Get closer to nature - recognise your wildflowers

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Grow the best of british in your garden this year! Our fabulous native wildflowers offer all the colour you need, says Adrian Thomas

Most of us have a deep and abiding love of flowers, and we grow blooms that originate in every corner of the world. But what of our own native wildflowers? We may encounter them in woods and country lanes, but is there a place for them in gardens too? And, what do we actually mean when we talk about ‘wildflowers’?
To answer that, we need to start by taking a quick trip back in time. Just 12,000 years ago – a blink of an eye in the history of the world – Britain was in the grip of the last Ice Age. Things were so cold that pretty much the only plants that survived here were those adapted to arctic conditions.
The world then began to warm very quickly. The ice retreated, and all manner of plants spread northwards, their seeds carried by the wind and by wild animals. They included many moving up from ‘mainland’ Europe, for sea levels were so much lower than they are today that there was no English Channel to block their route. We’re talking about everything from tiny duckweeds to massive oaks and everything in between.

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Meet the aphid assassins

These hungry young predators will chomp through clusters of greenfly and blackfly… Adrian Thomas sings the praises of our tiniest gardening allies

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The sight of aphids smothering a favourite plant is sure to strike annoyance in the heart of any gardener. When your fresh broad bean foliage gets smothered in black aphids or the buds of your roses become clad in massed green ones, there’s no doubt you give a cry of dismay and maybe feel the urge to reach for the chemical sprays. But, help is at hand – there is an army of aphid-munchers who are eager to help you out.
Before we meet your knights in shining armour, it’s always good to understand your enemy. You probably know that aphids are insects, but did you know there are more than 600 different species in Britain? You’d need to be an expert to tell most apart, as they’re all about 1-3mm long, with six legs, a tiny head, and a bloated, teardrop-shaped body. However, they do come in a range of colours, including pink and brown, but the ones we’re most familiar with are the many species of ‘greenfly’ and ‘blackfly’. With names like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re flies of some sort, but they’re actually members of the group known as ‘true bugs’. Their cousins include shield bugs and froghoppers (the ones that create cuckoo-spit), pond skaters and water boatmen.
The word ‘bug’ gets bandied around very loosely these days to mean any creepy crawly, but ‘true bugs’ all have sucking mouthparts, like a sharpened straw. For aphids, this is a perfect tool to stab through soft plant stems to reach the delicious plant juices flowing inside.
Aphids rarely kill a plant, or at least not directly. However, they will weaken it, often causing it to grow in a deformed way and reducing its crop of flowers or fruit. They also help transmit plant diseases, while the sugary honeydew they exude falls onto the leaves allowing sooty mould to grow.
If you get up really close to an aphid, you will notice that they have a curious pair of tubes sticking up from their back. These ‘siphunculi’ secrete a waxy-like substance, which helps deter predators, but they also emit pheromones which is the aphid's way of communicating with its neighbours.
No aphid can survive our winter as an adult, so the females lay batches of eggs in autumn, all with a hard casing capable of withstanding the cold weather. These hatch in spring, and every single aphid at this stage is female. However, in one of nature’s miracles, this doesn’t matter – the aphids can produce babies anyway, and do so at an alarming rate. One female can give birth to 60 or so live young, and each of these can in turn become mothers in little over a week.
Until now, all of the aphids have been wingless. It’s only when the population becomes too much of a crowd that winged youngsters are born. These fly off to find another plant of the same type nearby; indeed, in the case of some aphids, which start the spring on tree leaves, they now switch their attention to totally different plant species in your veg patch or flower border.
It’s only at the tail end of the season that male aphids are born, and these mate with the females who then lay their eggs and the cycle is complete.
Given this endlessly exploding aphid population, it might seem like there’s no hope. It has been calculated that just one aphid could lead to a population of 300 billion by the end of the season. Fortunately such profusion means ‘food, glorious food’ for the hungry aphid assassins (see panel). 
All this sounds like a wonderful natural solution to the aphid problem but it’s important to remember that these aphid predators will only frequent your garden if you make them welcome. For example, there will be no adult ladybirds to produce all their aphid-chomping larvae if there are no undisturbed grassy clumps and plant stems in which they can spend the winter. Likewise, there will be no sparrows if they have no nesting sites or if there isn’t enough food to see them through the winter; and there will be no hoverflies if there are few nectar-rich flowers of the right type for the adults to feed on.
So, your best chance of having nature keep your aphids in check is if you create a habitat that fulfils all the needs of their attackers. The nature-friendly garden won’t totally rid you of aphids, but it will help create a healthy balance in which you don’t have to resort to chemicals. Working with nature will definitely save you time and money, and the revised aphid population that results will no longer be the stuff of nightmares.

