Feathers are a bird’s best asset. Adrian Thomas explains how we can help our avian friends keep their plumage in tip-top condition
One of the most curious wildlife behaviours you can see in the garden is woodpigeons and collared doves rain-bathing. After a period of dry weather, they respond to a passing shower by leaning steeply to one side and stretching one wing straight up to face the oncoming rain. There they sit, looking blissful, if odd, as the raindrops pummel the underside of their wing. After a while, they shift position to give their other armpit a refreshing blast!
It’s one of the more extreme ways in which garden birds keep their plumage in good condition. Every day, each bird must go through a detailed feather maintenance regime. Like diligent soldiers, they inspect, clean and polish their uniform, for their feathers are their waterproofs, their thermals and, of course, their miraculous flying suit.
Feathers are the stand-out feature that distinguish birds from all other creatures. They’re made of the same protein as our hair – keratin – and they emerge from skin follicles in much the same way. However, each feather’s structure uses some pretty spectacular technology. The fine barbs and barbules – the filaments that line each side of the feather’s shaft – lock to each other with thousands of tiny hooks, creating a perfect smooth, interlocking surface.
Feathers are not only incredibly light, typically making up only about 5% of a bird’s bodyweight, they’re also so strong that they have allowed birds to take to the air – an evolutionary masterstroke. And all this is right there for us to see in our gardens, whether at our bird feeders, hopping around on the lawn or zooming across the clouds above.
Preening and bathing
While an immaculate feather is an asset, one that’s untidy is a liability. Wind can ruffle the vanes, they may be knocked out of place in a tussle with a rival, or spiders’ webs and dirt can caught among them. Untidy alignment can affect a bird’s ability to fly or stay warm. So, several times a day a bird will break from feeding and other activities to put its superhero costume back into order.
As a child, I can remember taking a single feather and trying to smooth out any imperfections with my fingers, and it wasn’t easy. Yet a bird has to check and adjust all its feathers, using just its beak.
To help them, most birds have an oil gland, a bit of lubrication to smooth out the imperfections. It can also help to add a bit of clean water to the feathers, which is exactly what the rain-bathing pigeons are doing. Many birds also do this by flicking dew onto the feathers, or – of course – by taking to your birdbath.
Much of the time, the idea is to just lightly dampen the plumage. But sometimes the bird also needs to have a full body scrub down to the skin, and this requires a good thrash about, spraying water everywhere.
As well as having these very practical functions, a bird’s plumage also serves a second purpose – it identifies who’s wearing it, their age and gender. Some feathers are an intricate mix of brown speckles and streaks that act as camouflage; in others, brighter hues and dramatic patterns are a form of power-dressing to help breeding males attract a mate and show off their status to other males.
We are blessed that, in our gardens, we can see almost every feather colour. Those feathers that are red, yellow and green are usually the result of pigments, while blues are mostly due to the microscopic structure of the feather interfering with the light and causing glorious iridescence.
Birds can also raise or lower their feathers using small muscles, allowing them to better insulate themselves in cold weather, but also to change their body shape for dramatic effect. So, when he sings, the male starling flares the feathers on his head and especially his throat, flashing his glossy mane, while the male town pigeon puffs up the feathers around his neck, which is like a shining metallic head-dress.
Whether it be red-breasted robins or blue-and-yellow tits, salmon-coloured jays or star-studded starlings, our garden birds add beauty and grace to the garden as magical as any flower, and all thanks to the evolutionary miracle of their feathers.
Help birds look their best
There are lots of things you can do to help your garden birds keep their plumage in prime condition.
Provide a bath. Whether a birdbath or pond, the secret is all about having shallow water. Birds are looking for the equivalent of a puddle where they aren't at risk of stepping out of their depth, so design your pond to have a gently-shelving beach area or of course get (or make) a wide birdbath.
Leave some bare soil. Some birds such as sparrows and wrens like to bathe in dust as much as in water, flicking the fine particles in among their feathers. A bare, sunny patch of dry earth will serve them well
Make a safe place. The act of preening puts a bird in great danger, so they tend to do it in the quiet places. A garden with tall trees and dense conifers and evergreens will be much preferred to those with few hiding places. If cats are frequent in the garden, maybe you can put your birdbath up on a shed or porch roof, where the birds can undergo their ablutions with confidence.
