the food at night, I have discovered a way to find out.
Whether you have a homemade or shop bought feeding station, or you just put bowls out, scatter a thick layer of sand around the entrance or around the bowls. At dusk, smooth the sand as well as you can and wet it, then try to ensure that your pets do not trample around the area. The next morning, look for footprints in the sand, take a photo of them then look up animal tracks online or in a book. Hedgehog tracks are quite distinctive.
If you find an injured or sick hedgehog or hoglet (or any other sick wild bird or animal) and need advice, contact: https://www.hartwildlife.org.uk/advice/
Water in ponds has been slow to warm because of April’s cold weather. This has meant that pond plants have been growing slowly and marsh marigolds have been susceptible to frost – although I have noticed that they bounce back with a bit of warmth. Most tadpoles will be swimming around and those that survive will become the next generation of frogs. They also provide food for other species.
If you have a reasonable sized pond, put a branch across it to attract the first dragonflies of the year. Dragonflies often use a perch to eat their food, usually flying insects. The birds also use our dragonfly perch to preen their feathers after a bath at the beach end of our pond. The other day a row of dunnocks, an adult and two fledglings, were using it as a feeding perch. Wonderful to watch and a great photo opportunity if you can grab your camera in time!
Big or small ponds support so much wildlife and are almost essential to a wildlife garden. If you only have a small space or balcony, an old washing up bowl will suffice. Creating a wildlife pond is a long topic so I will write more about this in June.
Free advice on creating a wildlife sanctuary in your garden
I am a volunteer Wildlife Gardening Champion for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. We are a friendly bunch of volunteers who care passionately about creating wild spaces in gardens. We are not experts but between us we have a fair amount of knowledge and can give advice on what you can do, either on a grand scale or in a small space, to help wildlife.
The service is free, and we are currently offering phone consultations, though this may change once Covid rules are relaxed more, and we can visit people in their gardens.
All you need to do is complete an online form, answering a few questions about your space. Some photos are useful while we cannot physically visit gardens.
If interested, you can book here:
Children’s wildlife project for May
Take on a Wild Challenge with the RSPB
This a challenge for children to connect with the natural world in brave new ways and earn awards as they go. Will they have what it takes to achieve gold?
Find out more and sign up here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/fun-and-learning/for-families/family-wild-challenge/
Sign up for 30 Days Wild
This is a Wildlife Trust initiative which runs from 1st to 30th June. “We challenge you to do one wild thing a day throughout the month of June! That’s 30 simple, fun and exciting Random Acts of Wildness.”
When you sign up, you’ll get a free pack of goodies to help you plan your wild month, plus lots of ideas to inspire you to stay wild throughout June (and beyond!).
Book of the month
‘Wild Your Garden – Create a sanctuary for nature’ by The Butterfly Brothers
We all have the potential to make the world a little greener, and Wild Your Garden shows you how to create a garden that can help boost local biodiversity. Transform a paved-over yard into a lush oasis, create refuges to welcome and support native species, or turn a high-maintenance lawn into a nectar-rich mini-meadow to attract bees and butterflies.