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Create a butterfly border

We can’t save our butterflies without feeding their caterpillars, says Adrian Thomas. Follow our guide to what to plant

Butterfly border

The day is fast approaching when the first butterfly of spring will waft through your garden. It may be a small event in the big scheme of things, yet it’s one of those defining moments in the course of a year. Along with the first daffodil, it's confirmation that winter is losing its grip, the world is waking up, and life has survived the big freeze. It means that from now until October, whenever the sun is shining and the air is warm, a procession of butterflies will emerge. Each species conforms to its own specific flight season: orange-tips, for example, are a butterfly of April and May, ringlets are seen in July.
Those few butterfly species that spend winter as adults are those that provide spring’s prelude, as all they have to do is be aroused from their hibernation. The acid-yellow brimstone, the raggedy-winged comma, the wide-eyed peacock, and the orange-and-black small tortoiseshell have all spent the cold weather tucked away somewhere dark, dry and cool, maybe in ivy, or even in a shed or garage, conserving their energy.   
There are lots of simple things that every gardener can do to help rthe butterfly population: but to produce more butterflies, what we actually need is more of their caterpillars! And this is where a little knowledge is invaluable, because butterfly caterpillars are very picky indeed when it comes to what they eat. Most just use one or two types of plant and won’t touch anything else (so, bar cabbage white butterflies on your brassicas, it shows that butterfly caterpillars are innocent of eating any of your prize plants!). The conclusion is clear: if you don’t have the right plants for the caterpillars, your garden won’t produce new butterflies. 

Plants for caterpillars

Ivy (Hedera helix)
Best for holly blue
Grow your ivy in a sunny position and this gem of a butterfly will lay her eggs on it. The spring flowers are a good source of nectar and the autumn berries will feed the birds too. H3m+ (10ft) S2m (6ft)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Best for holly blue
The caterpillars will feed on fresh holly leaves in spring, so don’t prune plants just yet. If you don’t have space for a lrage holly tree, plant one in a pot and train it into a standard. H5m+ (16ft) S3m (10ft)

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Best for orange-tip and green-veined white
Dainty perennial best added as plug plants in damp grass, such as by a pond. Or, grow it in a flower bed, where its fresh green foliage and tiny white flowers look lovely in spring. Easy from seed, flowering the following year. H and S60cm (24in)

Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis)
Best for orange-tip and green-veined white
Prefers cool shady spots where there’s a damp soil, such as by ponds. Flowers April to May. H30cm (12in) S20cm (8in)

Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
Best for Common blue
Delightful low-growing yellow-flowered perennial. Plant it as plugs into a lawn, where it will hopefully spread. Ideally, grow it in an area where you can allow the grass to grow a little. H15cm (6in) S60cm (24in)

Alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus)
Best for brimstone
Grow this or purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) as shrubs in a sunny position. Choose alder buckthorn for damp clay soils, purging buckthorn for drier, chalky soils. The small flowers on the spring blossom are great for bees too, and they produce berries for the birds as well. H4m (13ft) S3m (10ft)

Wild grasses
Best for meadow brown, gatekeeper, ringlet, speckled wood, large skipper and small skipper Wild grasses such as Agrostis capillaris (common bent) and Festuca ovina (sheeps fescue) are great choice for caterpillars. Lawn grasses aren’t usually suitable – caterpillars are after ancient heay meadow grasses. Wild flower stockists sell mixes to sow on patches of bare soil. H30cm (12in)

Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Best for small tortoiseshell, peacock, comma and red admiral
One or two plants are only enough for red admirals; the other species like big, sunny beds, so this is a plant for larger gardens and even there, probably best relegated to wilder parts. H and S1m (3ft 3in)

Create a bird cafe

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Many wild birds rely on our gardens for their survival. Adrian Thomas provides the definitive guide to bird feeding

Here in Britain we have a long and honourable history of feeding the birds in our gardens, but never have there been so many different feeding devices to choose from or alternative foods to try. In fact, it can all be a bit bewildering. Yet providing supplementary food can increase birds’ chances of surviving the winter, and there’s also evidence that they then go on to breed in larger numbers. And don’t discount the joy you get as a result – seeing wild birds respond to your kindness makes you feel good, too.

Once upon a time the recommendation was to feed just in winter, but now it’s not only acceptable but indeed encouraged to feed all year. In particular, remember that birds need help the most in cold weather, when they must feed during every moment of daylight just to take in enough calories to survive. However, it is also critical in the ‘hungry gap’ in spring when there are few insects and no seeds remaining.

Helping garden birds has become even more pressing because so many are having such a tough time in the wider countryside. Gardens were once viewed as a second-rate habitat, but we now know that, for many birds, they have become the winter retreat of choice. While there may be dangers to face – cats, windows, cars, people – the hunger in their bellies drives them here and it is worth the risk. One only has to look at the results of the annual RSPB big Garden Birdwatch when around eight million birds get counted to realise that gardens are incredibly rich in wildlife.

Deciding on the menu

When you’re dithering between putting out a ‘softbill seed blend with added vitamins’ or ‘high energy buggy nibbles with berry extract’ it can seem like you need a gastronomic degree in bird nutrition.

The bottom line is, birds need proteins, fats and carbohydrates, just as we do, but just as important is they want food that is easy to ‘handle’, what you might call ‘easy food’. They don’t want to have to labour over extracting seeds from tough shells; they want things they can just pop in their mouths and swallow. For instance, some birds just don’t have beaks striong enough to crack open the hard casing of a wheat seed.

There are five main points to bear in mind.

1. You will benefit more species if you feed a mix of foods: seeds, fat-based foods, fruit and protein-rich mealworms.

2. The chances are that the cheaper a seedmix is, the more it has been bulked out with cereal grains such as wheat that are only good for pigeons. So, avoid mixes with what look like lots of pale brown grains of rice, each with a furrow along one side.

3. Birdseed is far more likely to be eaten if it is ‘de-husked’ (with the shells removed) or ‘kibbled’ (broken up into little pieces), or when fatty foods are in small pieces (often called nibbles).

4. Sunflower hearts are now probably the food of choice for many birds, delivering 600 calories of energy for each 100g of food, and leaving no messy husks on the ground.

5. Decide whether you want to put the food in hanging feeders or whether it is to go on a flat, open surface such as a birdtable or the ground, and then choose food that is clearly labelled as such.

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Plant a small tree for wildlife

 A bluetit perching on hawthorn ( Crataegus monogyna )

A bluetit perching on hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

A tree will offer a wealth of seasonal food and shelter for all sorts of creatures. Adrian Thomas suggests a few suitable specimens for a smaller garden

 How many of us are put off from planting a tree because we don’t think we have the space? Or because we’re nervous of choosing badly and ending up with something that romps out of control like the proverbial beanstalk?
It's true that a badly chosen tree can quickly become a nuisance, blocking out light from garden and home, inhibiting the growth of plants beneath, and just looking out of place. I know it only too well: I moved into a house where a tulip tree had been planted only a few metres from the back door. It was barely 10 years old but its branches were already knocking (literally) at the first floor windows; it had to go, because they can grow to be 30m (100ft) tall!
However, while a tulip tree is clearly a big mistake in a small garden, having some kind of tree is so important, not only because of the all-season interest it will bring you, but because trees are elemental in the lives of so much garden wildlife, be it as a nesting place, song perch, safe retreat or free-standing food source.