Make a dustbin lid birdbath
A metal dustbin lid turned upside down offers the perfect shallow basin to allow birds to bathe, and is cheap and incredibly easy to make.
1. Choose an open area of the garden for your birdbath, not too close to cover so that cats can't lie in ambush. Lay out four bricks in a square.
2. Balance the dustbin lid upside down on the bricks so it is stable
3. Add some washed gravel, just to give birds more purchase when perching.
4. Just add water – tap water is fine. Clean out and top up on a regular basis in hot weather; throughout much of the year, the rain will do it for you.
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Surveys show that our gardens are the last refuge for these prickly slug-eaters. Adrian Thomas looks at what we can do to make them more welcome
My garden is full of shrubs and flower borders, log piles and secret places, yet in the four years I've been here I have yet to see a single hedgehog. I've not heard the tell-tale snuffling when I'm out at night looking for bats; there ahave been no sightings on my automatic trip-wire trail camera. This is a sad reflection of the picture across much of Britain; for every 100 hedgehogs that were here in the 1950s, there are just three today. The overall population is now probably less than a million, although exact numbers are difficult to pin down for this nocturnal mammal.
Sadly, the numbers are still on a downward trajectory. This means that some populations are becoming isolated from each other; for example, the 30-40 individuals still found in Regent’s Park are now thought to be the only ones in that part of London.
The declines are thought to be due to a range of factors, including the changes in our farmed landscape as herbicides and pesticides remove much of the creepy-crawly food that hedgehogs rely on. However, we can’t ignore the effect of the motor car. In 2017, British motorists travelled a record 327 billion miles on our roads. That’s one major risk for any hedgehog trying to cross to the other side, and it’s estimated that about 150,000 are killed each year in this way.
But there is a ray of hope. The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2018 report by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) showed that maybe, just maybe, the decline is levelling off in urban areas. While we don’t know why that may be, we do know that a hedgehog-friendly garden can be a brilliant home for them. This is one species for which we can make a very real difference.
One of the main ways people can help is by providing a hedgehog home. Every garden centre and wildlife charity stocks them, and they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, some looking like glorified wooden boxes, others like upturned wicker baskets. But, crucially, do they work?
Last year more than 5,000 people took part in a survey organised by PTES to find out how effective artificial boxes are for hedgehogs. The first results are now out (although there is still much number crunching to be done). The headline conclusions so far are that, across the country, there are many hedgehogs happily using artificial nestboxes to hibernate, to shelter in by day during summer, and even in some cases to raise their young.
However, what may seem an odd result is that home-made boxes turned out to be better than shop-bought versions, on the whole. I strongly suspect this is because many shop-bought ones just aren’t large or robust enough. In contrast, the DIY designs you find online all tend to be the bespoke ‘des res’ version, with enough space inside for a hedgehog to fill it with leaves and raise a brood of four or five young.
The survey also found that it often takes time for a hedgehog to move in to a new box. You can imagine that, to these creatures that have a much finer sense of smell than us, a fresh box smells rather different to the garden around it, and hence is viewed with some suspicion. So, if the hedgehog home you laboured so lovingly over isn’t used in the first couple of years, but you know you have hedgehogs in the area, don’t despair. As the box weathers and ages and blends into the garden, there’s every chance a hog will move in.
Of course, a box is only one element of a hedgehog’s needs. To survive in a garden, they will need a plentiful supply of worms, slugs, beetles and other natural food. Plus they much prefer to nosey about in places where there’s plenty of cover, such as along hedgerows and under shrubberies.
The final piece of the jigsaw is that hedgehogs need ready access in and out of your garden. They need to wander a mile or more in the course of a night in search of food, and of course males and females need to find each other in spring, and that means having the freedom to roam. Boxy modern gardens with impassable high fences are no use to a hedgehog. Simple hedgehog highways, cut in the base of a fence panel about 12cm square (or a circle the size of a CD) are exactly what they need to slip from one garden to the next.
Do all this and you still have a great chance that your garden will be the ideal home they’ve been looking for. With enough gardeners playing their part, gardens can become the premier hedgehog haven in Britain.
Build a hedgehog home
With just basic DIY skills and some sheets of plywood, it’s easy to knock up a simple hedgehog home. My recommended design is suitable as a nursery nest and as a hibernaculum. It includes an entrance tunnel that leads into the main chamber, giving them extra security from disturbance and predators.
You will need: Two sheets of FSC exterior plywood, 60cm wide x 2m long, 1.5cm thick • Saw, hammer, screws and handsaw
1. Mark out the pieces of wood according to the diagram (left), and cut to size.
2. Assemble the pieces into a main box (minus its roof) and entrance chamber, using screws (or nails).
3. Screw the entrance chamber to the front of the main box. The idea is that a hedgehog accesses the box via the entrance chamber and then turns into the secluded inner main box.
4. Fasten the main roof down, ideally with screws so you can inspect and clear out the box in early spring.
Remember to clean out the hedgohog home once a year (late March-early April), after the hedgehog has finished hibernating, to avoid a build up of pests.
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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These hungry young predators will chomp through clusters of greenfly and blackfly… Adrian Thomas sings the praises of our tiniest gardening allies
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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We can’t save our butterflies without feeding their caterpillars, says Adrian Thomas. Follow our guide to what to plant
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)
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)
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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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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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.
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.
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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by Adrian Thomas
Among the bare boughs, empty beds and winter gloom, there’s one thing guaranteed to make the winter garden feel alive – garden birds. On good days, it can be as busy as Spaghetti Junction out there at your feeders, with all sorts of characters zooming to and fro. No wonder so many of us go to the time, effort and expense of pulling on our overcoats and wellies and heading out in all weathers to top up their supplies; that, and the human tendency towards kindness, of course.
There’s no doubting that the supplementary food we provide helps sustain many birds that would otherwise succumb under winter’s harsh rule. It’s not so much that our handouts stop them starving; what it does is keep the birds fit and strong and hence able to cope with the cold, ward off disease and evade predators. But there are some definite ‘do’s and don’t’s’ to ensure that we’re providing our birds with the best support possible, and not doing harm when we mean to do good.
Keep it clean
The one aspect that often gets overlooked is the level of hygiene we maintain in feeding areas. In our own kitchens or in our pets’ bowls, we wouldn’t leave food to go mouldy, and we wouldn’t forget to give everything a thorough clean on a regular basis, but this is what can happen around bird feeders.
Such laxness brings three undesirable results. First, any excess food left lying around can be a magnet for unintended guests such as rodents. I can cope with a few cute wood mice nibbling my peanuts, but I don’t want rats, and nor do my neighbours. The best way to ensure minimal spillage is to only buy quality feeders, as cheap versions can leak seed through badly designed feeding ports.
The second problem with unhygienic feeders is simply that birds will shun them. Our feathered friends don’t like festering food any more than you do, and I’ve even seen feeders in which the seed is so old and damp that it has actually sprouted.
More than anything, though, the tragedy of poor hygiene is that it can be a breeding ground for disease. Birds are just as prone to illness as we are. In particular, in the last few years we’ve seen a terrible epidemic of something called trichomonosis which has been catastrophic for greenfinches: their numbers have nosedived because of it. ‘Tricho’ (as it is often called) is a pathogen that blocks the poor birds’ throats. They sit, listless, on birdtables and birdbaths, trying but failing to swallow seeds or drink water, and in doing so spreading the disease.
The solutions are simple and just require a bit of effort and discipline.
· Every couple of weeks put on your ‘bird table marigolds’ (not the pair you use in the kitchen!) and wash your empty feeders and bird tables down with a dilute disinfectant (1 part disinfectant to 20 parts water), swilling them off down the drain.
· Manage how much food you put out so there’s never excess lying about.
· Use hanging feeders rather than feeding on flat surfaces; the latter are prone to becoming soiled.
· Use high quality foods that will get scoffed. Too many cheaper foods are full of chaff and substandard seeds that will be tossed aside by your discerning guests
It’s not just food that birds need in winter; they still need to wash it down with a drink, and the washing also extends to their plumage. It may seem odd to us to see birds bathing in ice-cold water when logic says they should be trying to stay warm, but they need to keep their feathers in tip top condition as much in winter as at any other time of year.
It means that keeping birdbaths free of ice is as important now as at other times of year. Just don’t turn to antifreeze or salt to achieve it. Instead, after a cold night take out a kettle of warm water, being careful not to crack your birdbath with the change of temperature.