The good news is that there are all sorts of wildlife-friendly trees to suit even the smallest space. It's all about judicious choice, and in some cases a cunning plan to keep them in check!
Your first option is to pick trees that are inherently small. For example, whereas the red-berried common rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, will typically grow to 10-15m (32-50ft), its Chinese cousin Sorbus vilmorinii, with its pink berries, normally only reaches about 5-6m (16-20ft), yet it’s just as much a hit with winter thrushes.
Another possibility is to choose one of the trees that’s receptive to pruning. There are many trees that won’t enjoy such treatment, but – as a rule of thumb – if a tree species can be used as a hedging plant, it’ll be quite happy being kept under control. This includes yew, hollies and hawthorns, all of which have so much to offer for wildlife.
The third option is to choose fruit trees that have been grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock. This is the magic trick by which the ‘head’ of one tree has been bonded onto the ‘feet’ of another, giving you the fruit type you want up top while the roots determine how large (or small) the tree will ultimately grow.
The naming system used to indicate the tree’s eventual size is a little baffling! For example, an M27 rootstock for apples produces a smaller tree than an M9, which is smaller than an M26. Don’t worry, our guide below will help you select the right one for your space.
In fact, fruit trees are a godsend, in that they can be turned into espaliers, fans and cordons, which are effectively two-dimensional trees that hug a wall, with all the same benefits for wildlife (and for you) as if they were growing out in the garden.
All those options mean there is a tree for even the smallest yard. Here, then, are my picks of the best small trees that will look good but will also pack a punch for wildlife.

 

Wildlife-friendly trees for small gardens

Amelanchier laevis A multi-stemmed small tree with masses of white blossom in spring, small midsummer berries loved by blackbirds, and often fiery foliage in autumn. Try looking for one of the smaller or more upright cultivars such as Amelanchier laevis ‘Snowflakes’. H and S8m (26ft) 

Ilex aquifolium (holly) If left, this familiar evergreen tree with spiny leaves would become large spreading tree, but you can keep it pruned to the height you want, creating a dense head of foliage that’s used by roosting finches and nesting blackbirds. It’s also the foodplant of the holly blue butterfly, a garden regular. Female plants will bear red berries taken greedily by thrushes, robins and wood pigeons. H12m (39ft) S8m (26ft) if unpruned

Malus sylvestris (crab apple) These deciduous trees have lots of spring blossom that’s great for bees, and then bear big crops of miniature yellow and red apples in autumn that often persist until midwinter to feed fieldfares and redwings. Most only grow to 6m (20ft), but weeping varieties such as ‘Sun Rival’ are even smaller at H8m (26ft) S4m (13ft)

Sorbus hupehensis (rowan) Deciduous rowan trees have large heads of white spring flowers, followed by berries that are often red but some are white, pink or yellow and adored by members of the thrush family. They also often have great autumn foliage colour. Choose Sorbus hupehensis, S. cashmiriana or S. commixta, none of which should get much over H6m (20ft) S3m (10ft)

Euonymus europaeus (spindle) A native shrubby tree, the spindle grows only to about 6m (20ft) with especially fine red autumn leaf colour and bright pink berries with orange seed-casings eaten by robins and blackbirds. The gorgeous cultivar ‘Red Cascade’ is usually even smaller at H4m (13ft) S2.5m (8ft)

Frangula alnus (alder buckthorn) This shrubby native tree is the foodplant of the brimstone butterfly, together with the purging buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). The alder buckthorn in particular is one of the very best plants for bumblebees, and both then have small berries in autumn. H and S4m (13ft)

Crataegus spp (hawthorns) Your choice includes two native species (Cratageus monogyna and C. laevigata) and a range of non-native varieties such as Crataegus prunifolia. They rarely exceed 8m (26ft) but can be kept much smaller through pruning. Almost all have excellent blossom for insects and copious red ‘haws’ for birds. H and S8m (26ft)

Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) This evergreen, native to southern Ireland and the Mediterranean, is rather tender, but there is a hardier hybrid to try, Arbutus andrachnoides. It’s compact, has leathery leaves, and – unusually for a tree – has autumn flowers rich in nectar, at the same time as red fruits for the birds. H and S6m (20ft)  

 

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Meet the Forgotten Pollinators

 The humble hoverfly

The humble hoverfly

Mention pollination, and everyone thinks of honeybees and bumblebees, However, there are some other insects that are just as important, says Adrian Thomas

High summer: flower borders everywhere are putting on a show. But as you sit back and revel in your planting skills, it's likely that you’re not the only one enjoying the flowers. Some of your blooms are likely to be abuzz – colourful pit-stops for those insects that do such a great service by moving pollen from one plant to the next, ensuring that our flowers and crops set seed or produce fruit.
Everyone knows how valuable honeybees are as pollinators. One hive can contain up to 40,000 workers, an all-female army spreading out on daily shopping trips in search of abundant nectar and pollen. The nation also seems to have fallen in love with bumblebees, the teddy bear of the insect world, and have been moved by their plight given that many species are in terrible decline.
But look closely among these more familiar pollinators and you may notice different insects going about their business too. Indeed, you may suddenly realise that some of the insects you thought were honeybees or bumblebees are in fact something else altogether. They may look similar, but on closer inspection turn out to be too rounded, or pointed, or the colour isn't quite right, or they move in a different way.
The variations can be so subtle it’s like a game of Spot the Difference. The reality is that where you may have four or five species of bumblebee in your garden, you may also have a dozen or more types of solitary bee, and 20 or more types of hoverfly. In fact, in the warmer southern half of the country, you may have even more. In her seminal 30-year study of asuburban garden in Leicester, Jennifer Owen recorded an astonishing 45 species of solitary bee and 94 species of hoverfly.
This gives us some hint towards the real number of uncelebrated insects that are out there delivering ‘pollination services’. To give you some idea of their importance, a 2013 government paper for the Office of National Statistics reported that “globally, evidence is emerging that wild bees and other insects are more important to crop pollination than managed bees”.
Gaining the skills to identify every type of bee and hoverfly is not something most of us have the time or inclination to do. Yet it’s really quite easy to learn the basic differences between bees and hoverflies, as our simple guide shows (see right). Take that simple step and you’ll have a much better understanding of which creatures are using your garden and hence how your garden is working, for wildlife and for you.

THE WHO'S WHO OF WINGED WONDERS

•    Hairy-footed flower bee. One of the first solitary bees of spring, they move like lightning from flower to flower making a high pitched buzz. Males have round, golden bodies and white faces; females are black with reddish hind legs.

•    Narcissus bulb-fly. This hoverfly is a bumblebee mimic. It is a pest̶  its larvae love nothing more than munching the bulbs of your prize daffs.

•    Marmalade hoverfly. Very easy to identify, as this is the only hoverfly with thin black bars in between each thick black bar on the abdomen. A migrant from Europe, sometimes millions arrive in summer.

•    Ashy mining-bee. What a stunner, in evening dress of shiny black leather and grey furry collar and waistband. It nests in sandy soil, often many females choosing the same area.

•    Batman hoverfly. This wasp-mimic has a very distinctive black marking on its thorax (the middle section between head and abdomen) which looks rather like a bat with its wings outstretched.

•    Hornet hoverfly. The biggest of all the hoverflies, this is a dramatic insect but is totally harmless. It enjoys visiting Buddleia flowers, and its larvae are waste-disposal workers in the nests of bees and wasps.

•    Tawny mining-bee. This is one of the commonest solitary bees in gardens, sometimes nesting in lawns, but its ideal home is south facing dry banks. Females have chestnut backs and dense ginger fur on their abdomens.