There is one more thing to do in winter for your wildlife, and it is all about building for the future. A berry-bearing shrub or native hedge planted now won’t come into its own for five years or so, but leave that job until next year and it won’t be ready for six! As with so many things in the garden, those tasks which seem so big and daunting before you begin become surprisingly achievable once you get going! Your wildlife will thank you for it.
Damp autumn days herald the arrival of fungi in the garden
Apart from a few gardeners who grow edible mushrooms in a box, fungi don’t get much of a look-in in gardening circles. There aren’t any ‘toadstool gardens’ to go and visit; I can’t recall them featuring in a Chelsea garden, and people don’t tend to nurture them as they might birds or butterflies.
And yet fungi are an integral part of everyone’s garden, and something we all notice and comment on whenever their troupes of little caps appear. They seem to spring up as if by magic, often overnight, responding to autumn’s damp stimulusand bursting out from rotting logs, pilesof straw and even lawns.
I’m not claiming that they’re lovable, but there’s certainly something fascinating albeit mysterious about them. The world of toadstools is the realm of hobgoblins and fairies, of poisons and potions. Their names match this image, for they include puffballs and earthstars, elfcupsand stinkhorns, while at their most sinister there are witches’ butter, dead man’s fingers, the destroying angel and the deathcap.
By Adrian Thomas
By Adrian Thomas
Ponds are brilliant, there's no getting away from it. But for many of us a pond just isn't feasible – they’re a stretch too far, either for your bank balance or for your back. It may be that you rent your house so can't go digging holes, or you live on the tenth floor, or you have very young children and it would be too much of a hazard. So how can you go about getting water into the garden, with all the benefits for you and for wildlife, without having bring out the excavator? Here are some ideas to try.
1. Create a rain garden
Still a bit of a novelty, rain gardens are a trendy new form of wetland gardening. The concept is simple: when rain falls on our houses, instead of whisking it away into drains, the idea is to hold some of the water back to gently percolate away - rather than flood the folks downstream.
To hang onto that water it's possible to create a shallow depression or 'scrape' into which rain water is directed, where it can then sit on the surface for a while. All you need to do is create a low earth bank around the far edge and redirect the downpipe from your roof into it.
No liner is required. What you end up with is something that occasionally has a few inches of standing water, but most of the time is just damp, very much like a bog garden but without most of the digging or expense!
2. Use a Belfast sink
If putting a pond in the ground isn't possible, why not put one above ground! Old Belfast sinks are perfect and can be tracked down for £50 from a salvage yard. Glue the plug in place with silicone and put in a layer of washed gravel. Half barrels can be great too, although it's best to put a liner in them to ensure they can’t leak. Whatever you use, make sure you put your mini-pond in position before you fill it; you won't be able to budge it once it’s full.
Make sure creatures can get in and out safely. Placing a strategic stick or stepping stones, both inside and outside the pond, should do the trick. Fill with rainwater (tap water is too full of chemicals) and then plant it up with small pond plants such as marsh marigold and a stripy Equisetum hyemale and maybe a dwarf water-lily. Use the special mesh plant pots for aquatic plants and a very low nutrient, gritty soil, or you'll be plagued with algae.
3. Make a birdbath in a dustbin lid
Here's something I made in my own garden that cost me less than a tenner! My regular customers to my 'wash and go' salon are blackbirds, house sparrows and robins, but I've had visits from everything, from blackcaps to blue tits. Making it took all of 10 minutes.
1. Find a flat surface and arrange four bricks in a square. Put an upturned dustbin lid on top of them, jiggling the bricks to ensure that the lid is supported. I used a galvanised metal lid, but plastic will be fine.
2. Put a layer of washed pebbles into the lid. They give better perches for birds than the slippery surface of the lid.
3. Add water – tap water is fine.
You’ll need to give the lid a periodic clean out with a mild disinfectant and swish-through of the pebbles, plus you'll need to top it up in hot weather and after the swooshing of wood pigeons. If you are visited by lots of cats, consider raising the birdbath up on more bricks to give the birds a better view.
• This activity is adapted from the newly revamped RSPB Giving Nature a Home project, which sets out dozens of activities for you to try that will help save nature in your garden.
By Adrian Thomas
AS WE GO ABOUT our gardens, we can’t help but become aware of little creatures that are, let’s face it, never going to win a beauty contest. These are the minibeasts that can be found in every garden in spadefuls of soil or under pots and logs.
We may know some of them by name (centipedes, woodlice and daddy-long-legs, for example), others just fall under the general heading of ‘creepy crawlies’. Neither of these words – ‘creepy’ or ‘crawly’ – inspires affection.
Nevertheless, as one who’s always up for a challenge, I’m on a mission to help people appreciate them. Many of them are good news for the gardener and only a relative few mean trouble. Part of understanding a garden is recognising the roles played by all the creatures in it, so I want to share the unsung heroes that help the plant world go round. They form key links in the complex web of life and without them, much-loved visitors such as birds and hedgehogs wouldn’t survive. The bottom line is that our gardens need the ugly brigade!
Before we start, we should ask why these little creatures sometimes make our skin crawl. Take spiders for instance. They’re hardly a threat to us. Of the 650 or so species in the UK, only about 12 have large enough fangs to actually pierce human skin, and only two or three of those can cause a painful reaction. The number of people in this country who have to attend a doctor’s surgery due to a spider bite is tiny, and yet an estimated 30% of us have a full-blown phobia of them.
This phobia is what scientists call an ‘evolutionarily persistent ancestral hazard’. Our forebears in Africa lived in an environment where you did have to watch out for deadly spiders or risk being killed by one, and the fear persists in us today even though we are no longer living in that danger zone.
The same fear can extend to anything small, scuttling, long legged or hairy. As well as arachnophobia, I bet some readers have vermiphobia: a fear of maggots! That, too, is a distant hard-wired memory warning us that where there is decay there is danger. But when we get to know some of these creatures better, we can kick these phobias into touch.
So here we go, deep breath, stay calm: let’s meet some critters that I think we can all learn to love a little bit more...
Ladybirds If you find this little armour-plated black insect among your flowers, you’re looking at a juvenile ladybird. The larvae can be found on all sorts of plants and in most species their mission in life is to find and eat aphids! The species you’re most likely to see is the harlequin ladybird, an accidental import from Asia that has the unfortunate habit of eating other ladybird larvae as well as aphids. It has two yellow ‘L’ shapes down its back and four yellow spines. Our native seven-spot ladybird species has four yellow dots half way along its body
Lacewings There are 14 species of lacewing in the UK and both the adults and larvae will feast on aphids and other insect pests. The larvae suck the aphids’ juices and may even use the drained bodies to hide under. Female lacewings lay each egg on a sticky thread that hardens in the air, leaving the egg on a slender stalk. Generally some adults hibernate, although many perish. The most familiar lacewings are those with beautiful green wings, with large, metallic-coloured eyes, earning them their alternate name of ‘goldeneyes’.
Flies We tend to think of flies as irritating things that buzz around our food and carry germs. However, out in the garden there are all manner of beneficial flies: some pollinating flowers, others playing a vital role in the diet of birds and bats. Many hoverflies have grubs which join ladybird and lacewing larvae in eating aphids. I feel we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the flies that dispense so quickly of carrion and dung. It’s a dirty job, and I’d rather they were doing it than me! One of the commonest dung visitors is the yellow dung fly.
Springtails Under every log and in every sample of soil you’ll find hundreds of tiny springtails. There are millions of them in your garden, each no bigger than a comma on this page. Blink, and you’ll miss them because, although they can’t fly, they have an amazing ability to jump. Under a springtail’s body is a modified pair of legs like a loaded spring, called the furcula. When they feel they’re in danger (such as when you uncover them) ‘ping’ goes the spring and they apparently disappear into thin air. They’re harmless to humans, but with up to 100,000 in every square metre, they are a vital link in the garden foodchain.
Centipedes Turn over any log and I bet a flat, orange centipede scarpers away. The chances are that it actually only has 15 pairs of legs as the common centipede (which is indeed very common) doesn’t have the hundred legs its name implies. Centipedes kill by poisoning their prey, but they are totally harmless to humans and would prefer never to meet us if at all possible. Instead, their venom is used against all sorts of spiders and other small creatures, helping to keep the garden ecosystem in balance.