•    Wool carder-bee. A shiny black bee, with bold yellow spots down either side of its abdomen. Males guard their favourite plant - lamb's-ear (Stachys byzantina), waiting for females who come to feed or to collect the downy wool from the leaves to line their nest cells.

 

"I'm creating my own wildlife paradise"

Last August, our wildlife columnist Adrian Thomas gave us a sneak peek of the suburban garden he’s restoring. When he took it on in December 2014 it was an acre of impenetrable thicket. His aim is for the garden to become a great place for wildlife, but also somewhere to grow flowers and vegetables, with pleasing vistas and a surprise around every corner. Now, just over two years in, here’s his progress report...

When I took on this garden I knew it was going to be a five-year process to get the basics in place. You know what? - so far it's on track. I can't believe it myself. It’s taking some elbow grease to get there, and some end-of-day flopping on the sofa, barely able to move. But I'm beginning to believe that one day the proverbial phoenix might indeed rise from the ashes.

If the first year was dominated by digging the pond and preparing six new vegetable beds, so the second year has been more about consolidation. After all, once you've started parts of the garden, you can't just abandon them – they have to be maintained. This means that the rate of progress on other parts of the garden has inevitably slowed a little.

However, the grand plan is coming together, helped by the final burst of major tree work in January. It's important to know your limits in a garden, and shinning 40-feet up a tree with a chainsaw is one of them. This sort of work is best left in the hands of fully trained professionals.

When I took on the garden it had more than 400 trees and large shrubs to take in hand, creating an almost closed canopy. After all the judicious tree felling I'm now down to perhaps 250 trees, which means light is streaming into many a long-hidden corner of the garden.

I'd given some of the most neglected fruit trees a final year to prove themselves – a stay of execution if you like –  but after another barren fruiting year, and with many showing signs of long-term canker and others with trunks closer to horizontal than vertical, they finally faced the chop. It seemed brutal, but I still have more than enough fruit trees left to keep me full of crumble and the blackbirds full of windfalls for months.

Holding beds

Initially I’d brought more than 400 favourite plants from my previous garden, as potted cuttings and divisions. Getting some of those out of their pots and into the ground was important, both to reduce the watering burden through the summer and to stop them sulking. That meant digging some holding beds in areas where I'm due to have bee and butterfly borders in the future. Once out of their pots, the plants seemed tiny but soon began to bulk up and thrive. Some will need further transplanting later into their final positions, but at least I'll be working with larger and happier plants.

One of the things I think is essential with any new garden project is to take photos before, during and after. It’s easy to forget exactly how things used to look. I try to take my shots from pretty much the same position so that I have a direct visual comparison, and it’s those taken from the bedroom window that have really given me confidence that I'm making progress.

The thing that made the biggest difference to that upstairs view this year was the laying of the first bit of proper turf. It was far from simple. The ground required considerable preparation, with me digging in of two tonnes of topsoil and another two of sharp sand. For such large bags, once spread on the ground the layer seemed pitiful but hopefully it’ll help reduce the clay quagmire there previously. Now the new turf is laid it gives the pond a deep green embrace. It’s amazing how something that simple can begin to make a garden design feel more coherent; the far side of the pond is now definitely on the list to do next autumn.

It's when I look out at this view, or when the sunset sky is reflected in the ripples on the pond, or the sparrows nip in and out of their new nestboxes, that I like to pause and pat myself on the back. Bit by bit it's all coming together and it’s definitely worth it. *

Adrian’s top tips

Restoring an overgrown garden is hard work but not impossible. Here are a few tips:

• Do it little and often. A little bit of work done regularly helps keep things moving - committing to just an hour three or four times a week soon brings big changes.

• Listen to your plants. Stick to those that love your conditions as you won't have time to mollycoddle those that just aren't suited.

• Take time with trees. Be careful when planting trees – choose those that won't become a problem in the future, and site them carefully. You don’t want to have to move them next year.

• Make a clear plan. Sketch out the garden on paper – it will evolve, but it gives you a target to aim for. Don't be afraid to be ambitious!

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