Woodlice It’s amazing to think woodlice are actually cousins of crabs and shrimps. They’re effectively water creatures that have found a way to survive on land, albeit in dark, damp places. If they’re exposed to light, they’re not only vulnerable to attack by predators such as birds, but they can desiccate in minutes – which is why they scuttle for cover as fast as their 14 little legs can carry them. Their job is to help munch up all manner of spent organic material, making it easier for micro-organisms to break it down further. Most compost heaps are full of coarse material that needs lots of work, and these guys are your best buddies there.
By Adrian Thomas
HAVE YOU EVER VISITED the mountains of Europe? As Maria Von Trapp knew so well, the hills are alive with fresh air, grand scenery and swathes of wildflowers abounding with wildlife. One of the things that delights me most is the fact that people living in those mountain villages rarely seem to mow their lawns. Instead, the wooden mountain chalets rise out of a bed of swaying grasses dotted with orchids and scabious, globeflowers (trollius) and gentians. There, too, butterflies, grasshoppers and other meadow creatures thrive.
You might put this (apparently) laissez faire attitude down to most of the gardens being on a steep slope and hence a nightmare to negotiate with a mower.
Actually, the grass is often saved for hay for the local shepherd and his flock. But I’m sure there’s something cultural, too – the mountain communities don’t view a gently waving meadow as ugly or untidy; they appreciate its pastoral beauty.
Compare that with back home in Blighty, where we’ve quite a different culture. It’s a mark of domestic pride if your lawn is smooth as a billiard table, whereas it’s a sign of neglect if the grass is at all shaggy. Try Googling ‘beautiful lawn’ and the pages of images that come up show the flattest, greenest crew-cuts, rolled into regimented stripes.
Such precision lawns do look stunning, but, I believe that instinct of seeking perfection can be turned in quite a different direction.
If you see the measure of lawn success as how many beautiful wildflowers poke their heads up through the green, or how many butterflies linger within it, a well-manicured lawn would score zero. Release a lawn from its straightjacket and you unlock a large part of your garden’s potential for wildlife, plus extra time and new pleasures for you.
A close-cropped lawn can offer some benefits for nature: starlings and blackbirds, for example, are likely to probe the surface (as long as the lawn hasn’t been treated with a cocktail of pesticides). But most wildlife will only make a home here if the plants within a lawn have the freedom to ‘express’ themselves.
One of the most visible and desirable groups of grassland wildlife are butterflies. Of the 23 species that are most common in the UK, eight have caterpillars that feed on meadow grasses and a further two use specific wildflowers growing in long grass. Short lawn grass just doesn’t give them the cover and food they need.
Longer grass is like a mini jungle, a maze of a million and more stems and leaves. Deep within that jungle, it remains damper and stiller and safer for a whole micro-community. The wealth of invertebrates, plus the added bounty of seeds, then provides food for larger creatures, from frogs and field voles to hedgehogs, bats and even owls.
But it’s perhaps when flowering plants are given the opportunity to actually bloom that you fulfil the value of a longer lawn. Even if it’s just daisies, speedwells or buttercups, suddenly there’s a wealth of nectar and pollen opening up fast-food enterprises for many pollinators to enjoy.
The good news is that a longer lawn can still look worthy of the Chelsea Flower Show. All it takes is to mow a neat border around a swathe of longer grass and it immediately says that it’s intentional, you know what you’re doing and you do care about appearances! It’s almost like creating an instant green flowerbed, filled to bursting with life.
Some gardeners do this in straight lines, creating geometric and symmetrical blocks of longer grass. Equally effective, but for a softer effect, longer grass can be left in sweeping, organic shapes.
Or for a sense of adventure, why not mow a labyrinth of paths through the long grass where kids (even of the grown-up kind!) can chase each other? The added bonus is that wildlife will also navigate the paths while safely hidden by the walls of long grass.
You may still need areas of short grass for entertaining or for kids to play football, but you don’t have to use your whole lawn as meadow. However, the larger the area of long grass, the greater the wildlife benefit.
And think of the time and energy saved given the reduced amount of mowing needed! In our time-starved world, I don’t see this as lazy gardening: these are lawns for the 21st century. It’s high time we instigated a long-grass revolution in our nation’s gardens!